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The American Prospect - Online
V O L U M E  1 1  I S S U E  9  M a r c h   1 3  2 0 0 0

Only In New York

Russ Baker
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Clash of the Titans won't be playing in New York voting booths for another eight months, and already many of us are tired of hearing about it. Yet the battle for U.S. Senate between Hillary Rodham Clinton and Rudolph Giuliani offers so many firsts--and some real if subtle ideological disagreement--that it is required viewing for anyone who cares about government.

It is the first time a first lady--and, more importantly, a sitting first lady--has sought political office. There may never have been a political matchup in which the contestants were as well known as this duo. Solid, 100 percent name recognition. The candidates will likely spend record sums: Each raised $8 million last year, a New York Senate first for a pre-election year; Hillary's goal is $25 million. It's the first time in 42 years a New York Senate seat has been vacant. If Hillary wins, she'll be the first female senator from New York. And should Rudy best her, he will be positioned to be the first New York mayor who can legitimately dream of moving to the White House.

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Though these two are titans, they're vulnerable titans. Scarcely have two opposing candidates ever started with such high negative ratings. A political guru who spoke to the first lady says he offered her this talmudic assessment of her prospects: She is the only Democrat Rudy could beat for the Senate, but, paradoxically, he is the only Republican she could beat. At this writing they are even in the polls, but it's not clear that numbers mean much at this stage of the pre-campaign. What does matter is the national symbolism of the race. Whoever wins this matchup will be cited as a harbinger of the next ascendant political philosophy. Will it be Clintonista Democratic centrism or the New Urban Republicanism of Giuliani, as also exemplified by Los Angeles's Republican Mayor Richard Riordan (and approximated by some fairly conservative Democrats like former Philadelphia Mayor Edward Rendell)? The candidates may mouth the same popular stances, but there's miles of difference in terms of approach and tone.

The Candidates

At first glance, Rudy and Hillary seem less distinct, even, than Gore and Bush. Rudy has staked out a position a little to the left of former New York Senator Alfonse D'Amato. "Hillary's running against probably the most liberal Republican in the state," says one observer. "He's probably to the left of her on some issues." Besides going south of D'Amato on gays and abortion, Rudy sounds an awful lot like Hillary on the death penalty, gun control, "welfare reform," hiring more cops, and tough prison sentences--the defining issues of the past couple of decades. Both are jockeying for The New York Times op-ed's seal of approval on the campaign finance reform issue, all the while hauling in tuna nets full of cash.

Still, there are huge differences. Rudy basically detests the idea of government as safety net. For him, it's all about providing physical safety from criminals, public order, and incentives for business development. He rightly points out that safe, clean, and orderly benefit all, but he seems oblivious to the by-products of whipping things into shape: trodden civil rights, suppressed debate, harassed and brutalized people of color. He's a leader in doling out corporate welfare (huge abatements to big companies to keep them from moving elsewhere, even in a stellar economy) and a fierce critic of poor people he sees as layabouts. As one former city commissioner observes, it's true the parks are cleaner, but give anybody 6,000 slave laborers, and they'd get the same result--a reference to Giuliani's program in which barely compensated former welfare recipients have replaced fully salaried city employees. Many of the safest and cleanest areas in Manhattan are so-called "business improvement districts," where companies pool resources to hire their own security and cleaning forces, or wealthy residential strips whose residents pay for the upkeep. In poorer neighborhoods, the streets are still pretty dirty, the garbage cans overflowing.

Although Hillary has no personal track record, she will certainly take a more liberal and compassionate approach toward struggling single mothers, victims of police abuse, and families without health insurance, mostly because--the administration's failures on so many fronts notwithstanding--the Clintons do not reflexively share Rudy's tough-love approach. Consultant Hank Sheinkopf's crystal-gazings turn up prospective ratings from the liberal Americans for Democratic Action of 60 percent and 30 percent for Hillary and Rudy, respectively.

The Issues

Hillary's ace is that she is a superstar, quasi-royalty for a star-struck population that is ready for something more glamorous than the likes of the shambling, muttering politicians of the Al D'Amato ilk. (The biggest previous celebrity in these parts was Bobby Kennedy, who ran against the popular, liberal Republican Kenneth Keating, and won because he was Bobby Kennedy.) And Democrats have a nearly two-million edge in voter registration, a statistic tempered by the fact that many of the people on the outdated rolls haven't lived in the state for ages.

But Hillary also looks like a luscious pincushion. She certainly survived David Letterman's puffball treatment and "pop quiz" (state tree: sugar maple), but look back at a few transcripts, and you'll see Larry King's guests last summer spending much of their time criticizing her physique. The Clinton-hating New York Post set to work long ago demolishing Hillary, particularly in its vulgar oversized cartoons. The complaints are many, but the biggest is simple: Everyone loved her best as defender of her husband, when she seemed so selfless, but running as a shameless carpetbagger has completely washed out any good feelings. "There's a surprising level of skepticism and cynicism about her that didn't manifest itself until she came to seek office," says Ethan Geto, a public relations executive with strong political ties. "Now, every doubt has poured out."

So far, Hillary is underperforming with core Democratic constituencies and, most surprisingly, running only even with Rudy among women. Her vaunted half-year "listening tour" wasn't a bad idea per se, but she said so little, people worried she was deaf and mute. She also came across as distant and programmed. Her favorable ratings are down to 48 percent, a 20-point drop from a year earlier. As first lady, Hillary has dazzled audiences with an ability to make off-the-cuff speeches that are very well-informed, highly focused, and surprisingly warm. But as neophyte candidate, she has lost her footing with New York audiences, making one misstep after another. As Elizabeth Kolbert recently observed in The New Yorker, a lot of Hillary's blunders have been those of an outsider who doesn't really know the territory.

Rudy, however, is also prime for ridicule. He's such a mean-spirited, intolerant man--ready to pick a fight with anyone, especially the weak and the powerless, and a bulldog who won't let go--that even his wife stays clear of him. This may be Hillary's best card, one she has begun to play only in recent days, saying that Rudy has psychological problems because he can't control his anger. Rudy has opened himself up even further by labeling all criticism of him evidence of a giant Democratic plot--including the Brooklyn DA's investigation into his office's alleged politically driven meddling and its connection to a fatal building accident, and a report from Housing Secretary Andrew Cuomo blasting the Giuliani administration's homeless policy.

Rudy will of course stress his accomplishments and claim he has wiped out crime and welfare-as-we-know-it, and created tons of jobs. To be credible as a "compassionate conservative," he'd need to tone down his rhetoric and soften his harsh image. He's clearly working on it, but for every advance on that front, there's another aggressive move. Yet for all the alienating he does, many people are secretly thrilled with his zeal. Just recently, he announced a crackdown on aggressive--not drunk, but aggressive--drivers, thereby continuing to hone his image as a person unafraid to tackle the nuts-and-bolts problems of making life in New York bearable.

Hillary's biggest vulnerability is the scarlet C of Carpetbagger. She can ameliorate it if she emphasizes--as she did on The Late Show with David Letterman--that New York is a revolving door and home to constant immigration. Yet it's still painful to hear her talk about "we" so soon. She needs to emphasize the issues that resonate as traditional Democratic issues: education, Social Security, health care, the elderly, women's issues, and concern for minority groups. Most observers agree she's off to a lousy start. "She's running against somebody, personality aside, who is seen as about as substantive a public official as you can get," says former Deputy Mayor Fran Reiter, a savvy political operator who wants to be mayor herself. "He has real accomplishments, and the benefits of incumbency, which he will take full advantage of. She cannot debate him and mouth '60s feel-good stuff. She's never been in elective office, nor does she have the record like he had in appointive office. All she has is what she tells us she will do. And she's not doing that." Even worse for Hillary, Rudy has gained broad respect as somebody who does what he says he's going to do, be it good or bad. Polling shows that even when people disagree with Rudy, his numbers stay high.

Hillary can certainly challenge Rudy's record by noting that almost any mayor in America can point to lower crime rates and improved economies, but that's still a risky strategy--New York clean and safe is a lot bigger deal than, say, Cleveland. Still, Rudy can't very well claim credit for good things without accepting responsibility for bad ones. A recent trend showing homicides on the rise could aid Hillary. Ultimately, voters may realize that the U.S. Senate is not about the local crime rate. "If I were Hillary, I would point to areas of failure: education, housing for middle-income people, the deterioration of the public hospital system. She can strengthen turnout in the minority community with those issues," says consultant Norman Adler. "Diminish the mayor's accomplishments, and strengthen the public perception that he ain't a great human being. Prove she's really committed to New York State and going to deliver things a U.S. senator is capable of delivering."

She could take advantage of the mayor's behavior on welfare and the homeless (ordering the homeless into a welfare-to-work program, threatening to put their kids into foster care, and mandating arrest for anyone who will not stop sleeping on the sidewalk) by offering herself as a champion of the dispossessed. She could note that New York State has been one of the slowest states to adopt assisted living for the elderly and that the program in place favors the affluent. The schools show little sign of improving under Rudy's watch. He cut the city's education budget, and--notwithstanding his howl-provoking comment that the schools administration headquarters needs to be blown up and his tendency to chase away dedicated schools chancellors--he has instituted no serious reforms himself. Hillary could assert that the fast-growing school population in the city is shortchanged for its share of state education dollars, and she could argue that the city sends more in educational dollars to Washington than it gets back.

The Voters

New York is still an old-fashioned place in many ways, and Hillary will confront some obstinately arcane rules and rituals, along with the identity politics that makes New York campaigns political-junkie heaven. The road to ballot qualification is an infamous, grueling obstacle course. Even odder, the presidential primary is March 7, but primaries for all other offices are held in September--a legacy of Nelson Rockefeller, who hated primaries altogether.

With the early poll numbers (up 10 points, down 10 points) suggesting that the race will be a squeaker, a couple of small patronage-minded parties, the Liberals and the Conservatives, will be important factors. Hillary ought to have the (misnamed) Liberal Party, but Raymond Harding, its éminence grise, is close to Rudy, who gave two of his sons jobs. However, if Rudy gets the Liberal line, he isn't likely to get the Conservative line, too. The conventional wisdom is that no Republican can win without the Conservative Party's ballot line, and party leader Mike Long has become increasingly critical of the mayor, Rudy's pro-choice stance being just one bone of contention. Some Conservatives want to back Rudy, though, and an intra-party fight is likely; besides Long's preferences, factions close to Governor George Pataki are said to actually prefer Hillary to Rudy, who may get payback for supporting Democrat Mario Cuomo against Pataki during the governor's first race in 1994. The even smaller Right to Life Party will never endorse Rudy, but it could prove a wild card in a close election if it puts up a candidate with an ethnic name--especially a Hispanic.

In New York, strategists tend to develop issues and strategies along geographic and ethnic lines, which mostly makes surprising sense, perhaps more than in other states. Thirty-eight percent of eligible voters are upstate, 26 percent in the suburbs north and east of the city, and 36 percent in the city itself. Half the state's Republican voters live upstate; half the Democrats live in the city.

Upstate. This should be fertile ground for Rudy--it's conservative and largely Republican, with the exception of a few cities, such as Buffalo and Albany. Although Rudy's urban ethnicity and Noo Yawk manner may turn off certain upstate voters, his ethnicity is actually his strong suit: Half the state's voters are Catholic, and a quarter are Italian, and he's shored that vote up nicely with his war on the Brooklyn Museum of Art over art he called "anti-Catholic." He also will do well with the huge Irish vote, the second-largest bloc; Hillary's smaller slice of that pie will depend in part on symbolic decisions such as whether to boycott the annual St. Patrick's Day parade over the exclusion of gay groups. Rudy's chief quandary is that he's got to sound conservative to generate a turnout upstate, but anything he says in that vein can be used against him in the city.

Congressman Maurice Hinchey, a dedicated and thoughtful liberal who has managed to win numerous elections in a conservative upstate district (he was the first Democrat elected since 1912, and just the second since the Civil War), not only believes that Hillary can do well upstate--he holds the somewhat heretical view that she can win the area.

Hinchey argues that Hillary needs to assert that although the country has done well as a whole, upstate New York has not shared in the wealth, largely because of GOP policies. Indeed, the upstate economy is a laggard, and many upstaters find themselves working longer hours for less pay. If Hillary can argue forcefully for creating good jobs at good pay, providing better health care, protecting and enhancing pension benefits, and opposing cuts in corporate tax rates, she's got a shot. Hinchey says he'd be pushing single-payer health insurance, although he doubts that Hillary will do so.

Hillary could pick up votes, says consultant Adler, by appealing to the aging exurban and rural populations, and talking about how to preserve those communities as good places to live in the face of declining economic opportunity. She could also appeal to farmers upstate based on her links to Arkansas, a rural state, contrasting with the ultimate city boy, "stickball Rudy." So far, she's blowing this possibility by running a celebrity campaign. So it becomes City Ethnic versus Hollywood Hillary.

The Suburbs. In general, suburbanites love Rudy. They feel that New York City is safer and more comfortable to work in and visit. He has played to commuters recently by settling with the transport unions and averting a strike [see "Benito Guiliani, page 22]. But there are wrinkles. His dust-up with the Brooklyn museum alienated some moderate suburbanites who are suspicious of his commitment to basic freedoms and rights. An only-in-New-York wild card is the distaste some suburbanites feel for the city's Public Advocate Mark Green, a strongly liberal former Nader's Raider and former Senate candidate who would become interim mayor should Rudy move up. To win, Rudy will have to marshal the Republican apparatus in Nassau County (D'Amato's home turf on Long Island) to ensure a strong turnout there. He will need to win in Westchester County just north of New York City, which means performing well among commuters and the proverbial soccer moms. Hillary needs to do well among suburban women, but so far her numbers among that group are surprisingly bad. Ultimately, to cut into Rudy's suburban base, Hillary will have to argue traditional Democratic issues like Social Security, Medicare/Medicaid, health care, and education, education, education. Rudy will have a hard time completely repudiating the national Republican position on these issues while continuing to raise cash out of state.

The City. To win, Hillary must trounce Rudy on his home turf. Last year, Democrat Eliot Spitzer was elected state attorney general, carrying just five counties out of 62 (four of these were New York City boroughs; the other was Democrat-led Westchester, bordering the city). But the math doesn't look too good for Hillary going out of the gate: Senator Charles Schumer beat D'Amato in 1998 by half a million votes, yet he started with support levels in New York City exceeding 70 percent; Hillary starts out with about 62.

Rudy probably needs at least 30 percent of the city vote. Although he got 57 percent in the last mayoral election against a very weak opponent, New York is such an overwhelmingly Democratic town that anything well beyond a third of the vote in the Senate race will be a struggle. But Rudy's supporters are the most likely to turn out. Hillary will need to combat this loyalty factor with a massive voter registration drive for blacks and Hispanics. She'll also need a Democratic presidential nominee with strong coattails. Hillary's advisers are planning an extensive phone bank effort, relying on health and hospital workers, teachers, and other unions, which have been enormously effective in the past.

African Americans, 9 percent of the likely voters (and up to a quarter of the city vote) are by far Hillary's most reliable base; although Rudy did better than most Republicans in some middle-class black neighborhoods during his last mayoral race, the vast majority have no faith that the mayor cares about or respects them. New York blacks historically have turned out in large numbers during presidential years. But Bill Clinton was both a great schmoozer and a southerner who knew how to connect. Whether Hillary can generate any excitement among blacks remains to be seen.

The Latino vote, 7 percent of the statewide electorate and perhaps 13-15 percent of New York City's, is somewhat hard to predict. Hillary should do well here: Bill Clinton got a phenomenal 90 percent of the New York City Latino vote, far higher than the 72 percent he received from Latinos nationwide. But Hillary seriously misstepped by waffling over the pardoning of 16 Puerto Rican nationalists convicted for a wave of 1970s and 1980s bombings that left six people dead. The Puerto Rican community is itself split over the issue, but the perception emerged that Hillary's awkward handling of the matter showed that she had waded in carelessly and hadn't bothered to reach out to the right advisers in the Latino community. Hillary has to develop a strong field operation and avoid the fate of Ruth Messinger, Rudy's last Democratic opponent, whose staff made Latinos feel unappreciated, and who paid the price. And although all 23 Latino elected officials in New York City are Democrats, there's a general feeling of alienation from the party--especially the national party. Latinos are still angry about the White House's embrace of "welfare reform," even though they'll get no more satisfaction from Rudy. There's a feeling of resentment that blacks are favored by Democrats, and Rudy will be certain to exploit this.

Rudy has done fairly well among Latinos, mustering about a third of that vote in his last election. And he has onboard one high-profile Latino, Herman Badillo, and a low-profile one, Deputy Mayor Ninfa Segarra, to show that he recognizes the community's importance. But he's treated many Latino commissioners and other city officials poorly, to say nothing of broadly ignoring the community itself, and there is a huge residue of anger. Even so, a surprising number of Latino activists seem to want Rudy to win, says Angelo Falcone, senior policy executive at the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund, if only to get him out of city hall a year earlier. The thinking is he'd be comparatively muted on the national stage. Sheinkopf, who has run skillful radio campaigns aimed at the Latino community, predicts Hillary (who now draws 65 percent of the Latino vote in polls) will get 80-85 percent of the Latino vote in the city, but Falcone guesses Rudy could get as high as 45 percent of that vote under certain scenarios.

The election, most political pros agree, will likely be won in the Jewish community [see "From New York to Jerusalem, page 24], which makes up 10 percent of the electorate but a likely 15 percent of the turnout. (Hillary apparently agrees; some time back, her campaign floated a nutty story about her closeness with a Jewish step-grandfather.) Charles Schumer won his Senate seat in large part by convincing former D'Amato supporters among moderate, suburban, middle-class Jews to return to the Democratic fold. Rudy won his first mayoral victory on the strength of a strong vote from traditionally Democratic Jews. Hillary's particular challenge will be to bring back the lower-middle-class Jewish voters, many of them living in Queens and Brooklyn, who loved Ed Koch and other centrists but abandoned Democrats David Dinkins and Messinger for Giuliani.

Hillary has reached out to the Orthodox Jewish community, which was once steadily Democratic but defected almost en masse to Mayor Giuliani in large part over his predecessor's handling of anti-Jewish riots in Crown Heights in 1991. But Hillary may be wasting her time. "The Orthodox community is a lot smaller than many people realize," says Marvin Schick, a longtime political columnist for the New York-based Jewish Week. Schick says that observant Jews turn out at lower rates than other voters. Hillary will get limited support from the modern Orthodox Jews, but the real battle for Jewish voters is amongst the secular, many of whom remain political moderates and liberals. So far, poll numbers show Hillary running even with Rudy among Jews, a very bad omen for her.

It's rare, seven months before a Senate election, that most of the electorate has already made up its mind. Ultimately, this election will be decided by a dwindling group of swing voters. With so few certainties, no defining issues, and high negatives on both sides, anything big and unexpected could derail either candidate.

"Eight years ago today, George H.W. Bush 'couldn't lose'; four years ago, Clinton 'couldn't get re-elected.' Two years [ago], Schumer was in third place [in the Democratic primary]," notes David Luchins, associate professor of political science at Touro College. "It's a long time, and in a long time, anything can happen in New York." One more temper tantrum from the mayor could alienate swing voters. A damaging report on Hillary from new special prosecutor Robert Ray could wound her. Women may yet rally to Hillary, especially if jokes about her behind and other nonsenatorial subjects continue. Rudy might still be squeezed by angry right-to-lifers.

Whatever happens, it will be good fun. No matter how simultaneously entertaining and somehow inappropriate for the Senate both Rudy and Hillary may seem, in the Empire State, everything is relative. Al Lewis ("Grandpa" on The Munsters), a perennial candidate, covets the Green Party nomination, and parking lot magnate Abe Hirschfeld (recently on trial for trying to arrange the murder of a business partner) wants the nod from the Reform Party's New York branch, the Independence Party. As a gossip columnist once said, only in New York, kids, only in New York. ¤

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Russ Baker

Copyright © 2000 by The American Prospect, Inc. Preferred Citation: Russ Baker, "Only In New York," The American Prospect vol. 11 no. 9, March 13, 2000.This article may not be resold, reprinted, or redistributed for compensation of any kind without prior written permission from the author. Direct questions about permissions to

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