The snags in N.Y.C. politics going national

What once worked for Giuliani and Kerik raises eyebrows in Washington.

So what if Bernard Kerik had a personal relationship with a company believed to be connected to the Gambino mob family?

Or that he hired a foreign nanny and didn't bother to check her immigration status or pay her taxes?

And is it a problem that once a New Jersey judge issued an arrest warrant for the guy for failing to pay his debts?

Hey, this is New York, the historic home of Tammany Hall and William "Boss" Tweed. This is a City of Sin that doesn't sleep at night, an island unto itself full of foreigners and freethinkers. Or at least, so go the myths.

It's unclear how many of these skeletons were known before Mr. Kerik became the city's top cop in 2000. But once they began emerging on the national stage after President Bush nominated him to be secretary of Homeland Security, Kerik's budding national career suddenly and unceremoniously imploded. And it may be likewise for the national political prospects of his mentor and current partner, Rudolph Giuliani, many pundits believe.

"This is more than a black eye for Giuliani. It's a broken arm, and it's going to take a while time to mend," says Larry Sabato, a political analyst at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. "It's a real window into his administration and some of his associates. The amount of sleaze is just stunning."

Some national observers contend the Kerik debacle is yet another sign that New York City, still somewhat suspect in the "Bible Belt" despite the goodwill generated by Sept. 11, is not a fit breeding ground for the nation's leaders. No New Yorker has sat in the White House since Franklin D. Roosevelt. And he was from upstate. Indeed, no New York City mayor has ever moved on to lead the nation from the Oval Office. And that, says Kathleen Hulser of the New-York Historical Society, is not surprising because the city tends to be ahead of the national curve.

"New York is a place that prides itself on recklessly trying on new ideas all of the time. It has for a good deal of the nation's history prospered as a port and a crossroads of commerce because new ideas are constantly being injected," she says. "But it suffers in national politics from that very openness to change, because it changes too fast for the national electorate."

So Mr. Giuliani's roots are the first strike against him in any national race. And Kerik's problems aside, there is the simple but undeniable fact of who Giuliani is: "How does a pro-choice, Northeastern, antigun, environmentalist, pro-gay former mayor of New York who once endorsed Mario Cuomo win the Republican nomination?" asks Joseph Mercurio, a New York political consultant. "It just doesn't make any sense to me. I'd find it astonishing if he went that route."

For other New Yorkers, Kerik's emerging affairs (literally, the married father is now reported to have had two mistresses simultaneously while he was the city's top cop) and Giuliani's questionable judgment are just a reminder that before Sept. 11, New Yorkers had had about enough of them. Kerik had come under fire for using local cops to help research his book - the publisher of which is one of his alleged affairees - as well as for providing police protection to the then-married mayor's girlfriend at a cost of $200,000 a year. One local columnist called him "Giuliani's water boy." And the mayor's popularity had also waned considerably,both because of his very public adulterous affair in Gracie Mansion and because he usually did pretty much what he wanted, spawning a variety of lawsuits the city often lost.

"Giuliani was finished in New York until 9/11, when he became St. Rudy," says former Mayor Edward Koch. "So far as I know the only people who have a permanent character change are saints, real saints."

But Giuliani's boosters and some political analysts maintain that the man who came to be known as America's mayor with the dust from Sept. 11 still on his shoes will emerge from this latest scandal. In part, because New Yorkers have learned long ago never to count him out. "Here was a guy whose political future was nil in the spring and summer of 2000, and then events made him," says pollster John Zogby. "This doesn't help. Certainly in the short run, it's going to burst the bubble."

But Mr. Zogby notes the next election is three years and 11 months away, and Giuliani "does have the ability to rise above some of the seamier things that have happened."

As Professor Sabato notes, every election comes with surprises. "I mean, whoever thought a governor from Arkansas would ever become president?"

And as for whether New York is any more corrupt than other cities, historians say that's not the case. "Given the size of the government, it's been relatively clean compared to other cities," says New York historian Kenneth Jackson.

Although, it may be more tolerant of politicians and their various peccadilloes. "The big-city atmosphere is one that attracts people that can succeed in a competitive arena, and it takes a lot of libido to succeed," says Ms. Hulser.

"There's seems to be more understanding of that here."

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