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National Perspective | DATELINE: NEW YORK

Giuliani Can't Curb His Zest for Street Fights

Cabbies fume over tougher rules. Now it's pushcart vendors' turn to skewer the quality-of-life mayor.

June 04, 1998|JOHN J. GOLDMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Such was the hostility toward Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani that a cab driver, in a fit of emotion, threatened to burn himself in front of City Hall. He was escorted, shouting, from a recent meeting of New York's Taxi and Limousine Commission.

On Wednesday, it was the food vendors' turn to protest. The people who sell hot dogs, knishes, pretzels and assorted morsels from sidewalk carts staged a one-day strike, angrily marching down Broadway to condemn efforts by the mayor to sharply limit the areas where they do business.

"Impeach Giuliani," the demonstrators chanted. "I sell bagels, not drugs. Please let me work," read a sign held by a pushcart owner.

It was not just a food fight. The Giuliani administration plans to broaden restrictions on street vendors peddling T-shirts, cheap watches, jewelry, books, baseball cards and other goods as well.

Add to the recent roster of contention the mayor's battles with sidewalk artists who sell pictures without permission, pedestrians who disregard traffic regulations, bicyclists who ride on sidewalks and City University students who are protesting tightened admissions policies.

Members of the mayor's administration believe New York's taxi industry is badly in need of reform. Drivers get into accidents too frequently, they argue, and victims are prevented from collecting reasonable damages because of a thicket of legal defenses.

In the case of the vendors, city officials cite complaints from community groups and institutions, including hospitals and museums, that the sellers block sidewalk traffic and that the food they sell sometimes is a health hazard.

The disputes underline Giuliani's stress on quality-of-life issues during his second term--and his determination to remain an activist mayor even though he cannot run for a third consecutive term.

"He thrives on confrontation. . . . He is imposing a new civic order on New York City," said Mitchell Moss, director of the Taub Urban Research Center at New York University. The message Giuliani is seeking to send beyond the city's boundaries is simple, Moss believes: "He's tamed New York, and he hopes his success in the Big Apple will demonstrate he can do it anywhere."

"Anybody who is a lame duck is by definition put in a defensive position," said David Garth, the political strategist who ran the mayor's first successful campaign for City Hall. "What Giuliani has found is how to stay on the offense.

"A defensive position is not going to help him anywhere west of the Hudson. He picks real problems and overemphasizes what he is trying to do. Nobody can ever accuse Rudy of having a light touch. But he gets things done."

Indeed, many cabbies complain the mayor hit them with a tire iron.

After the drivers staged a one-day strike last month, which left people scrambling for transportation, the Giuliani administration crushed a second protest. Police set up roadblocks and kept hundreds of yellow cabs with no passengers from entering Manhattan.

Lawyers for the city claimed the cabbies planned to tie up midtown traffic. But a federal judge, in an opinion supported by an appellate court panel, ruled the city did not present sufficient evidence to back up its claim.

The result was an abbreviated, court-approved procession of disgruntled taxi drivers that had no real impact on traffic.

But the drivers quickly found their success in court was a Pyrrhic victory when the Taxi and Limousine Commission met to consider rule changes.

While belligerent drivers booed and scrambled to be heard, commission members approved 15 of the 17 proposals Giuliani had requested, including stiffer fines for drivers and higher insurance coverage for accident victims.

"Giuliani doesn't care about minorities," charged Satvir Singh, 23, who came to the United States from India in 1992 and who drives a cab to pay for his education. "Because all immigrants are driving taxis and all minorities are food vendors, he is against us."

In an effort to block the new rules, taxi owners have filed suit, charging the commissioners with violating New York State's open meetings law when they conferred behind closed doors before the vote. Other suits allege the commission exceeded its authority by imposing excessive punishment.

"Cabbies are easy targets," charged Maureen Connelly," a public relations consultant who lobbied for a group of taxi owners and who cited studies showing most cab drivers are safe drivers. "You always remember the horror story and not the 14 other rides."

Times special correspondent Lisa Meyer and researcher Lynette Ferdinand contributed to this story.

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