For a brief moment in 1997, it looked as though Gotham's Republicans
were poised to become a long-term force in local politics. Rudolph
Giuliani had just easily won reelection, becoming the first two-term
Republican mayor in over 50 years. Giuliani joined with Governor George
Pataki and Senator Al D'Amato to give Republicans three of the
traditionally Democratic state's four most powerful offices — something
that would have been unimaginable even five years earlier.
The brief Republican efflorescence was not so much a product of the
party's dynamism as of voter dissatisfaction with Mayor David Dinkins
and Governor Mario Cuomo. In what were referendums on the incumbents,
the voters did not so much affirm the policies presented by Giuliani and
Pataki as veto the long-time liberal approach associated with Dinkins
and Cuomo. Despite that, Republicans were presented with a
once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to leverage their newfound offices into
an ongoing, vital GOP presence in the city. Instead the revival quickly
floundered, wounded by well-organized Democratic and union opposition on
one hand and Republican mistakes on the other.
"Wall Street Journal" columnist John Fund has argued that New York in
effect has a three-party system made up of radical Democrats,
Republicans and those Democrats who supported first Ed Koch and then
Rudolph Giuliani. Victory at the polls requires a successful appeal to
two of the three groups.
In 1993, with the city on the verge of bankruptcy and in the aftermath
of the racially divisive Crown Heights riots, Giuliani, appealing to
Republicans and Koch Democrats, was very narrowly brought in to right
the ship. Despite record levels of crime and near record job losses,
Giuliani defeated the hapless Dinkins by a mere 50,000 votes.
Giuliani's early austerity budget steered the city away from the shoals
of fiscal collapse. But when the Wall Street boom put wind back in the
city's economic sails, the public considered the crisis passed. It was
safe to return to business as usual.
And so when Giuliani departed, the voters elected Michael Bloomberg. A
lifelong Democrat turned Republican in order to bypass a hotly contested
Democratic primary, the mayor is of more use to the national party —
New York has the convention and a mayor careful not to bad-mouth
Washington — than to local Elephants.
And Bloomberg is part of a long tradition: Of the Republican mayors in
the last 100 years, only Giuliani was anything of a party loyalist —
and then just for the second half of his second term. Fiorello La
Guardia, whose closest ally was Democratic President Franklin Roosevelt,
detested Republican Party politics, and John Lindsay left the Republican Party
after losing its primary in his bid for reelection. He joined first the
Liberal and Independent parties, and later the Democrats.
When Giuliani emerged as a political force in the
1980s thanks to his success as a U.S. attorney, Gotham's GOP was on life
support after Lindsay's reign. In 1977, in the wake of the 1975 fiscal
crisis, Republican mayoral candidate Roy Goodman collected a risible 4.5
percent of the vote. By the early 1980s, Democrats held Gracie Mansion,
every seat on the City Council and every borough presidency. Giuliani's
1989 run for mayor nursed the local GOP back to a semblance of life.
With crime soaring and the economy sinking, the tough prosecutor's
crime-busting message resonated. Although Dinkins won, Giuliani's
unexpectedly strong showing helped spur new GOP candidates to run for
City Council in 1991 — the year New York lost an astounding 191,000
jobs and suffered more than 2,000 murders. Though Republicans had won
only a single race for a municipal office since 1983, these challengers
wrested four council seats away from the Democrats. When Giuliani upset
Dinkins two years later and then slashed crime and reined in the city's
runaway budget with amazing speed, the Republican future began to look
"Back then," recalls former City Council minority leader Alfred Cerullo,
"people looked to us as the only way to change things in the city. As
things got worse, our prospects got better."
In a city in crisis, there was benefit in being the party of protest.
Republican optimists thought the trend likely to continue. Giuliani won
a second term in 1997 by a huge (by New York standards) 13
percentage-point margin that seemed to undermine the notion that New
York is an unfailingly left-wing town. He got 43 percent of the Hispanic
tally, 65 percent of the vote in Queens and 53 percent of the vote in
Brooklyn, with only a single Republican officeholder.
But this proved to be the high-water mark of the party's very brief
resurgence. Part of the problem was that Giuliani showed no interest in
creating a party faithful to leave behind him. Virtually from the
beginning of his tenure, he had been a freelancer, unconcerned with
building his party or grooming a successor. His chief political mentor
had always been Liberal Party boss Raymond Harding. Giuliani's gigantic
political gamble of endorsing incumbent Democratic Governor Cuomo over
George Pataki in 1994 further fractured Gotham's already weak GOP.
The mayor also clashed with members of his administration who might have
emerged as viable successors and Republican leaders — most notably
former police commissioner William Bratton, a Democrat once thought
likely to switch to the GOP. Giuliani did little to cultivate for higher
elected office the Republican City Council members, such as Andrew
Eristoff, whom he had drawn into his administration, or prominent black and
Hispanic officials who might broaden the party's appeal — people like
former housing commissioner Richard Roberts, Health and Hospitals chair
Luis Marcos, or Deputy Mayor Rudy Washington.
"You would think that people who worked for the Giuliani administration
would have rushed to run for office [in 2001]," says political
consultant Joseph Mercurio. But except for City University Board Chair Herman Badillo, who ran
unsuccessfully against Bloomberg in the Republican primary, none did.
In six of 16 City Council races, the Brooklyn Republican organization
did not bother to so much as field a candidate. In many neighborhoods
where Giuliani won decisively in 1997, the Republican county
organizations did not bother to run candidates for State Assembly the
following year. In 2001, Bloomberg swept to easy victory in places —
from Forest Hills to Borough Park — that fielded no Republican City
And so when Giuliani departed, the city's long-dominant interest groups,
such as public sector unions and the nonprofit social service industry,
reasserted themselves. They were largely unchecked by Giuliani's
nominally Republican successor, Michael Bloomberg.
Despite his Republican label and business background, Bloomberg
represents a return to politics as usual. In distancing himself from
Giuliani's contentious style in dealing with the city's interest groups
he cut himself off from the substance of his predecessor's success.
Giuliani's accomplishments came from governing as the representative of
a public that stood beyond the interests of any pressure group.
Bloomberg, in savoring good relations with every group, left little room
for the larger interests of the city as a whole until he belatedly took
on the teachers union.
A Republican-of-convenience, Bloomberg nonetheless ran as Republican,
promising fiscal austerity and, in essence, a kinder, gentler
continuation of the prosperity and safe streets of the Giuliani years.
But upon taking office, the mayor's agenda proved to be at odds with his
campaign rhetoric. He promised no layoffs and raised taxes, quickly
alienating the moderate outer borough Democrats who were key to electing
him. Nor has Bloomberg expressed any interest in supporting other
Ironically, the one thing he attempted that would have helped the local
GOP was calling for nonpartisan elections. This was
hardly a radical proposal: Nonpartisan elections are held in 8 of the 10
â€“ and 41 of the 50 — largest American cities. Nonpartisan elections
allow all voters, not just Democrats, to participate in the first
(primary) round of voting and then pit the two candidates with the
highest vote total, regardless of party, against each other in the
general election. Currently in New York City, the absence of Republicans
usually renders the November election a formality, with most offices won
in the September Democratic primary, when turnout is tiny.
Nonpartisan elections would have strengthened the role of independents,
moderates and swing voters as well as Republicans. Not surprisingly,
Democratic Party regulars and the public-sector unions fought
ferociously against the proposal because, in effect, it would have
weakened them and helped the coalition of Koch Democrats and Republicans
that made Giuliani's first-term reforms possible. While a few energetic
young Republicans supported nonpartisan elections as a way to give life
to the GOP by expanding the city's tiny electorate, many Republicans,
thinking nationally, saw nonpartisanship as a threat to their interests
and opposed the measure.
To win the referendum, Bloomberg had to convince a majority of the
voters who bothered to go to the polls that non-partisan voting would
have made elections more competitive and thus politicians more
accountable. This is hard to get across quickly. But Bloomberg insisted
on rushing the matter and got it placed it on the ballot only a few
months after it had been officially proposed. Worse yet, he put it
before the voters in the 2003 off-year elections, when turnout was very
small and dominated by hard-core Democrats.
The results were predictable. Despite a Quinnipiac poll that showed a
narrow majority of registered voters in support of non-partisan
elections, the 12 percent of the electorate that showed up on November
4, 2003 defeated the proposition 70 to 30. The Republican reform era of
the 1990s was officially at an end.
The other big winner in the referendum was the Working Families Party
http://www.workingfamiliesparty.org/, which in effect represents the
left wing of the Democratic Party, whose office holders almost all win
in elections determined in low-turnout primaries. It emerged a major
player in local elections by leading the unions get out the vote effort
to defeat non-partisan elections and became the first third party in 30
years to gain a council seat in its own name.
The big loser was local Republicanism, which could have used
nonpartisanship to create alliances with moderate Democrats and
independents. Instead, the right in general and Republicans in
particular are mostly cut off from the political and legislative life of
the city, leaving a political competition between the moderate left and
the far left that ensures the city's political center of balance will
tilt still farther leftward.
And so it is that a decade of Republican mayors and a third term
Republican governor in Albany add up to a Grand Old Party without a
future in New York City. In fact, the mayoralty aside, it is becoming
Gotham's third most powerful party, behind the Democrats and the
increasingly muscular Working Families Party.
The Republican retreat is more than a loss for the GOP. It is a loss for
a city and a near guarantee that we will revisit the tortured politics
that allowed the Republicans to gain power I the 1990s. Having blown
their chance to be the party of change, the Republicans again seem
content to remain on the margins, as the party of protest.
Fred Siegel's book on New York in the 1990s will be published next year.
Harry Siegel, the editor of NewPartisan.com, is writing a book on
gentrification in New York City for Ivan R. Dee, publisher.
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