Gotham Gazette

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The Short-Lived GOP Revival In NYC

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The Party's Diminishing Strength in
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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 rosier.

"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 Council candidates.

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 Republican candidates.

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 – 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, 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, is writing a book on gentrification in New York City for Ivan R. Dee, publisher.


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