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New York Republicans

by Mark Berkey-Gerard, Apr 22, 2002
 

 

He has been a Republican for only a few months, and was at first criticized by fellow members of his new party for calling himself a liberal and for appointing so many Democrats to his administration. But Michael Bloomberg has been making Republicans happy lately with his stands on a critical issue -- money.

First, Mayor Bloomberg has made large donations to the party, and held several fundraisers at his home, including a $15,000 a plate dinner for the re-election of Governor George Pataki, which featured President George W. Bush as the guest of honor. He has also used his personal jet and his helicopter to make it to fundraising events in West Virginia and Pennsylvania.

But just as importantly, Bloomberg has been adamant in the one position that cynics say is the only thing that consistently separates Republicans from Democrats - he is against raising taxes.

Bloomberg preaches his "no new taxes" message almost daily, saying that taxes would drive out business, scare away residents, and upset the debt rating agencies. The mayor's answer to closing the nearly $5 billion budget deficit is to cut city services, and to borrow money. The City Council, made up of 47 Democrats and four Republicans, disagrees, saying there is a better way than the loss of a thousand teachers, the continuing crumbling of the city's schools, the piling up of trash on the streets, and the hunger of old people who will no longer get meals delivered over the weekend.

In response to Bloomberg's preliminary budget (a kind of first draft of the budget that the mayor released in February), the City Council called for some $1 billion in new taxes, including a hike in the personal income tax to fund the construction of new schools. Last week, when Bloomberg released his executive budget (in effect, his second draft), he ignored all of their recommendations for new taxes.

Democratic Councilmember Leroy Comrie says the mayor's cuts threaten the livelihood of neighborhoods (See his essay). Republican Councilmember Dennis Gallagher believes the mayor is on the right track (See his essay).

Polls show that the majority of New Yorkers would approve a tax increase, which should not be surprising in a city where there are five times as many registered Democrats as Republicans. But still, New Yorkers voted for Bloomberg, as they voted, twice, for his predecessor, Rudy Giuliani, who had the same position (at least theoretically) on taxes.

Is the election of two successive Republican mayors for the first time in the history of the city an insignificant quirk, "one of the paradoxes of American politics," as Dan Cantor of the Working Families Party puts it? Or does it represent, as Andrew Eristoff, the head of the Manhattan Republican Party, would like to believe, "a great sea change in New Yorker's views?"

GRAND OLD PARTY

The elephant was born in New York City. Thomas Nast, famed political cartoonist, a New Yorker, and a Republican, was the first to portray the Republican Party as an elephant, in the pages of Harper's Weekly. (He was also the first to depict the Democrats as donkeys). The New York chapter of the Republican Party was formed the same year as the national party, in1854, and was one of some half dozen parties to have endorsed the winning candidate for mayor three years later.

But the truth is, New York has never been a Republican town, even when its homegrown Republicans gained national prominence. Thomas Dewey, governor and candidate for president of the United States, Nelson Rockefeller, governor and vice president of the United States, and Senator Jacob Javits were all quintessential New York Republicans, fiscally conservative and socially liberal.

But only three Republicans were elected mayor of New York in the twentieth century. The first one, Fiorello LaGuardia, had just a minimal allegiance to the party; the second, John Lindsay, ran successfully for reelection as an independent, and then became a Democrat. The third, Rudy Giuliani, who was Time magazine's "Man of the Year" and was given an honorary knighthood by the Queen of England, is nevertheless said to have a limited future in the national Republican Party because he is too liberal.

And for all the self-congratulations about the election of a second Republican mayor, last year's local elections were otherwise bad news for the party. With only 472,000 out of 3.5 million registered voters in the city and a weak local party organization, the Republicans could not produce candidates in the races for public advocate or comptroller, and many Democrats ran unopposed in City Council races as well. Some Republican City Council candidates who did run were even advised not to campaign too aggressively for fear that they might inspire enraged Democrats to go to the polls.

In the end, Republicans ended up with a net loss of two council seats, down to four. Also this year, the party suffered a painful loss of an East Side State Senate seat that Roy Goodman held for 33 years, when Republican John Ravitz was trounced by Democrat Liz Krueger. Ravitz is also expected to resign from his longtime seat as one of the few Republicans in the Assembly representing the city.

"With our governor and mayor, the public perception is that Republicans are the party in power, when in reality we are not," said Eristoff. "The prospects of winning are still so remote that it's almost a joke."

In the East Harlem City Council race last year, Republican candidate George De Martino said winning would be "a miracle of God," and that he was running simply "as a life experience."

SHIFTING LANDSCAPE?

Still, there are tangible signs of change.

Republicans like Governor George Pataki now see urban voters -- particularly Latinos -- as potential supporters, and have actively courted them, with positive results. In February, Democratic Bronx State Senator Pedro Espada announced that he was switching parties. Last month Pataki appeared at a Bronx hospital with Dennis Rivera, the head of the 1199/SEIU health care union. The two men had been fierce adversaries for much of the last decade; the union opposed the governor in his run for office in 1994 and battled with him over health care issues on several occasions. Now the two men were smiling, shaking hands, and beaming proudly with a newly formed alliance.

Just a few weeks before, Pataki and the New York State Legislature approved $1.8 billion in pay raises for the union's 210,000 workers, many of whom are African-American or Latino and live in the city.

"I'm a Democrat," Rivera said as he endorsed the Republican governor for re-election. "I intend to remain a Democrat. I'm very active in Democratic Party activities. On the other hand, I have to recognize that Governor Pataki has been incredibly helpful to the health care union."

Pataki's Democratic opponents Carl McCall and Andrew Cuomo accused the governor of buying the union's vote. But the endorsement also signaled that the old rules of New York politics might be changing. Unions can no longer guarantee to deliver the Democratic vote, some say, and blocs of voters are more inclined to select candidates based on their own best interest, rather than by party loyalty.

Indeed, one of the most surprising things about Michael Bloomberg's come-from-behind win against Democrat Mark Green, was that Bloomberg received greater than expected support came people who traditionally vote for Democrats -- African-Americans, liberal whites, and most noticeably Latinos, who gave Bloomberg 47 percent of their vote.

The New York State Democratic Party maintains that things have not changed.

In fact Democrats say that traditionally Republican areas like the Silk Stocking district on the Upper East Side, the North Bronx, and Bay Ridge are turning their way. Elsewhere in the state, Democrats have been able to steadily register more voters upstate and Long Island. And the party's new Spanish language web site claims that 72 percent of New York Latinos still identify themselves as Democrats.

"When it comes time to pull a lever in the voting booth, New Yorkers, including health care workers, vote on policy - not politics," New York State Democratic Chairman Denny Farrell has said. "I wish Governor Pataki as much success as the 1199 candidate as John Ravitz had with that union's endorsement."

SHIFTING VIEWS?

Even if individual Republican politicians are in fact gaining more support from traditionally Democratic New Yorkers, does this signal a change in their political views? Some investors are counting on it.

Last week saw the launching of a new daily newspaper for New York City, the New York Sun, which promised to carry the flag of "free enterprise" and the "American idea" for New Yorkers who have been longing for more conservative editorial pages.

Whether they will find a mass readership is not yet clear. And even if they do, their success will not necessarily have anything to do with ideology, certainly not party affiliation.

The same can be said for Bloomberg. Although he has been campaigning for local candidates and promises to be active in this fall's state elections, the mayor seems more interested in how Republicans can help him get things done in the city than in building a party.

Bloomberg lobbied Republicans in Washington for post 9/11-disaster aid. He was able to broker a deal with President Bush and Governor Pataki to gain control of Governor's Island. And he has spent a good deal of time in Albany working with law makers in his attempt to gain control of the schools, rebuild the World Trade Center site, and negotiate a difficult budget crisis.

Eristoff, the head of Manhattan's Republican Party, would like to claim that Bloomberg's visibility and initial success represent a general change in the attitudes of New Yorkers.

"People are more skeptical of broad new taxes, they want successful workfare programs, they are looking for accountability in public institutions and accountability in education," Eristoff said. "These are all Republican ideals."

But what is ideal for one Republican is not necessarily for another.

Many Republican New Yorkers still struggle to articulate a clear sense of identity. (See "I Am A Republican Because..." on the New York State Republican web site). They tend, for example, to be more liberal on issues like abortion, gay and lesbian rights, and immigration policy than their colleagues in other parts of the country. This is surely a large reason why Republican candidates in the city sometimes play down their affiliation.

"There is often a demonization of the word Republican in New York City," said David Jackson of Log Cabin Republicans of New York which advocates for gay and lesbian rights within the party. Jackson insists that, contrary to the assumption of many liberal-minded New Yorkers, Republicans have a history of being at the forefront of social issues like the civil rights movement. He likes to point out that the first woman elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, in 1916, was a Republican "In reality, party identification and issues have been fluid over the generations," Jackson said, "which is more true to the Republican spirit."

The natural desire for a politician to avoid being viewed as a demon may have something to do with why most Republican candidates in the city focus primarily on fiscal policy and issues specific to New York. Or they can always cite the most prominent New York Republican, Rudy Giuliani.

"In eight years, Rudolph Giuliani did a tremendous amount to put the city on the right track: reducing crime and welfare spending, cutting taxes and spurring tourism," said Republican Councilmember Dennis Gallagher. "In my district, the registration is overwhelmingly Democrat, but someone like myself can still get elected because the voters realize that Republicans can do an effective job."

"With all due respect to the national agenda, local issues are what win local elections," said Staten Island Republican James Oddo, the Minority Leader of the City Council. "That means education, affordable housing, and quality-of-life issues."

Staten Island is one of the few exceptions in New York City politics.

Though the borough has only 71,000 registered Republicans, as against 104,000 Democrats, the Republican party has been able to tap into white, Catholic, and affluent voters and build a solid borough-wide organization that can turn out the vote. Staten Islanders are said to have given Giuliani victory because they showed up in force over the ballot proposition that would have allowed the borough to separate from the city, and they have continued to vote heavily in recent elections because of their concern over the Fresh Kills landfill.

But even in Staten Island the politics are not clear cut. The North Shore, which more closely resembles the rest of the city with its dense housing and ethnic diversity, is a Democratic stronghold. And the new Borough President James Molinaro, is not a registered Republican, but a Conservative. Last fall, outgoing Borough President Guy Molinari, who is often credited with building the Republican Party in Staten Island, endorsed his deputy Molinaro as his non-Republican successor.

DOES NEW YORK NEED TWO STRONG PARTIES?

In a recent City Journal article entitled "Gotham Needs A GOP," author Steven Malanga argued that Republicans should try to build on the success of Michael Bloomberg and finally construct a real party with grassroots support. This would not only benefit the party, he argued, but all New Yorkers by providing a "clash of ideas."

"[Republicans] might have discovered, if they had bestirred themselves, that New York doesn't have to be Moscow-on-the-Hudson," Malanga writes, "but could become a normal two-party town like most of America."

"Two strong parties spur competition, produce better candidates, and elevate everybody's game," said Oddo, who was elected from a district that favors registered Democrats three to two.

Democrats say that their party is big enough to welcome a variety of opinions and people.

"The Democratic Party has always been the party of inclusion, diversity, and progress, which is why we have registered more than one million new voters in all corners of New York State," Denny Farrell has said.

But some on the left end of the political spectrum also think it might be healthier to offer an alternative to the one-party state that New York City has been for much of its history.

"Strong parties are good for government," agreed Dan Cantor of the Working Families Party. "But the Republican Party has no future in New York City."

Though the term limits law was an initiative that was begun and backed by a Republican (Ronald Lauder), the law has been of far more tangible benefit to the Working Families party, which leans to the left and is supported by the labor movement. Of the 29 candidates it backed in last year's election (most of them also running as Democrats), 15 of them won. And in the first few months of this year, the party has made its presence felt at City Hall by getting 27 of 51 City Council members to sign a letter to the council speaker asking him to raise taxes to pay for education and children's programs and pushing legislation like a "living wage" bill that would require city workers be paid at least $8.10 an hour.

And as long as the person who must sign such a bill into law, and who would have to sign off on any tax increases, is a Republican, and one with a few billion dollars to contribute, it might be a bit premature just now to kill off the elephant.


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