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What's the Big Idea?

Lacking a major threat -- fiscal crisis, racial disharmony, San Pellegrino drought -- the mayoral wannabes struggle to define what they're running for (or against).

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I'm feeling a little sorry for the mayoral candidates. True, they've all been around a long time, reliably but unspectacularly, like Tony 'n' Tina's Wedding. True, as this magazine noted last week, they have the misfortune of being sandwiched between Hillary -- a major production in several acts -- and the anticipated Shakespearean slugfest of the gubernatorial race.

But I think there's another reason they aren't doing much box office, a reason that is no reflection on them at all.

There's no crisis.

Crisis is what makes people pay attention. Crisis also provides candidates with a raison d'être; it makes the city agree that there's this one really big, emotionally resonant problem that the next mayor absolutely must be equipped to address. In 1989, it was the racial crisis, the overwhelming sense that we needed healing. Hence, Dinkins. By 1993, it was the crime crisis. Hence, Giuliani. Each won by a razor-thin margin, but still, each was, in his way, the right person for the moment.

To get people interested, a candidacy needs a big idea. Today, however, no single question dominates the municipal conversation. So, fellas, in purely objective, alphabetical order, what's your Big Idea?

Fernando Ferrer: "The reason for my candidacy is that there needs to be fundamental change, not playing around at the margins. The needs are too enormous, and the divisions are too deep . . . The idea of my candidacy is that, as an officer of this city and a New Yorker, I'm offended by the divisions, by playing one community off against the other, one interest group off against the other. That doesn't need to be."

Mark Green: "I don't accept the premise that candidates should be seen through the lens of Rudy Giuliani. I reject this simplistic post-Giuliani bipolarization that requires candidates to be either General Patton or Mr. Rogers. There's a new way to run and govern that ideally will produce someone who's tough and smart, and can be persuasive in boardrooms and civic meetings, with beat cops and high-school seniors. The city needs a mayor who leads by consensus."

Alan Hevesi: "I see two conjoined themes about the governance of the city in the next ten years. First, we're in the twenty-first century, an incredibly complex world with new technologies, a truly global society. Second, we are the most ethnically diverse city in the history of the world. The obligation of the next mayor is to deal with this complexity and diversity . . . I think New Yorkers feel things are better than they were eight years ago, but they're nervous."

Peter Vallone: "I don't think we're in a crisis. But we are in a situation where we know what needs to be done, and no one seems to know how to do it, with regard to the education system, or the fact that we're short 200,000 units of affordable housing. I'm the only one who has governed every day. I think everyone will agree that I've always been able to work things out, with three different mayors, whatever the problems were."

Here's each, translated. Ferrer's pitch is the most purely mathematical -- it's targeted to a core constituency that will vote in a Democratic primary and that, if it holds as an electoral coalition, stands a good chance of getting him into a post-primary runoff (if no candidate gets 40 percent in the September primary, the top two face off two Tuesdays later; almost every insider in town believes that this will happen). When I suggest to him that there's no crisis, he takes umbrage: "Tell that to somebody concerned about racial profiling, or the parent of public-school children." He's speaking most directly to the New Yorkers to whom the Giuliani era has been something less than a wonder, but making little effort, so far, to find an audience among the satisfied.

If Green sounds a tad defensive, that's because he is. On background, his aides gripe about the tabloids' tendency to attach to his name certain appositive phrases, as in: "Mark Green, perceived as soft on crime . . . " On the record to me last week, Green called that label "a slander," not once but three or four times. His recent high-profile moves -- a speech promising higher pay and college subsidies for cops, and especially the endorsement of Bill Bratton, whom he's spent years cultivating -- are designed to put early and heavy ice on this sprain before it swells. The rhetorical posture is third-way Clintonian -- I'm not Rudy, but I'm not Dinkins either. Where Ferrer is playing to Dinkins's old coalition, Green seeks to reassure white moderates.

Hevesi, paradoxically, is trying to take a bite out of Ferrer's pie. The polls suggest the reason: Having been seen throughout much of the Giuliani era by many liberals as an ally of the mayor, Hevesi is having trouble with black voters, and he can't win a primary if that doesn't change. Like Ferrer, he emphasizes diversity (Green and Vallone did not, especially), and he spoke to me in more specific detail than the others about the school system. It's the curse of comptrollers running for mayor to demonstrate that they know more than numbers, and it's the burden of this particular comptroller to prove that he's a bit more liberal than people suspect.

I like the way Vallone is thinking: Trying to turn 25-odd years of service on the City Council into a plus is a courageous exercise. Can it possibly work? Well, he can point to dozens of pieces of legislation that he's passed, and he sure knows his way around City Hall. While the others are positioning themselves to solidify their base (Ferrer), or to reach out to foreign constituencies (Green, white moderates; Hevesi, blacks), Vallone's pitch is the only one that's not ideological at all: I've governed. I know the budget. I can do this. It's an admirably universalist appeal, but in a political milieu so intensely driven by particularist interests as New York's, it may leave him neither here nor there.

If the four of them are having trouble capturing the mood of the city, it might be because there isn't a mood. Or if there is one, it's vague anxiety about the economy and race relations (in minority neighborhoods, of course, anxiety about police brutality is a good deal stronger than vague). The city doesn't need a healer, or a tough guy, or a cheerleader (Ed Koch in 1977). It needs a sort of level-headed manager.

Or a new crisis. The mayor, fighting Bill's office space and starting Sensation II, is clearly feeling his oats now after a period of calm. Rudy, you have seven months until Primary Day.

E-mail: tomasky@aol.com


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