Gotham Gazette

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Citizens Union

Mayoral Election

New York City's election machinery was surprisingly prepared to accept our votes and our democratic participation during the postponed primary on September 25. The city's 1,300 polling places buzzed with 750,000 of us who went to the polls, surprising the commentators who had speculated that the city was not ready just two weeks after a terrorist attack to think about a local election. We were at least tentatively ready to engage in shaping our city, choosing the City Council members, public advocate, and -- yes -- mayor who will represent us over the next four years as we rebuild our downtown, our economy, and our confidence.

Still, we are a changed city. The slogans of early September - "better schools, safer streets," "real results for real people" - seemed right on point for a local election in prosperous times but have little resonance with an electorate still grappling with an unprecedented loss of life, security, and confidence. The candidates seemed to recognize this; they didn't even try to campaign during the two weeks between the attacks and the re-scheduled primary.

Now, just days before the run-off for the Democratic nomination for mayor and public advocate and only a month before the general election, the electoral process must come back to life. New York City's voters face what is arguably the most important decision they will ever make in selecting the leaders of our city government. It is plain that the stakes for the future of our city could not be higher.

We don't need the petty squabbles that often mark political campaigns, but we must have a real debate among our potential leaders about the New York's future. They must show us their vision. We must test their mettle. The candidates must go back to the campaign trail - walking a tightrope that requires them to acknowledge the nearly unspeakable gravity of what happened on September 11, while somehow articulating and demonstrating why they should lead the city.

Given the formidable, but crucial, task facing Mark Green, Fernando Ferrer, and Michael Bloomberg, it is understandable that many people have turned back to Mayor Rudy Giuliani. We don't really know these men, and Giuliani set a new standard of crisis leadership as he guided the city in the weeks following the September 11 attacks. It is also understandable, if not particularly responsible, that Mayor Giuliani has not just welcomed but has encouraged speculation over whether he can turn all the rules on their head to run again or extend his term.

The mayor's position on this issue is in flux as the candidates and other politicians announce their different positions, so this question could either be resolved or further complicated by the time you read this. But from this vantage point -- days after the primary -- Giuliani's flirtation with staying in office is hardly a step forward in rebuilding the city. The mayoral candidates need the opportunity to demonstrate their vision and agenda to the city's voters. They don't need to be distracted by this maneuvering. And the voters don't need to be distracted by these machinations: Can Giuliani convince the Democratic State Assembly to repeal term limits, and then how does he get on the ballot? Would it be possible for him to win a write-in campaign? Can he run on the Conservative line? How does he go about extending his term? Is that legal? What will he do if only some of the candidates agree to an extension?

There is an awful lot of drama in following this story, but it doesn't help the City choose its next leader. We need, instead, to be looking at the candidates closely, asking hard questions. The task before the candidates during this unusual campaign season will require remarkable political skill as well as vision and plans. This will be a hard but necessary test for the men who would be our next mayor. Our democracy is not so fragile that the process must defer to Giuliani - and it's highly debatable whether that's what the city really wants. What we need now is a vibrant election to choose a mayor, not a potentially bitter fight about keeping the old one.

Susan Reefer is a Republican pollster and media strategist. She is based in New York City.

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