Racial Undercurrents Roil New York Mayoral Race

Dinkins and Giuliani camps fling charges of racism in tight contest

IN its waning days, the New York mayor's race has turned from a contest dominated by soporific policy proposals and nonstop schmoozing into a heated exchange over race, politics, and personality.

Rudolph Giuliani, the candidate running on the Republican and Liberal tickets, has aired TV commercials in which his running mate, Herman Badillo, claims a Dinkins supporter ``attacked me for marrying a Jewish woman, and another stood right next to Dinkins and called Rudy Giuliani a fascist.''

In turn, supporters of Mayor David Dinkins, who is black, have not been shy about accusing the Giuliani camp of playing on racism. President Clinton, who stumped for the mayor on Sept. 26, caused a furor when he remarked at a fund-raiser: ``Too many of us are too unwilling to vote for people who are different than we are,'' a remark apparently aimed at Mr. Dinkins's foes.

The simmering racial controversy promises to come to a boil three days before the election when Louis Farrakhan, the controversial black nationalist who has made anti-Semitic remarks, is scheduled to address a Nation of Islam rally in Yankee Stadium.

``Both sides are making inflammatory comments and the electorate is not particularly enthused by all this,'' says Lee Miringoff, director of the Marist College Institute for Public Opinion in Poughkeepsie, N.Y.

The rhetoric is red hot, in part, because the race is extremely close. After narrowly defeating Mr. Giuliani four years ago, Dinkins now leads his challenger by just six points, 47 percent to 41 percent, in the latest New York Post-Fox 5 poll. George Marlin, the Conservative Party and Right-to-Life candidate, has 2 percent.

While Dinkins is getting about 90 percent of the black vote, the mayor has just 48 percent support among Hispanics and a paltry 34 percent among Jewish voters. Most other whites are also leaning against the incumbent.

The racial division of New York politics has been fueled by several recent incidents.

In 1990, blacks in Flatbush, Brooklyn, boycotted a Korean grocer who allegedly punched a black shopper. Dinkins did not immediately speak out against the blockade, leaving the scene clear for people like the Rev. Al Sharpton, who has fanned racial fires in the past.

Then in 1991 a riot erupted in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, after a car driven by a Hasidic rabbi killed a black child. In retaliation, three black teenagers murdered Yankel Rosenbaum, an innocent Hasidic scholar from Australia. Dinkins has been severely criticized by a state report for his handling of the civil unrest.

The mayor has defended his actions, saying he was trying to avoid inflaming the situation. But that explanation hasn't been good enough for many members of the Jewish community, who helped Dinkins win the mayor's race four years ago. The United Jewish Coalition, for example, has endorsed Giuliani this time around.

``I'm a Democrat, and I would really like to support a Democrat,'' says Dov Hikind, a Brooklyn assemblyman who has endorsed Giuliani. ``But, look, I'm not a blind Democrat.''

Publicly, the mayoral candidates deny any racial overtones and insist that they're campaigning on the issues. Giuliani blames Dinkins for potholes in the streets, increasing public fear of crime, and a mix-up that resulted in public schools being closed for weeks because of asbestos concerns. Giuliani, a former US attorney in Manhattan, vows to make the streets safe again.

Dinkins, for his part, paints his opponent as a Reagan-era holdover who, as a commercial puts it, ``led an attack on civil rights, the environment, and a woman's right to choose.'' The same commercial insists that Giuliani will cut social services and privatize hospitals, creating an even larger gap between the ``haves'' and the ``have nots'' of New York City.

But ethnic and racial politicking is almost always visible beneath the surface. Both candidates have chosen Hispanic running mates; Latinos represent a key swing constituency on Nov. 2.

Or consider campaign schedules. On a recent day, Giuliani went from breakfast on the predominantly white and liberal Upper West Side to a reception given by the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund. He ended the day at a dinner with the Jamaican Chamber of Commerce.

The same day, Dinkins campaigned at a Baptist church in Harlem, Hispanic neighborhoods, and the Upper West Side.

While on the Upper West Side, Dinkins was approached by a man who asked him to attend a bar mitzvah that weekend. The mayor agreed to go after an aide told him: ``You should go to a lot of bar mitzvahs.''

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