Maverick Mayors

By James Epstein

Michael R. Bloomberg, the 108th mayor of New York City, is only the eighth to be a Republican, and the first in the city's history to succeed another Republican mayor. But in the weeks immediately following his victory, some GOP leaders worried that the new mayor was less than gung-ho about his party affiliation. Bloomberg, after all, has admitted that he had been a Democrat his entire life, running as a Republican only because he felt he had no chance of winning in the crowded Democratic primary. When Mayor-elect Bloomberg1s first appointments were all Democrats, Republican loyalists like outgoing Staten Island Borough President Guy V. Molinari publicly (albeit politely) grumbled.

While billionaire businessmen who finance their own campaigns may have the easiest time flip-flopping their party affiliations, accusations of political disloyalty are nothing new to City Hall. New York enjoys a long tradition of maverick mayors who freely set their own agendas.

Of the four Republican mayors in the nineteenth century, William F. Havemeyer not only had once been a Democrat; he twice before had been elected as a Democratic mayor. A successful businessman with a reputation as a good manager, he returned in 1872 after two decades away from politics, switching parties in response to the scandals of the Tweed Ring and the corruption of his immediate predecessor, Democratic Mayor A. Oakey Hall. Though officially a Republican, Mayor Havemeyer remained closely aligned with the reform Democrats.

Of the three Republican mayors of the twentieth century, the most independent was Fiorello H. La Guardia, who detested party politics and made every effort to distance himself from the GOP. The "Little Flower," who was in office from 1934 to 1945, believed that partisanship was irrelevant to city life, because there existed "no Republican, no Democratic, no Socialist way to clean a street or build a sewer, but merely a right way and a wrong way."

To some extent, this explains La Guardia's success. His cross-party political friendship with Democratic President Franklin D. Roosevelt resulted in a windfall of federal funds for New York, which was a crucial part in the city1s economic recovery after the worst period of the Great Depression. Within the first few months of La Guardia's election, Roosevelt backed the creation of 200,000 federal jobs in the city. Over the first five years of La Guardia's administration, Washington funneled a total of $1.5 billion to New York through various local New Deal agencies.

By the time La Guardia was up for a second term, there was speculation that he might be forced to jump parties. But New York County Republican Leader Kenneth F. Simpson grudgingly offered him the GOP ticket for a second time, adding a futile request that La Guardia stop offering "aid and comfort to our political enemies."

If Bloomberg turns out to be a liberal Democrat in GOP disguise, he will not be the first. John V. Lindsay, who was the city's next Republican mayor after La Guardia, served from 1966 to 1973, overseeing a rapid expansion of municipal government, initiating several new social programs and increasing the city's budget by 16 percent. Much to the chagrin of state and city GOP leaders, he also imposed a new city-wide income tax and hiked corporate taxes.

In the mid-1960s, the conservative wing was taking over the GOP, and Lindsay's policies were anathema to the national party's agenda. In 1969, he lost the Republican primary to Staten Island State Senator John J. Marchi. He ran on the Liberal and Independent Party lines, and won. Two years later, Lindsay switched his party allegiance to the Democrats, and eventually made a failed bid to become the Democratic party's presidential candidate.

But it has not just been the Republicans who have crossed party lines. During his first term, Mayor George B. McClellan, Jr. was loyal to Tammany Hall, the long-time Democratic party machine that had backed his candidacy in 1903. But McClellan reinvented his agenda in 1905, after winning a close reelection against the independent challenger, millionaire media king William Randolph Hearst. Deeply affected by Hearst1s charge of voter fraud and political corruption, McClellan pushed for several reform measures. When he began withholding patronage jobs, which were the essential ingredient in Democratic machine politics, Tammany disowned him, backing instead William J. Gaynor in 1909, a former Republican. But Mayor Gaynor was fiercely independent, even more indifferent to local party politics than his predecessor, dismissing Democratic appointees, cutting the municipal labor force, and filling top administrative posts with politically inexperienced businessmen.

In more recent years, Mayor Edward I. Koch, a former Democratic activist congressman from Greenwich Village, is often said to have adopted a conservative approach to municipal government, largely in response to the fiscal crisis that had developed in part as a result of Lindsay's budget policies. During his first term, Koch was credited with restoring the city to financial health by limiting union increases, reducing welfare expenditures, and promoting private real estate development.

But once New York had returned from the brink of insolvency, he reversed his policies again. The three-term mayor abandoned his cost-cutting measures by adding new social services, granting large increases to city workers, and expanding the size of the municipal labor force.

Some have said that the two mayors who followed Koch, Democrat David N. Dinkins and Republican Rudolph W. Giuliani, adhered much more closely than their predecessors to the ideology of their respective parties. But it is easy to forget that, before the events of September 11, even Giuliani was something of a pariah in his own party. This was especially true during the 1994 gubernatorial election, when he endorsed the incumbent Democrat, Governor Mario M. Cuomo, over the Republican Governor George E. Pataki.

So if the past is any guide, party labels fall short as a way of gauging city politics. And even as the GOP enjoys its first back-to-back victories, the press is already speculating that Bloomberg will choose to run for re-election in 2005 as a Democrat.