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Giuliani Eclipsing N.Y. Mayoral Race

Election: Contenders are lining up for a shot at governing New York. But the city's dominant politician isn't running.

July 22, 2001|JOSH GETLIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

NEW YORK — As New York's mayoral race heats up, the politician who casts the longest shadow and dominates the media spotlight isn't even on the ballot. Term limits bar Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani from running again, but they haven't blocked him from overshadowing the Democrats and Republicans hoping to win his job.

Any day now Giuliani is expected to move out of Gracie Mansion, the mayor's official residence, as part of his bitter divorce fight. He continues to propose new baseball stadiums for the Yankees and Mets, and his clashes with teachers seeking a pay raise have become increasingly harsh.

All of this generates headlines and creates a dilemma for mayoral candidates eager to distance themselves from the pack: How do you compete with a nationally known leader who presided over the city's remarkable comeback in the 1990s and shows no sign of leaving the stage?

"Most New Yorkers approve of the mayor's performance, even though they may not like him personally," said Democratic strategist George Arzt. "And none of the candidates wants to be the guy who jeopardizes what Rudy has achieved, especially the big drop in crime. So nobody's rocking the boat."

When they're not focused on Giuliani, New York's tabloids and other media have been dominated by hot summer scandals, including the disappearance of intern Chandra Levy, the local arrest of "Sopranos" star Robert Iler and PR guru Elizabeth Grubman's auto wreck in the Hamptons, which injured 16 people. As thousands of New Yorkers stream out of the city for long vacations, a majority have consistently told pollsters they are paying scant attention to the battle for City Hall.

It's bad news for four veteran Democratic candidates: Public Advocate Mark Green, City Comptroller Alan Hevesi, Bronx Borough President Fernando Ferrer and City Council Speaker Peter Vallone. The two Republican candidates--media mogul Michael Bloomberg and former Bronx congressman Herman Badillo--are equally hard-pressed to stir interest.

The first electoral skirmish is Sept. 11, when Democrats face off in a primary. If no one wins 40%, the top two vote-getters will meet in a runoff two weeks later. Republicans also hold a Sept. 11 primary, and both parties will square off in the city's general election Nov. 6.

New York's ho-hum attitude toward the race is a testimonial to Giuliani's effect on a city once thought to be ungovernable. The Republican mayor has put his stamp on the Big Apple during an economic boom and crafted an anti-crime agenda that most Democrats want to continue, not unravel.

Moreover, there is no sense of crisis gripping the city, unlike during prior mayoral contests. Candidates may try to emulate Giuliani's stance as an outsider who took on special interests, but polls suggest that few New York voters think there is much at stake in the 2001 mayoral election.

For his part, Giuliani has dropped hints that he might endorse Bloomberg or Badillo, and he also engaged in a brief flirtation with Vallone. Largely ignoring the mayor's race, he has tried to drum up support for a future Olympics bid by New York and a $1-billion westside stadium for the New York Jets. He attracts attention everywhere he goes--even when he attends a minor league baseball game in Brooklyn with girlfriend Judith Nathan.

There's been nonstop coverage of his divorce warfare with estranged wife Donna Hanover, and the mayor will be moving into a private apartment sometime in the next several weeks. Tensions between Giuliani and Hanover have reached the point where she got a court order barring Nathan from visiting him at the mayor's official residence.

There are urgent city issues, of course, including the need to reform New York's deteriorating public schools. Most mayoral candidates also say it's time to put a more humane, inclusionary face on city government after eight years of Giuliani's often-abrasive leadership style. And while there are no widespread signs of anxiety, the national economic turndown sparks concern in a metropolis so dependent on Wall Street for revenue and employment.

Indeed, some experts think the very idea of New York's economic boom is overstated because so many people here, especially in the boroughs outside Manhattan, have not benefited from it. Manning Marable, director of the Institute for Research in African American Studies at Columbia University, cited a report by the Fiscal Policy Institute indicating that "a majority of working-class New Yorkers saw an 8.5-9% decline in real income in the 90s . . . ; the great gains in income occurred at the upper one-fifth of New York's population."

Other economic experts praise the mayor for his stewardship, pointing to a greater sense of overall fiscal health and stability. Today, they suggest, any mayoral candidate seen as a liberal free-spender faces certain defeat.

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