GOTHAM GAZETTE: SEARCHLIGHT 2002: Feature JUMP TO YOUR DISTRICT
 
 

By Father Time and Baby Rivera: Scenes From A Changed City Hall

by Paul Moses

Beneath the classical arches on the first floor of City Hall, Jose Rivera, a former city councilmember from the Bronx, called out to his son, Joel Rivera, a current city councilmember from the Bronx. But the younger Rivera, 23 years old with dark hair and a dark suit, was deep in conversation, and so he ignored his father, 65 years old with gray hair and a rumpled suit.

"Make sure my son behaves, okay?" the senior Rivera said to several reporters nearby. "Treat him like you treated me - put him through the mill." He called over again, but still got no response. "He doesn't listen to his father," said Rivera.

In this new year and new era, it was hard not to see the two Riveras as the political world's version of Father Time and the New Year's Baby, symbols of the old and the new.

Things have changed in City Hall.

* * *

"Change is good," Rudolph Giuliani liked to say as mayor, and he quickly wore out the line, because he usually meant it as a thumb in the eye after a proposal he made had provoked howls of anger.

But suddenly David Dinkins is saying the same thing. For eight years, the former mayor visited City Hall infrequently after being deposed by Giuliani, and usually only for some strained ceremony, such as the unveiling of his official portrait.

On January 2, the first day of business in the new City Hall, Dinkins showed up early for the swearing in of a new councilmember from the Bronx, Larry Seabrook. Dinkins, not known during his mayoralty for being early, planted himself in the middle of the main floor, before the stairway that winds upward beneath the rotunda, and basked in the new warmth he felt from an old friend, City Hall. "I feel a whole lot more welcome yesterday and today than I have in a long time," he said. "There already is a change in climate." On the Thursday morning after his election, he explained, Michael Bloomberg spent an hour listening to his ideas - and Dinkins was a steadfast supporter of the Republican's opponent, Mark Green.

* * *

In Giuliani's first week in office, he ordered immediate cuts of one percent and created a "vacancy control" board that was to clear hiring through his deputy, Peter Powers. Commissioners who went above budget, Giuliani warned, would have to meet with him personally. When he released his first budget, he called it "reality therapy."

In Michael Bloomberg's first week in office, he asked city agencies to explain how they might handle budget cuts ranging from five to 20 percent in the next fiscal year, but he said it softly. "It may be there's no way to do that, but the first exercise is to ask people to take a good hard look," the new mayor said. We're in the fact-finding mode."

From the start, Giuliani's favorite word for shooting down an idea he disagreed with was "silly." If he did not like a question, it was "jerky" or "idiotic" or "moronic."

Giuliani had actually gotten along famously with reporters while he was U.S. attorney in Manhattan during the 1980s. But he immediately lost the touch when he became mayor in 1994. By the time his second year began, relations were so poor that The New York Times editorialized about "loony tunes time in City Hall" and called the mayor's press office "The Mayor's Censorship Office."

When he prepared to run for re-election in 1997, Giuliani predicted accurately that voters would focus on what he'd done, not his style of leadership. "Besides," he'd said, "my style works for me."

In one of the first official news conferences with Mayor Michael Bloomberg, a reporter asked "Has it hit you yet that you are the mayor of New York City and you have to make a lot of difficult decisions?" Bloomberg did not reply that the question was idiotic. Instead, he humbly played along: "It's hitting me in this press conference as we stand here."

During the last days of his mayoralty, Giuliani proposed that the entire site of the World Trade Center be made into a memorial, and he became increasingly strident in his advocacy.

The new mayor was asked about the old mayor's idea. "He did float that as one of the ideas," Bloomberg said mildly, and one could sense in that moment that, for all of Giuliani's national acclaim and his political support for Bloomberg, his idea would never get anywhere. Bloomberg referred the question to John Whitehead, head of the Lower Manhattan Redevelopment Authority, who buried the former mayor in praise while saying that it appears there should be some development on the site along with a memorial. "He has every right to share his opinion," Whitehead said, the picture of graciousness, and complimented the former mayor some more.

* * *

Rudy Giuliani spent eight years trying to prevent Al Sharpton from getting any attention. Two days after Giuliani made his exit, there was for all intents and purposes a rally for Sharpton at City Hall. The City Council chambers were packed for Sharpton backer Charles Barron to be sworn in as the new councilmember from East New York. His first order of business, he said, was to place more minorities among the dour portraits of powerful WASPs in City Hall.

"There was electricity in the room," said the elder Rivera, who was chairman of the council's black and Hispanic caucus until he left to take a seat in the Assembly, making way for his son. "There was excitement." He turned wistful. "I wish I was back here now."

* * *

The second youngest member of the new City Council, Eric Gioia, 28, stood in the dim first-floor hallway, explaining why he wanted to change the rules of a council he had joined only days before. He had taken part, with dozens of other Democratic council members, in the Fresh Democracy Caucus, which wants a more democratic council. The argument of the group is that their proposed changes in the rules will make the council more creative, more responsive, more accessible and thus stronger. The traditionalists reply that a strong council speaker representing a unified council will be a powerful counterweight to the mayor; a divided council will be conquered. The traditionalists have carried the argument, until this year. But in the new City Hall, are there any traditionalists left?

"We are not only reinventing government but reinvigorating the spirit of government," Goia said, "which has maybe been absent for some time."

"There's a tremendous feeling of newness," said John Banks, the council's chief of staff, as upstairs, in the old Board of Estimate chambers, the new mayor sat in the middle of a newly-installed sea of cubicles, newly outfitted with new Bloomberg computers.

Paul Moses, formerly City Hall bureau chief and city editor for Newsday, is an associate professor at Brooklyn College.