Trying to Imagine City Hall After Bloomberg

By the time August arrived, many New Yorkers were despairing of their choices for the next mayor. Despite the reservations many had about the incumbent at City Hall, a consensus had formed that, all in all, he’d done a good job. But the bunch that would follow him? Would you trust any of them to run the city?

The Day

Clyde Haberman offers his take on the news.

“None of the guys out there are qualified to do it,” a one-time restaurateur in SoHo said. “Everybody out there is scary.” In the West Village, a woman said she was “a little apprehensive.” She wished she could vote for the incumbent again but, alas, a term-limits law prevented him from seeking re-election.

That was in 2001. The mayor was Rudolph W. Giuliani.

A lot of New Yorkers had wearied of him and his hockey-enforcer style of governance. But plenty of others, pleased with lower crime rates and cleaner streets, fretted about what would happen after he took his final bows. For them, the indispensable-man theory had kicked in, the notion that all would be lost without the familiar ruler on the ramparts. And this was before 9/11 transformed Mr. Giuliani into a heroic figure, at least for a while. He, too, decided he was indispensable, and sought to cling to office beyond the expiration date.

Among the many suspect mayoral candidates that year was a businessman named Michael R. Bloomberg, who was of course very rich but seemed to have no other qualifications.

Somehow, we’ve survived without Mr. Giuliani at the helm, as a few among us knew we would. Yet the indispensable-man theory endures. It’s as if these last 11 Giuliani-free years taught some New Yorkers nothing. They include editorialists and columnists. One hears the same tired question from them as they survey the present field of would-be mayors, only now they ask it in regard to Mr. Bloomberg:

How will we get along without him?

The next mayoral election is 15 months away. But it’s not so distant that people are unable to begin paying attention to it.

Talk of a new savior is especially rife in Republican circles, with speculative articles being written about the possibilities for the party’s finding someone strong enough to take on the eventual Democratic primary winner. Democrats have become remarkably adept at bombing in New York mayoral elections. They’ve lost the last five, a streak that once upon a time was as unimaginable as the American basketball team’s getting blown out of the Olympics in the early rounds.

But who might be this latest Republican savior to follow Messrs. Giuliani and Bloomberg?

Raymond W. Kelly, the police commissioner, whose views on everything other than crime are more of a mystery than Mitt Romney’s taxes? John Catsimatidis, whose billions might impress New Yorkers a bit more if they thought highly of his Red Apple and Gristedes supermarkets? Tom Allon, a publisher of community newspapers who is not exactly a household name?

Such is the speculative state of affairs that in recent days State Senator Malcolm A. Smith of Queens has surfaced in the Republican chatter, an interesting turn considering that his brief tenure as Senate majority leader did not invite comparisons to the Age of Pericles. Oh, and did we mention that he’s a Democrat?

There is no question that New Yorkers want strong mayors, to the point that they can be spellbound by self-styled saviors.

Casting themselves as such worked for Mr. Bloomberg and his henchperson in the City Council, the speaker Christine C. Quinn, when they negated the existing term-limits law to make it possible for them to stay in office an extra four years. That was in 2008, after the economic crisis had hit full force. Their continued leadership was essential, they said, and voters bought that line.

Indeed, without them in charge, who knows what terrible things might have happened to the city’s unemployment rate (an unpalatable 10 percent in June) or to its homeless rolls (18,246 children and 25,279 adults in shelters at the end of last week, among the highest totals in many decades)?

Lost in the political dialogue are those cautionary words offered long ago by Charles de Gaulle, who was president of France before he became a Paris airport. The graveyards, de Gaulle said, are full of indispensable men.

New York leaders are not the only ones who have trouble remembering that. Many New York voters do, too.


E-mail Clyde Haberman: [email protected]

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