Perhaps the most important question in the looming mayoral race is this: Will the next occupant of City Hall remember the hard lessons that New York has learned over the last 40 years, or will the city revert to a functionally bankrupt metropolis with chaotic schools and dirty, dangerous streets? With that question in mind, here are a few thoughts about mayors old and new, based on my 14 years of writing speeches for mayors Ed Koch and Rudy Giuliani.
Mayors can get things done . . . up to a point. Koch accomplished a lot during his 12 years in office-he restored New York to fiscal stability, for example, and he reformed the judicial selection process-but he failed to make much headway against crime. It wasn't for lack of effort. Koch gave his police commissioners all the support he could; he fought hard for commonsense changes in the criminal-justice system; and he defended the integrity of the New York Police Department against attacks from community activists. During Koch's three terms, crime rates zigged up and zagged down, but in 1989, despite all that he had done to make the city safer, crack ruled the night, and murders jumped to a record 1,905.
When David Dinkins took office in 1990, hopes were high that the new mayor's low-key approach and strong support in minority neighborhoods would cool the fevered streets. Instead, the city saw 715,000 felonies committed in 1990, while murders spiked to an all-time high of 2,262. The NYPD didn't get the tools that it needed until the mid-1990s, when Giuliani adopted the Compstat system of analyzing crime data, along with proactive tactics and accountability throughout the department. Giuliani and the police reduced the number of homicides to 629 in 1998, and all categories of crime fell sharply.
Because Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Police Commissioner Ray Kelly retained and strengthened Giuliani's reforms, crime rates continued to fall. In 2012, murders were down to 414, a decline of 81.6 percent from 1990. Will this hard-won progress continue, or will the new mayor ignore what took the city so long to learn and succumb to political pressure from people more interested in ideology than in saving lives?
Mayors will pledge to fix failing schools . . . but don't hold your breath. Every mayor since John Lindsay has tried to manipulate New York's schools with cash, community control, management reforms, new programs, and political gimmicks. But experience shows that nothing-not money, decentralization, or mayoral oversight-can fully compensate for the downward pressure of parents who don't care enough to show up at PTA meetings. Until the mid-1950s, New York City's public schools were efficient transformers of immigrant kids into productive citizens. These schools were built by mayors, dominated by a culture that respected scholarship, and illuminated by educators who had themselves been transformed. But they worked because New Yorkers in all communities were determined to give their children the passkey of education. During the 2013 campaign, watch for candidates who signal an understanding that money alone cannot fix what's wrong and that failing schools will start to improve when communities begin to push from the inside out.
Mayors have egos the size of Central Park. That's okay-but only if they really want to serve the city. The slings and arrows of the six o'clock news require bulletproof psyches. But please, candidates: if you're interested only in power and perks, consider another line of work. Unless you love this city, unless you can say no to people who would gladly impoverish New York in the name of a good cause, unless you have the courage of Giuliani-who not only tackled street crime but also went toe-to-toe with the organized criminal gangs that were strangling the city-you will do more harm than good. And if you don't mean the fine words you speak at your inauguration, 300,000 workers in 70 city agencies will sense where your real interests lie-and be tempted to follow your example.
But if you believe, as Koch did, that New York isn't a problem but a miracle, then work as hard as you can to protect the fiscal health of the city, the safety of its citizens, and the future of its children. We can take care of the rest ourselves.