Rivals Attack, Mayor Defends
As Political Campaign Begins
By Henry J. Stern
January 14, 2005
"When war is declared, truth is the first casualty." -Arthur Ponsonby, 1928
A quarter of a millenium ago, the thought was elegantly expressed by Samuel
Johnson: "Among the calamities of war may be jointly numbered the diminution
of the love of truth, by the falsehoods which intent dictates and credulity
encourages," The Idler, 1758.
In New York City in 2005, the war is a mayoral campaign, which will culminate
on November 8, which is 298 days from today. The mayor's State of the
City speech on Tuesday in the Bronx can properly be viewed as the opening
round, as the political conflict enters the stage of declarations of combat.
There has been sniping, of course, for several years, as aspirants legitimately
seek to attract attention to themselves, mostly by attacking the mayor, because
that gives them the most attention. Candidates who should know better
make endless assaults, often over trifles. The administration denies any
errors, and finds itself without culpability for any problem. It is
a ritual dance, with both sides performing roles that could have been written
Using the platform, resources and staff of the City Council, Speaker Miller
has spent the last three years asserting his leadership, and seeking to attract
public attention to himself and his positions. He rides around the
city in an elegant black limo or SUV, accompanied by police officers and
aides. In fact, he has quite a posse. Like a bee traveling from
flower to flower to gather nectar, he travels around the city, speaking at
meeting after meeting, trying to build a network of friends and supporters.
There is nothing wrong with any of this; it was what Ed Koch did in 1977
(without the police — he was only a congressman, not an officer of the City
Council), and what Michael Bloomberg did, on his own, in 2000 and 2001.
The nature of Miller's position prompts the speaker to attack the mayor whenever
he can. If he did not do that, why would anyone vote to throw out an
honest, decent, relatively unexciting but successful public official, and
replace him with a 35-year-old who has never held a job outside of politics?
It is a situational imperative for him to find fault wherever he can, and
pass bills he knows will be vetoed, so he can show authority by using his
position on the Council to override the mayor.
These bills often lead to lawsuits, since the City Charter defines the mayor's
powers and the Council's, and the Council cannot pass legislation which intrudes
on the mayor's authority. Just what is considered intrusive?
The courts will tell us in a year or so. In the meantime, they may
or may not issue a stay of the effective date. If the city loses a
decision in the lowest court (oddly named the Supreme Court of the State
of New York), it gets an automatic stay while the case is appealed to the
Appellate Divison, which is the intermediate court between the Supreme Court,
which holds trials, and the Court of Appeals, which is the highest court
in the Empire State.
But before he can take on the mayor, he must first defeat Fernando Ferrer,
the well-known former Bronx borough president, narrowly defeated by Mark
Green in the 2001 Democratic primary, a symbol of Latino pride and more important,
frontrunner in the polls. Miller's chances are further weakened by
the candidacy of Anthony Weiner, an aggressive young, but not too young,
congressman from Brooklyn and Queens, who is trying to put together the Koch
Ferrer's prospects are impaired by the candidacies of Virginia Fields and
Charles Barron, although Barron is not expected to stick out the race because
he would have to abandon his real job, his Council seat. Fields is
term limited out of the borough presidency and is in an up-or-out situation.
As African-Americans, each of them would damage Ferrer's ambition to be the
candidate of all minorities.
Mayor Bloomberg, on the other hand, is playing defense. He stands up
for his administration and the people he appointed to commissionerships and
other offices. When they are disingenuous, he sets them free, as he
did with the Local Conditional Release Commission. Then he explains
why he did not know, indeed could not have known, about their propensity
for misconduct. In this area, the mayor has done well.
The mayor has responsibility for about 300,000 employees (the real number
depends on how many you count, and whether housing and transit are, or are
not, defined as municipal agencies). It is the nature of the universe
that some of them will be crooked, some lazy and some incompetent.
It is also true that insufficient resources will be available to do their
jobs, or to maintain a level of service that people want. The media are vigorous
in calling problems like this to the mayor's attention, and he must respond
with sufficient intensity to show that he cares about the situation, and
is doing his best to resolve it.
With incumbency comes resources, convenience, and great media exposure.
But it also carries with it the burden of responsibility — for issues you
can control and for issues beyond your control. The mayor of New York
City is a more visible public official than the governor of New York State.
For that reason, some failures of the state, or state-controlled authorities,
are in the public mind mistakenly believed to be failures of the city.
In this election, the Democrats will make much of the fact that he ran on
the Republican line. He will be linked to President Bush and every
other right-winger in an effort to frighten New Yorkers and capitalize on
their feelings of rage about the 2004 election, which some delusionally believe
to have been stolen. The truth on that issue comes from former President
Bill Clinton, who said: "I voted for the other guy, but we lost fair and
At the same time, errors have been made, and some agencies are doing much better than others.
Without going into detail, education is the biggest problem, and the program
the mayor campaigned for in 2001 has been somewhat undermined by the ideological
bent of the new school management, which in other ways has accomplished a
great deal. It's a shame, because the mayor has put so much money,
and political capital, in this most important city responsibility.
He won control of the schools from the old Board of Education, which was
dominated by borough politicians and the United Federation of Teachers.
That was a great achievement of his mayoralty, accomplished with the cooperation
of Speaker Sheldon Silver and Senator Joseph Bruno.
Unfortunately, the management of the school system was entrusted to Diana
Lam, whose history of ambition, discord and litigation was readily available
to anyone who knew how to use Google. She was replaced, but only by
mayoral intervention, for trying to wangle a six-figure job for her husband.
Her successor, Carmen Farina, is honest, kind, a New Yorker, and someone
who has risen, step by step, in the ranks of the school system. The
problem is that she is an ideological clone of Diana Lam, rejecting all educational
methods not her own. This is not to say that good things have
not happened in the schools, thanks to the mayor prioritizing the issue.
There has been an influx of young, committed teachers. But it would
have been far better if the ruling cadre were not mired in Teachers College
pedagogy, now largely discredited as ineffective. Some people just
have their heads in the 1960's, when rebellion stirred their consciences
and their consciousness.
The observer who tries to be objective should never believe that one candidate
is perfect and the others are wicked. On the other hand — and that
seems to be a phrase we use often in the quest for fairness — it is quite
possible that one candidate can be substantially better than the others,
and that one or two can be substantially worse. Running the government
involves making many decisions — on people and on programs — and choices
are sometimes limited by the realities of politics and the availability of
resources. Selecting a candidate to support is an important decision,
which should be based on a judgment on the record and character of the people
in the race, and their capacity to govern effectively.
A line that Ed Koch often used in his campaigns is, "If you agree with me
on nine out of twelve issues, vote for me. If you agree with me on
twelve out of twelve, see a psychiatrist." When you make a choice,
think of what he said. And remember that you can change your mind until
you pull the lever.
Henry J. Stern
|New York Civic
520 Eighth Avenue
New York, NY 10018
(212) 564-5588 (fax)