By Philip Lentz
With the President-Elect becoming just President, and Florida
for the moment forgotten, local attention from the press and
politicos has already turned to the race for the next mayor
of the city of New York. In reality, the race has been underway
since Jan. 1, 1998, the day when the term limited Mayor Rudolph
Giuliani was sworn in for his second, and last, term. But most
of what has occurred so far is what political experts consider
inside baseball--raising money, testing themes, seeking early
publicity and rounding up potential allies.
Now, with the election clearly in view, the campaign is starting
in earnest. The 2001 contest will be notable for several reasons.
For the first time in 28 years, no incumbent will be on the
ballot. Since 1977, every mayor except Rudy Giuliani (Abe Beame,
Ed Koch and David Dinkins) has been defeated for re-election.
This year will also mark the first mayoral election to be held
under new more generous public financing rules, which give candidates
$4 for every $1 they raise, up to $250 per contributor. That
public subsidy ensures that all the major candidates will be
able to raise and spend the maximum allowed in the primary,
Finally, this year's mayoral race will occur during a rare
period of prosperity and relative domestic tranquility in the
city. Few hot button issues divide the populace, which will
make it more difficult for the candidates to differentiate themselves
from one another.
In fact, one of the dilemmas facing this year's crew of aspirants
will be figuring out how to maintain Mayor Giuliani's successes--lower
crime, better quality of life, a booming economy--while appealing
to a Democratic electorate yearning for a kinder, gentler and
probably a more socially liberal leader at City Hall.
Though the election is still ten months away, the field is
virtually set. There are four leading Democratic candidates:
Public Advocate Mark
Green, City Comptroller Alan
Hevesi, Council Speaker Peter
Vallone and Bronx Borough President Fernando
Ferrer. All are veteran local pols with strong bases of
political support, networks of friends and allies and well-oiled
Given the Democrats' 5-to-1 registration edge and the credibility
of the four leading Democrats, it is unlikely a Republican can
win this year. That means the next mayor will probably be picked
in the September Democratic primary and he will likely be named
Green, Ferrer, Hevesi or Vallone.
Green, 55, is the early frontrunner. Dapper, handsome and exceedingly
glib, Green is the best known of the candidates. He holds slim
leads in all the early polls, due primarily to the publicity
he garnered as consumer advocate commissioner under David Dinkins,
two failed runs for the U.S. Senate and seven years as the mayor's
chief antagonist at City Hall.
He is the most liberal candidate in the field, never a detriment
in a city like New York, and is popular among blacks, white
liberals and Jews. His base is Manhattan, but he hopes to put
together a coalition of progressives and political reformers
from the other boroughs, plus sympathetic unions.
His big problem is that he's never actually run anything before.
Yes, there was the Department of Consumer Affairs with some
250 workers, but that pales in comparison to being in charge
of a city government with 215,000 employees.
Then there's the Nader connection. Green spent the 1970s as
the top aide to Ralph Nader, with whom he wrote several books.
That once would be a plus on a political resume. Not anymore.
Given Nader's role in taking crucial votes from Vice President
Al Gore in the presidential race, Nader is now anathema to many
Democrats.. Green says he tried to persuade Nader not to run,
but his foes are sure to remind voters of their ties.
Green also has spent much of his career attacking the business
community, which has not made him many fans in corporate boardrooms.
He has worked hard in recent years to repair those fences-helped
by his brother, developer Steve Green-but there is little doubt
that Mark Green is not the favorite candidate among the city's
permanent political establishment.
Some believe Hevesi, 60, will emerge as Green's chief rival.
Tall, articulate and well-schooled in the parry and thrust of
Albany's partisan debates, Hevesi is considered one of the more
thoughtful candidates in the race. He spent more than 20 years
as an assemblyman from Queens before ousting Liz Holtzman as
comptroller in 1993.
While a traditional liberal, his politics are considered moderate
by New York City standards. His base is Queens, particularly
its Jewish community, and he has a network of allies across
the city through his friendships with assembly members with
whom he served in Albany. One of his chief assets is his political
consultant, Hank Morris, considered one of the most expert students
in city politics and the man who guided Chuck Schumer to the
U.S. Senate in 1998 (defeating, among others, Mark Green).
Hevesi has two problems. One is with black voters. In recent
years, Hevesi attacked the Rev. Al Sharpton very publicly, refused
to take part in the protests following the fatal Amadou Diallo
shooting nearly two years ago and even complimented the mayor's
handling of the shooting's aftermath. Some observers believe
he once hoped to run as "Rudy Lite"-a less abrasive version
of the mayor.
He has since become more critical of Giuliani in the last year,
but there are still doubts as to whether he can appeal to minority
voters and heal the racial wounds created by the incumbent.
His other problem is geographic. He isn't the only candidate
from Queens. Vallone also calls Queens home, meaning Hevesi's
base is not secure. The comptroller is favored to get the backing
of the Queens Democratic organization-a big plus-but he must
still prove that his Queens base is real.
Vallone, 65, is probably the best known contender after Green.
As a candidate for governor in 1998 (he was crushed by Gov.
George Pataki, but beat him 2-1 among New York City voters)
and as speaker for 15 years, Vallone has spent a lot of time
in front of microphones and television cameras.
As speaker, he is the absolute ruler of the City Council. Some
dismiss him as a political hack for the way he wields iron-willed
control over the council, but Vallone has been helping organizations,
constituencies and interest groups for three decades-through
city appropriations and other legislation--and many of those
groups will remember that help come the mayoral election.
Vallone's problem is, like Hevesi's, geographic. He must share
his base with Hevesi and, worse, is unlikely to have the backing
of the Queens Democratic organization. In addition, some, remembering
his languid gubernatorial race, question whether Vallone has
the stamina and desire to win a mayoral campaign. A recent shakeup
in his council staff did nothing to quiet fears about his motivation.
Ferrer, at 50, is the youngest of the leading candidates, but
has been in the forefront of local politics for nearly as long
as any of his rivals. First entering politics as a councilman,
he became Bronx beep in the aftermath of the Koch political
scandals in the late 1980s. His 13-year tenure has shown him
to be a thoughtful and articulate expert in housing and economic
development and he rightly deserves credit for the resurgence
of many neighborhoods in the Bronx.
As a Hispanic, Ferrer's goal is to ride into Gracie Mansion
by uniting the city's minority communities. It is a difficult
strategy. Blacks and Hispanics have historically gone their
separate ways in mayoral elections and there is little evidence
that Ferrer will have any more success than previous Latino
The success or failure of his strategy actually rests elsewhere--with
the Rev. Sharpton, who of late says he plans to run again for
mayor. If he does, Ferrer's strategy is kaput.
In an effort to bring Sharpton into the Ferrer camp, Ferrer's
chief ally, Bronx Democratic Chairman Roberto Ramirez, last
year engineered primary fights throughout the borough to show
that his primarily Hispanic Bronx political organization could
promote blacks as well. However, Ramirez's strategy backfired
badly. Not only did all of his candidates lose-mostly notably
state Sen. Larry Seabrook in a challenge to U.S. Rep. Eliot
Engel -- but the move alienated many Jewish voters and left
Ferrer open to the charge that he tolerates racially divisive
Worse, Sharpton now looks like he will run for mayor anyway.
Of all the possible contenders, he is the only one with no hope
of winning; he is too controversial and too disliked among whites.
But as a candidate, he would draw black votes away from Ferrer
Given the strengths and political bases of the candidates,
it is likely that no one contender can get the 40 percent required
to win the primary outright. That means a runoff between the
two top candidates will be needed to pick the Democratic nominee.
And the Republicans? Rudy Giuliani was an historical anomaly,
a hiccup that occurs once every 25 years when the Democrats
pick a clearly flawed candidate. Most of the Republicans mentioned
as possible candidates, such as Assemblyman John Ravitz of Manhattan
and CUNY Chairman Herman Badillo, would have little chance against
the eventual Democratic winner.
However, there is another possible Republican candidate, still
a long-shot, who could give Democrats shivers at night. That
person is Michael Bloomberg, the media gazillionaire who, like
Jon Corzine, would not be afraid to dump millions of his own
money into the race.
Bloomberg, a former Democrat who switched parties in October,
is now considering whether to run and he's is getting encouragement
from Republicans like Mayor Giuliani, Staten Island Borough
President Guy Molinari and Sen. John McCain of Arizona.
Most experts believe even Bloomberg's millions couldn't defeat
a mainstream Democratic candidate. But if he runs, the general
election will not be the cakewalk Democrats now expect.
Philip Lentz is the political reporter
for Crain's New York Business.