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Not in Service

Reasonable people may concur with Mayor Giuliani's vow to dismantle the Board of Education, but the timing smacks of politicking elsewhere, not leadership here.

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Rudy Giuliani is not the sort who usually feels compelled to defend his motives, so when he does, it's worth noting. Last week, as the pitched battle with his last remaining black ally reached its apex, Schools Chancellor Rudy Crew publicly wondered whether Giuliani's latest education proposals -- or pipe bombs, depending on your perspective -- were motivated by the mayor's calculations about his own future. Giuliani riposted that he'd prefer that Crew "not attribute improper motivation to me." Later, to City Hall reporters, Giuliani reiterated: "Let's try to get the partisan politics and the talk about the Senate and all this stuff out of here. This is a debate that I've been engaged in for ten years. It's about the good of the children, and it's only about the good of the children."

He's right about that ten years bit. He first ran for mayor exactly a decade ago, and after he lost that election, he understood, as he confessed to me once over lunch and I'm sure to thousands of others, that he'd lost in part because (he actually said this; Rudy!) he deserved to. He realized after the fact that, going into that election, he didn't know much about municipal government and, out on the hustings, it showed. He spent the next four years cramming for his finals, and by 1993, that showed, too.

So give him that. And it's not that his proposals are necessarily wrong. The legislation he and Council Speaker Peter Vallone have proposed, to abolish the Board of Education and create a schools CEO who would be appointed by and answerable to the mayor (not Giuliani, since he'd be long gone by the time such legislation ever kicked in), is at the very least one of those ideas of which we can say, "It couldn't hurt to try." Vouchers are more complicated -- there is no question that using public-school money to send a comparatively very small number of kids to private schools isn't a boon to children overall; on the other hand, when majorities of poor parents say they support vouchers, as they often do, liberals ought to listen.

The ideas deserve serious debate. And if Giuliani had proposed them last spring, when instead he was trying to whip the city into a tizzy about purveyors of past-the-sell-date hot dogs, there's a slim chance we might have had it. But coming now, after he's spoken to GOP moneybags in Arizona and Texas and elsewhere and put up a Website called HillaryNo, well, motive seems a reasonable concern.

Increasingly, Giuliani is governing as a candidate, when in fact he'd be better off trying to run as a mayor. The first half of that equation scarcely seems open to dispute. After the shooting of Amadou Diallo, for example, lots of people noticed how differently Giuliani handled that tragedy -- with a vinegary defensiveness -- as compared to the Abner Louima case, when he was sweetness itself and instructed cops who couldn't see the difference between good police work and sociopathy behind a badge to find new jobs. Of course, the circumstances of the tragedies were different, but something else was different, too: As the Louima tragedy hit, Giuliani was running for re-election in a city stuffed full of Democrats and people of every hue; when the Diallo shooting happened, he was gearing up to run in a state where, just maybe, taking no guff from black rabble-rousers in the city carried political advantages elsewhere.

It's hard not to see the schools contretemps similarly, especially with respect to vouchers. There aren't many things the wobbly, post-Monica GOP agrees on, but school vouchers are very near the top of the list. All over the country, wealthy conservatives -- the kind who finance campaigns -- pour their dollars into privately funded voucher programs. Republican presidential candidates speak of them constantly. Vouchers are the GOP education platform. All of which makes it difficult to imagine that Giuliani picked this issue out of a hat. (And why, incidentally, did Governor Pataki pile on the Board of Ed. last week? Pataki, who fancies himself a presidential dark horse if George W. and the others bumble and stumble, doesn't want the vouchers constituency to think he lacks resolve on the matter.)

The political rationale is clear. "Look, he had to give the national Republican Party something," says Democratic political consultant Phil Friedman. "He's not going to change on abortion. He's not going to change on gun control. He's not even going to change much on gay rights. So here it is."

It makes sense -- for someone who's grown tired of being the mayor and has his mind on other things. But it might be argued that if Giuliani wants to go into next year's Senate race in a strong position, then the best way to do that is to be an effective mayor.

That's how incumbent presidents run -- not as candidates but as sleeves-up chief executives. Giuliani should be acting out his own Rose Garden strategy. Imagine a second term that wasn't based on rebuking taxi drivers and push-cart vendors and street artists but on completing some of the more meaningful unfinished work of the first term. The school system would have been at the top of that list, and Giuliani would have done far better to have spent 1998 working with Crew on, for example, toughening up the curriculum, phasing out social promotion, and reforming bilingual education -- "conservative" aims, in the superficial sense, and ones that very few constituencies can credibly oppose (and by the way, these unsolved problems do more harm to education than the school system's form of governance). And suppose the mayor had made dramatic public gestures to acknowledge the city's (and his) racial fissures and dedicated himself, even if merely rhetorically, to closing them. That Giuliani is the mayor who's widely admired -- smart, competent, tough, commonsensical, not too ideological -- and that Giuliani, even with the Diallo shooting, would still have been sitting at 60 percent popularity and getting a universally favorable press. He might have been in such a strong position, in early 1999, that Hillary-for-Senate talk wouldn't even have started.

But the lame-duck mayor decided on a different, and predictable, tack. It may yet work for him -- Democratic consultant Hank Sheinkopf calls his Crew-bashing "smart tactically, if only because it gets him off the cops thing." And yet: The City Council is almost certain to kill the vouchers plan, and the state legislature is simply not going to pass the governance bill. If Giuliani loses both of those battles, and Crew is chased out of town under these circumstances, will it still look so smart?

E-mail: tomasky@aol.com


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