FLUSHING, N.Y. — At 4 p.m. on a bright fall afternoon, Main Street in this once decaying corner of Queens is an exuberant cacophony of bleating cars and trucks, rumbling buses and trains, shoppers, mothers with strollers and writhing clumps of teenagers tumbling down the street like puppies.
Ten years ago, the most characteristic sound on some corners here might have been crack vials splintering underfoot. But these streets have been reclaimed--first by the arrival of thousands of hard-working immigrants from India, South Korea and Taiwan, and then by the city's unrelenting attack on crime over the past four years. Up and down Main Street, beneath awnings that read Chung Mei Supermarket and New York Tong Ren Tang, shopkeepers tell the same story: fewer graffiti and more police, less crime and more shoppers.
So when New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani arrived to press the flesh one chilly day last week, he was greeted with eager handshakes, intermittent eruptions of applause and promises of support emphatic even in broken English. "He's good for the area," said Susan Leu, a Taiwanese immigrant who runs an herbal store. "He's brought in the police. Everything is going up now."
That seems the trend line these days for Giuliani too. Four years ago, he narrowly squeezed past incumbent Democrat David N. Dinkins to become the city's first Republican mayor in nearly 30 years. Now, with election day impending Nov. 4, polls in this most Democratic of cities show Giuliani as much as 24 percentage points ahead in his reelection bid.
The big reasons for Giuliani's commanding lead over Democrat Ruth Messinger are well known. City revenues are up (thanks mostly to the boom on Wall Street), and welfare rolls are down. Above all, the innovative policing strategies pursued by Giuliani and his police commissioners have produced epic reductions in the city's crime rate and tangibly changed the feel of daily life.
But Giuliani also has been strengthened by a less visible factor: his enthusiasm for the wave of immigration remaking New York. Like Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan, but even more so, Giuliani has broken with the dominant current in the Republican Party to emerge as a forceful defender of new Americans. "Immigration is good for America," Giuliani says flatly. "It has been fundamental to the success of our nation for 200 years."
Looking at New York, it's hard to argue otherwise. Without the huge influx of new arrivals--now 112,000 annually, the most since World War II--the city would have suffered catastrophic population losses over the past quarter-century, the City Planning Department calculates. Immigrants from the Caribbean, Asia and Europe are rejuvenating tired streets across the city: Foreign-born New Yorkers are actually more likely to be in the work force, and less likely to be poor, than the native-born, the planners found.
The new arrivals--and their relatives and neighbors--are also slowly changing the political equation here. At the national level, Republican enthusiasm for ideas such as "English only" requirements and denying social welfare benefits to legal immigrants not yet citizens has caused the GOP to hemorrhage support among Latinos and falter among Asians.
But just as Riordan did in his reelection over Tom Hayden last spring, Giuliani is proving that a centrist Republican message--when combined with an unambiguous welcome to newcomers--can attract not only a clear majority of whites but large numbers of Asians and Latinos as well.
Among Asians--only about 2% of New York's electorate in 1993 but growing fast--Giuliani is likely to win two-thirds or more. Among Latinos, a much larger bloc, he carried 38% last time. Now Joseph Wiscovitch, a Latino political consultant advising Giuliani, predicts that the mayor will win an unprecedented 50% of Latino votes--and recent polls suggest that he might do better than that. Even among blacks (one-fourth of whom in New York are foreign-born), Giuliani is now polling 18% or more.
Most of Giuliani's success among minority and immigrant voters derives from the same factors boosting him among whites. If anything, the reduction in crime has probably had a more liberating effect on working-class minority neighborhoods than affluent white ones. Consider these startling statistics from the Police Department: In 1996, there were 40 fewer whites murdered in the city than in 1993, Dinkins' last year in office. That's a 21% drop. Over that same period, the number of blacks killed annually dropped by 473 (or 48%), and the number of Latinos murdered fell by 409 (or 57%).
More than anything else, these statistics opened the door for Giuliani among minorities. But he has also reached out directly to the newest New Yorkers.