No one could be more astonished by Republican Michael Bloomberg’s stunning come-from-behind victory in the New York mayor’s race than the New York City and New York State Republican Party organizations, which backed the recently converted Democrat chiefly because he offered to fund his own campaign. Too bad GOP officials made so little effort in the rest of the city elections, running no candidates for the other citywide offices and only a few ill-supported ones in the City Council races. Maybe they might have discovered that Bloomberg’s post–September 11 message of no new taxes, a free-market solution to the rebuilding of downtown Manhattan, and a promise to continue Rudy Giuliani’s initiatives on law and order—a Republican message, in other words—actually can attract widespread support in New York. They might have discovered, if they had bestirred themselves, that New York doesn’t have to be Moscow-on-the-Hudson but could become a normal two-party town like most of America.
That Bloomberg—competent, plausible, and rich—came forth so that voters who favor fiscal discipline and activist policing could elect him was a sheer fluke. If, in spite of his lifelong liberalism, he turns out to govern in accordance with the beliefs of those who voted for him, that too will be a fluke and in any event can’t be foreseen as yet. And if he does try to govern as a Republican, he will face a hostile left-wing City Council with almost no allies inside government as he attempts the difficult task of rebuilding New York.
After two Giuliani victories followed by Bloomberg’s election, no one can claim that key Republican ideas are nonstarters in New York. And so the Republican Party’s failure to develop and support a full slate of candidates to represent and battle for these positions is all the more egregious. The moribund condition of Gotham’s GOP is a huge disservice to voters holding these beliefs. And it is a disservice to all New Yorkers, Republicans and Democrats alike: for without a credible two-party system, providing genuine political competition and the clash of ideas it entails, special interests almost inevitably will prevail against the common good.
So can anything bring the party back to life?
When Giuliani first ran for mayor in 1989, Gotham’s GOP, a minority party ever since notables like Horace Greeley founded it in 1854, was already on life support—discredited and nearly extinguished by the famously disastrous reign of Republican-Liberal John Lindsay. So feeble had Lindsay left it that in 1977, Republican mayoral candidate Roy Goodman had collected a risible 4.5 percent of the vote, and by the early 1980s, Democrats held Gracie Mansion, every seat on the City Council, and every borough presidency.
It was Giuliani himself who galvanized the local GOP back to a semblance of life with his 1989 run for mayor. With crime soaring and the economy sinking, tough prosecutor Giuliani’s crime-busting message resonated. Although David Dinkins won, Giuliani’s unexpectedly strong showing helped spur a bevy of 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 until then Republicans had won only a single municipal office since 1983, these new challengers wrested four council seats away from the Democrats. When Giuliani upset Dinkins two years later and successfully 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.”
Sure enough, Giuliani’s agenda of activist policing, tax cuts, and welfare reform sparked a broad-based revival that gave a new generation of New Yorkers a stake in the city’s restored prosperity. New York again became a place where professionals and hardworking middle-class families wanted to be. Rather than facing an exodus of talent, as it did during the crime-ridden early 1990s, Gotham began to attract technology entrepreneurs, M.B.A.s flocking to Wall Street, and movie and recording stars, who reinvigorated its main business districts, bought up co-ops, sparked construction of new apartment buildings, and gentrified faded residential areas.
A new generation of successful small businesses sprang up, too, especially in the outer boroughs, where steep reductions in crime allowed redevelopment of neighborhoods that had seen scant commercial activity for years. Areas that were home to hardworking immigrants, municipal workers, and what remained of the rest of the middle class in the city all thrived. New York’s population grew for the first time in decades; its economy added hundreds of thousands of new jobs.
This was the revivified city that reelected Giuliani in 1997 with a huge (by New York standards) 13 percentage-point margin that demolished the notion that New York is an unfailingly left-wing town. The vote overturned traditional city patterns: Giuliani won 75 percent of the Jewish vote—a greater percentage than his Catholic vote—and he also garnered 43 percent of the Hispanic tally. He swept to victory even in liberal election districts. Queens, which had a scant handful of Republican elected officials, gave him 65 percent of its vote, and Brooklyn, with only a single Republican officeholder, handed him 53 percent of the votes cast. He cruised to victory by a nearly four-to-one margin in a predominantly Italian neighborhood like Howard Beach and by a more than three-to-one margin in a Jewish area like Brighton Beach. He won in polyglot neighborhoods like Flushing and the Lower East Side by three-to-one and three-to-two, respectively.
The Council Moves Left
While Michael Bloomberg was making history as the first Republican to succeed a GOP mayor in New York, left-wing Democrats extended their sway by sweeping most of the City Council, borough president, and other races where term limits forced dozens of officeholders to step down. These new officials, who campaigned for more subsidized housing, higher spending on New York’s dysfunctional education system, and fatter contracts for city workers, should give pause to those who think that Bloomberg’s election diminished the liberal hold on Gotham’s politics.
Nothing demonstrates the continuing leftward tilt in the Democratic Party more clearly than the makeup of the new City Council, which will negotiate budgets with the mayor and pass or nix his legislation. More than 200 Democrats flooded into City Council primaries, especially in the 37 districts where no incumbents were running. Some 60 percent of the winners come from backgrounds in government, local social services, or community activism. Some are already part of the city’s Democratic establishment—the sons and daughters of retiring City Council members, or aides of current council members running with the blessing of their organization. These include Brooklyn school board member Erik Martin Dilan, who won in his father’s Cypress Hills district by stressing his achievement in helping to stop the city from letting Edison Schools manage failing public schools; Councilwoman Gale Brewer, former chief of staff of defeated 1997 mayoral candidate Ruth Messinger; and former state senator Larry Seabrook, a staunch supporter of Al Sharpton’s 1997 mayoral bid.
“It’s not what people who voted for term limits expected,” says political consultant Jerry Skurnik. “Rather than some new kind of civic do-gooder, many of those elected had strong ties to the old system.”
Indeed, term limits simply accelerated a decade-long trend for candidates from government social services agencies and nonprofits to fill the void created by the slow demise of local political clubs and politically active private-sector unions. When Giuliani became mayor in 1994, about one-fifth of the council hailed from careers in government—or from organizations heavily supported by the public sector—and they were often Giuliani’s biggest opponents, voting as a bloc against his early austerity budgets, for instance. Over time, the local Republican Party’s inability to field credible candidates has helped increasingly leftist Democrats from these backgrounds win more races, and term limits hastened the process this year by throwing so many seats up for grabs.
In the absence of a viable Republican Party, most city races were decided not in the general election, but in the Democratic primaries, where left-leaning voters dominated. Exit polling commissioned by City Journal found that 41 percent of those who participated in the Democratic primary runoff in October worked for government or for the nonprofit sector, which is heavily supported by government funds. These voters, who favor candidates who support big government and heavy public spending, outnumbered private-sector participants (38 percent of the runoff voters), and shaped the Democratic Party’s slate.
With the departure of City Council Speaker Peter Vallone, a moderate Democrat who took a hard line against leftist dissenters, far-left City Council members are poised for a bigger role in the city’s affairs. The majority of those jockeying to replace Vallone are left-wingers, including Harlem council member Philip Reed, a former p.r. man for a gay-lesbian organization and a frequent opponent of Giuliani on issues like policing; Tracy Boyland, a member of a Brooklyn political family and former union representative in the United Federation of Teachers; Al Vann, a 25-year veteran of the State Assembly, whose long and varied political career includes having led Jesse Jackson’s 1984 presidential campaign in New York City; and Bill Perkins of Upper Manhattan, an ex-employee of several city agencies, whose major legislative initiative in 2001 was to co-sponsor a law barring “transgender” discrimination in the city.
All these council victories have long-term implications. Two of the four Democratic mayoral candidates last year, and three of the five borough presidents elected in November, were ex-councilmen. If the new council members have as much success rising beyond that chamber as their predecessors, they will affect the shape of New York’s Democratic Party for years to come.
Giuliani’s 1997 victory should have been the beginning of a new Republican coalition in New York. The platform was clear: the effective crime-fighting that has made New York the safest big city in America; tax reduction to spark continued economic growth; freeing the private sector to build the business districts and housing of the twenty-first century; welfare reform based on a culture of self-reliance and personal responsibility; education reform centered on charter schools and vouchers. There was every reason to think, back in 1997, that the city that had reelected Giuliani would listen seriously to a party based on those principles.
But Giuliani himself showed no interest in creating such a movement. 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. His giant political blunder of endorsing incumbent Democratic governor Mario Cuomo over George Pataki in 1994, in the mistaken belief that party meant nothing and a victorious and grateful Cuomo would lend Albany’s support to the mayor’s policy initiatives in the city, completely fractured Gotham’s already weak GOP. When Cuomo lost, an understandably outraged group of Pataki loyalists took the Queens County Republican organization away from Giuliani supporters in a meeting that ended in a fistfight. A leader of that revolt, Councilman Tom Ognibene, snatched the City Council Republican leadership from Giuliani ally Michael Abel. War also broke out in Brooklyn, where a new county leadership scored a primary victory over the incumbent Giuliani supporter, the only Republican representing the borough in Albany. The insurgent Republican then lost the seat in the general election.
In addition, the mayor 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 likely to switch to the GOP. Giuliani did nothing to cultivate for higher elected office either the Republican city councilmen, such as Andrew Eristoff, whom he’d drawn into his administration, or the prominent black and Hispanic officials who might become part of the party and broaden its appeal—people like former housing commissioner Richard Roberts, Health and Hospitals chairman 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 [last year],” says political consultant Joseph Mercurio. But except for CUNY Board Chairman Herman Badillo, none did.
As a strong mayor, Giuliani had what it took to energize the city’s GOP: a vision, money, and a grassroots following. No Republican in the state could tap campaign contributors like Giuliani, who raised nearly $10 million for his 1997 reelection. He could have wielded his fund-raising prowess as a weapon to replace the leaders of the city’s sleepy borough GOP organizations with wide-awake partisans of his own agenda. But he largely let the party organizations lie, engineering end-runs around them for his own reelection campaign but leaving those who shared his beliefs to fight their own battles against party bosses without help from him.
Without a challenge, the party organizations have drifted their own way, serving as patronage mills or appendages of the state party. Threadbare remnants of country-club Rockefeller Republicanism or spoils-system D’Amato Republicanism, they are oblivious to the Reagan revolution that woke up Republicanism in the rest of the nation two decades ago. The county leaders in Queens, the Bronx, and Manhattan are state senators, more attuned to the politics of Albany than to the city; similarly, the new leader of the Staten Island GOP is a Pataki loyalist.
The task of these local organizations is unglamorous, but it is the fundamental grassroots work that builds parties: voter-registration drives, candidate recruitment, petitioning drives, and fund-raising. Yet their unenthusiastic, lethargic leaders did nothing to exploit Giuliani’s momentum. Longtime Manhattan county chair Roy Goodman routinely came under fire from party members for paying more attention to his own fragile political future than to building the party, and since 1995, the Manhattan GOP has lost both of its City Council seats. A continuing bribery investigation of State Senator Guy Velella, the Bronx Republican County leader, has curtailed his influence and effectiveness. “The decline of the party seems to correspond to the increasing vulnerability of the county leaders,” says one former high-ranking Republican campaign strategist. “They’ve spent more of their time trying to save themselves.”
So Giuliani’s election victories turned out to be the high-water mark of the party’s very brief resurgence instead of a springboard to further gains: and now the party is shriveling up again. Republican voter registrations in the city have slumped by about 10,000, or 2 percent, to 523,761, in the past five years, with the worst losses in the Bronx, where enrollment shrunk by 6 percent, and in Queens, where registrations are down 4 percent. By contrast, Democratic registrations have surged citywide by 157,400, or 6 percent, to 2,748,538. Today, there are 5.25 Democrats in the city for every Republican, down from one Republican for every 3.5 Democrats in 1965, the year Lindsay ran for mayor. Gotham’s GOP even seems to be losing core supporters to energetic new players like the Independence Party, whose registrations in the city have more than tripled in five years to 51,900, largely thanks to candidate Thomas Golisano’s anti-Pataki gubernatorial run in 1998.
During this fall’s campaign, despite Bloomberg’s $69 million efforts on his own behalf, the city’s official Republican leadership radiated defeatism virtually from Riverdale to the Rockaways. GOP candidates and volunteers tell of being instructed not to campaign in heavily Democratic neighborhoods and not to set up voter-registration efforts there, for fear of inciting an anti-Republican backlash and increasing Democratic voter turnout. Party leaders even advised City Council candidate Michelle Bouchard, running in a Manhattan district that encompasses Chelsea, not to campaign in public housing projects because it would stir up minority turnout against her.
This frame of mind made Republicans virtually invisible throughout large swathes of the city. David Herz, a GOP City Council candidate on the Upper West Side of Manhattan who took to the streets to meet constituents, says that locals reacted with astonishment. “I ran across people who said they hadn’t seen a Republican in years.”
These Young Turks have utterly rejected their GOP elders’ stance of embarrassment and inferiority, as if Republicanism were radioactive or depraved. The New York Young Republican Club, teeming with would-be reformers, now sponsors its own street fair on Sixth Avenue, in defiance of the notion that Republicans should not be seen or heard too much in Manhattan. “It’s hard for me to imagine that any Democrat would be so provoked by seeing a Republican at an event that he would be motivated to run out and vote against us,” says Robert Hornak, the club’s chief. “You get the feeling that some of the current Republican leadership want to discourage these activities, so they can keep the party small and weak—and controlled by them,” he adds.
Nowhere are the GOP leaders’ shortcomings clearer than in their failure to recruit candidates. No Republican ran last year for comptroller or public advocate. The Republican line in City Council, State Assembly, and State Senate races often stays empty in Gotham. In 2001, for instance, the Brooklyn Republican organization, which frequently endorses Democrats, ran no candidate in six of the borough’s 16 City Council races.
Assemblyman John Ravitz, heir apparent to Goodman as county chair, defends the practice of leaving ballot lines empty: the party doesn’t want to put up “sacrificial lambs,” he says. But in many cases where the party won’t fight, it’s not a foregone conclusion that it couldn’t win. In many neighborhoods where Giuliani won decisively in 1997, for instance, the Republican county organizations didn’t bother to run candidates for State Assembly the following year. Last year, too, Bloomberg swept to easy victory in places—from Forest Hills and Flushing to Borough Park—that fielded no Republican City Council candidates.
The scarcity of GOP candidates leaves Democrats free to focus their entire firepower on those few Republicans who brave the electoral process. Matthew Hunter, a founder of the Forest Park Republican Club, ran for Assembly in Queens in 1998 but found his task made more difficult by the lack of Republicans running elsewhere, which allowed Democrats to pour more resources into defeating him. “I saw the district I ran in as one of the top three or four opportunities in Queens to elect a Republican, but it’s tough without much support,” says Hunter now.
When GOP organizations do recruit, they often do it so haphazardly that every race becomes an uphill fight. Manhattan City Council candidate Michelle Bouchard reports that nearly four years ago she casually mentioned at a Republican Club’s Christmas party that she might like to run for office someday. Nothing happened: no coaching, no grooming—until last May, when a GOP leader asked, out of the blue, if she would like to run. “I suppose it would have been better if I had a year to build an infrastructure to run,” she says of her unsuccessful election campaign.
When candidates emerge on their own, they can’t count on help from the local GOP organizations. After Jay Golub decided to run for a Manhattan City Council seat last year, Wall Street trader Jim Vigotty signed on to manage the energetic newcomer’s campaign. In June, Vigotty began to collect the signatures needed to get Golub on the ballot, but, when the Republican organization told him that petitioning was the responsibility of district leaders, he backed off. A week before the deadline, he discovered that the party functionaries had collected just 100 of the nearly 500 signatures his candidate needed. He scrambled—successfully—to print petitions and get signatures. “I couldn’t even get some of the district leaders to return my phone calls,” says Vigotty bitterly.
Committed Young Turks like Vigotty conclude that their biggest obstacle to running effective campaigns is often the party itself. When Susan Cleary ran for Congress in 2000 in a district that primarily encompasses Brooklyn, the county organization’s district leaders collected few signatures for her; the state party did nothing. Though discouraged by this lack of party support, she found that voters—especially poor parents—listened intently to her ideas about how school choice might benefit pupils, a sharp contrast to the way her own party organization treated her.
And of course that is the point: the city is teeming with groups willing to listen to—and perhaps embrace—Republican themes. But without an engaged local leadership, the party has stood by as Democrats have courted new New Yorkers who might well find the tenets of post-Reagan Republicanism persuasive. In those stretches of the city where the two-party system has disappeared, voters don’t get to hear the Republican message, and Democratic candidates never get called to account for policies that may be out of step with their constituents. “It’s very easy to find neighborhoods where Democratic officeholders consistently vote against the interests of their constituents,” says Gary Popkin, a former Brooklyn Republican congressional candidate. “But since we often don’t run Republican candidates in these neighborhoods, we don’t get our ideas out there.”
For example, the legislative agenda of the New York New Media Association, a group of executives of the Internet and communications companies that have lured tens of thousands of new professionals to the city in the last decade, reads like a Republican manifesto, calling for tax cuts and less regulation. Nevertheless, Democratic mayoral hopefuls Mark Green and Alan Hevesi far more actively romanced these companies than any Republican did, and over the summer Green picked up endorsements from 50 top new-economy executives. “Why isn’t the Republican Party reaching out to these people?” asks Kristi Kaepplein, an Internet executive active in local Young Republican organizations. “This industry is a hotbed of entrepreneurs who despise government regulations and benefit from lower taxes. They are natural Republicans.”
During the boom Giuliani years, New York also gained over 100,000 lawyers, consultants, accountants, and the like, and these young urban professionals have bought co-ops and brownstones in such traditionally liberal neighborhoods as the Upper West Side and Park Slope. Voters like this are clearly searching for an alternative to candidates put forward by the city’s Democrats. In the mayor’s race, Bloomberg scored an easy victory among voters who work in the private sector—56 percent of them voted for him, while only 40 percent pulled the lever for Mark Green, according to exit polling commissioned by City Journal. But Republican operatives haven’t recognized or exploited the demographic changes that have expanded natural Republican constituencies in the city.
The local GOP has displayed, if possible, even less energy and creativity in pursuing minority voters, soon to be the majority of the city’s electorate and, evidence increasingly suggests, up for grabs in ways Republicans don’t fathom. Among Asian Americans who have recently enrolled as Gotham voters, for instance, 17 percent are registered as Republicans, 50 percent as Democrats, and the remainder as independents, says political consultant Jerry Skurnik. He sees a similar pattern among non–Puerto Rican Hispanics, and Latino observers agree. Says Angelo Falcon of the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund: “There’s a general feeling of discontent among Latinos with white liberals.”
Herman Badillo argues that the GOP’s future in the city lies in appealing to minorities. The increasing number of middle-class Hispanic households, he points out, want the safe streets Giuliani provided, reasonable taxes, and good schools—something the Democrats, in thrall to the teachers’ union, can’t support, by contrast with the GOP reformers’ embrace of every variety of school choice. These bread-and-butter Republican messages resonate with other minority and immigrant groups. “Many immigrants have a conservative family background,” says Rene Lobo, an Indian-American woman who garnered 30 percent of the vote running as a Republican in a heavily Democratic Queens City Council district. “We should be appealing to them.”
Giuliani captured a hefty 43 percent of the Latino vote in 1997, and four years later Bloomberg did even better, winning nearly half the Hispanic vote. Even so, heavily Hispanic districts continue to send liberal Democratic members to the City Council, State Assembly, and State Senate.
Party leaders just don’t see the opportunity. Former deputy mayor Rudy Washington recounts that he pressed GOP brass to find a black Republican to run in 2000 for an open State Senate seat in southeastern Queens—a neighborhood of middle-class, home-owning African-American families, who, Washington thought, would applaud a Giuliani-like agenda. But his effort sparked no interest, and the GOP county organization endorsed the Democrat running in the district. “We’re not thinking outside the box,” says Washington restrainedly. Wanda Goodloe, former Republican chair of the Harlem Community Development Corporation, sounds the same theme. “Republican policies have made a real difference in Harlem’s economy,” she says. “This is a good time to reach out to young people in that community, emphasizing the accomplishments.” But nothing doing.
Bloomberg’s election unexpectedly hands the GOP another golden chance. The new mayor has it in his power to reshape the county organizations by advancing promising young Republicans who speak to the city of opportunity that emerged in the 1990s. Some of these potential leaders are already active in reform groups like the New York Young Republican Club, the Forest Park Republican Club of Queens, and in an insurgent movement in Brooklyn that just unseated the old leadership. Promising players from minority communities are also waiting in the wings.
But who knows if Bloomberg—a recent GOP recruit—will feel any need to build the party to ensure his own political success? The early signs are not auspicious: Bloomberg has already endorsed the notion of nonpartisan elections, in which candidates run without a party affiliation. “The idea of party is over in New York,” says Bloomberg political consultant David Garth. “You get better government with nonpartisan elections.”
If Bloomberg demurs, the state GOP still could spark a New York City Republican revival, especially by putting more resources into this November’s State Assembly and Senate races in the city, where a popular Governor Pataki will head the ticket. “Bloomberg’s success after eight years of Giuliani should encourage the party to put up more Republican candidates in the next election,” says William Fling, one of the founders of the Gramercy Park Republican Club. “But so far I don’t see any organized effort to recruit candidates.”
A revived city party would give both the state and the national GOP a significant boost. No Republican presidential candidate will ever again win the Empire State—as Ronald Reagan did in 1984, when he garnered 884,000 votes in the city—without a stronger party in Gotham. And the state GOP faces more trouncings, like those it took in the last two U.S. Senate races, unless it can generate more New York City votes.
A revival will need strong-willed funders, too. One of the great ironies of New York City Republican politics is that the city’s candidates and organizations—save for the Manhattan GOP or Rudy Giuliani—are often starved for money, even though many of the party’s biggest national and statewide contributors live in New York. In the 2000 presidential election, New Yorkers gave more money to the Bush campaign than the residents of any city outside of Texas. But local candidates complain that they cannot even get the Republican National Committee to return their phone calls, and little of the money that contributors pour into state party coffers makes its way back to the city.
“The problem is that there aren’t credible Republican candidates to give to,” says one local member of the Club for Growth, the Washington, D.C.–based organization that contributes to candidates who support small government and low taxes. Grassroots GOP insurgents in the city argue that it is time for the big givers who live or work here to help change this. These contributors, they say, have the power to demand more state and national resources in New York for party building. Only then will more credible candidates emerge whom contributors can support. And, whether those candidates win at first or not, they will change Gotham’s political culture for the better by providing the genuine debate that is American democracy’s lifeblood.