As New York heads into the dog days of a premature summer, there are only three months to go before the Democratic primary, in which voters will pick the probable successor to term-limited Republican Mayor Rudolph Giuliani: Public Advocate Mark Green, Bronx Borough President Fernando “Freddy” Ferrer, City Comptroller Alan Hevesi or City Council Speaker Peter Vallone. The conventional wisdom is that the primary is Mark Green’s to lose–but with none of the four major candidates drawing anywhere near a majority in the polls, the smart money says there’ll be a runoff. And if the Democratic winner is bruised by a nasty primary campaign, newly minted Republican Michael Bloomberg, a fresh “nonpolitical” face with very deep pockets, just might snatch his victory away in November.
Yet the political atmosphere in this once-feisty town can be summed up in one word: indifference. “Only the people already involved in politics are talking about the campaign,” says retiring City Councilwoman Ronnie Eldridge, a veteran progressive. State Senator Tom Duane agrees: “There’s no enthusiasm at all for any of the mayoral candidates–it couldn’t be more unexciting.”
What explains the ennui? For one thing, the four major Democratic candidates all reflect a slightly more liberal version of the galloping centrism that the national Democratic Party came to embody in the Clinton era. Says one influential progressive labor leader, “Issue by issue, the four candidates are virtually indistinguishable. They’re all for tax breaks for corporations and all for a living wage. How do you figure out how they’d govern?”
But the city’s boredom also has another cause: the demise of the reform movement that used to animate New York City politics. When Ed Koch, the Greenwich Village “reformer,” was elected mayor in 1977, he quickly made deals with the principal “regular” machines, much to his later sorrow: His administration was tarnished by corruption scandals that eroded the power of the regulars in the 1980s. Today, three of the Democratic candidates–Hevesi, Vallone and Ferrer–are pure products of the Democratic machines, but distinctions between reform and regular Democrats have lost much of their meaning for the voting public. Racial tensions, not the reform/regular distinction, predominated when Koch’s bid for a fourth term was thwarted by David Dinkins, who in 1989 became the city’s first black mayor. And race was again the issue when Giuliani dethroned Dinkins in 1993.
From then on, Democrats defined themselves primarily in terms of their relationship to Rudy rather than to one another. Using the power of City Hall, Giuliani has been able to make alliances of convenience with some Democrats. For example, when a small group of independent-minded reform Council members like Eldridge opposed adoption of Rudy’s budget in his first term, Speaker Vallone–who had cut a deal with the mayor in exchange for some plum projects–retaliated by evicting them from committee chairs and slashing their expense budgets.
Although the power of the machines has diminished–especially with the drying up of patronage during Rudy’s eight-year tenure–they continue to survive by controlling jobs and legal fees through the politically controlled court system (judges are elected in New York) and the padded payrolls of the borough presidents, the City Council and the Democratic-controlled State Assembly. The most puissant machine is in Queens, bossed by Tom Manton, who gave up a safe seat in Congress to devote himself full time to his county leadership (and, not coincidentally, make a bundle from his influence-peddling law firm). With two mayoral candidates who call Queens home (Hevesi and Vallone), Manton took his time, then went for Hevesi. The Brooklyn machine, whose county leader is the talentless Clarence Norman, an African-American, is a pale shadow of its former self; it, too, is supporting Hevesi. In predominantly Hispanic Bronx County, the regular boss, Roberto Ramirez, is supporting his home-borough protégé Ferrer; but Ramirez’s candidates lost four key legislative elections last year, a sign his machine’s influence is on the wane.