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New World Order

Wake up! Campaign-finance reform has made a contender of gadfly George Spitz as well as Alan Hevesi; term limits have given us the most hotly contested races in years.

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If you happened to find yourself locked in conversation with an urban-politics junkie at some point in the past five or six years, he would have told you that the two most substantive and far-reaching changes in the city's governance of the last decade -- more than Rudy Giuliani's election, and even more, from said junkie's peculiar perspective, than the laws and policies that brought about the crime reduction -- were campaign-finance reform and term limits. You would not have believed him. And he would have said, Wait until 2001, and you'll see.

Let's test the hypothesis. The term-limits referendum, passed by voters in 1993, has first and foremost opened up the mayor's office -- is there any doubt that if it hadn't passed, Rudy, even with a family life resembling the Bundys' more than the Bradys', would be seeking a third term? It has also opened up the other citywide posts, and 37 of the 51 City Council seats. The people we're choosing, and, so far, assiduously avoiding, this fall will govern us for the next eight years and, since most of them hope to continue trading up, many more after that.

Likewise, the public-financing law has dramatically changed the rules under which these people will be elected. Alan Hevesi knows: If there were no such law, Hevesi, who has raised $7 million, far more than his rivals, would be ahead in the polls and probably breezing toward victory in the primary. Without the law's spending caps ($5.2 million in the Democratic primary) and pressure from the editorial boards to abide by them, Hevesi could have overwhelmed the others with television ads, and his current mess -- his consultant, Hank Morris, is alleged to have provided his services free in an effort to skirt the law -- wouldn't have happened. At the City Council level, where the spending cap is $137,000, the law means people who can't raise a lot of money can still compete; "busting the caps," as the phrase goes, is the one thing a candidate can do to ensure the universal contempt of every person who pays attention to this sort of thing.

You may wish Rudy could run again, and you may be morally opposed to spending tax money on politicians' propaganda, but you can't deny that these changes have made this election the most open and widely contested in the city's modern history. And yet at the same time, other, larger forces have taken root that have more than nullified whatever drama these changes might potentially have created. Politics occupies a far less prominent place in the city's culture than it once did -- look at a seventies tabloid and you'll be shocked to see how much more local politics there was. The rampant gossipization of news has meant that the papers are most interested in personalities; short of dancing naked in Macy's window, the best way for a candidate to ensure coverage is to be named Hillary Clinton or Michael Bloomberg.

So voilà, here we are: a fiercely contested election about which no one cares.

Well, all I can do is my part. Herewith, a survey of some of the races, a look at some lesser-known candidates, and a few observations about how this election might actually matter.

  • The Fifth Man In newspaperthink, any candidate who doesn't have a few million dollars is a gadfly. But in the real world, there are gadflies, and there are gadflies. The "candidacy" of Kenny Kramer has the smell of someone who's trying to pump up lagging tour-bus ticket sales. George Spitz, however, is another kettle of fish. Spitz, best known as the man who invented the New York City Marathon, is a retired public servant with encyclopedic knowledge of every arcane issue you can imagine and many more you can't.

Spitz is running against the four major Democrats in the September 11 mayoral primary. You will see him in the two debates, which under the admirable terms of the campaign-finance law must include all candidates who qualify for matching funds. He may not win, but his years of earnest citizenship have won him the right to lay before the voters his notions, which you can also find at georgespitz.com.

  • The GOP primary The question here is simple: Are the editorial boards going to let Bloomberg skate through this primary season without having to face Herman Badillo in any televised debates? Last month, WNBC and New York 1 invited both candidates to participate in debates before the primary. Badillo said yes, but Bloomberg has stonewalled.

The reason is obvious. Badillo's knowledge of city government is the equal of any living person's, and he would probably pulverize Bloomberg in a debate. "If there's one thing I know," Badillo once said to me, "it's this city and its agencies. I know where all the bodies are buried, because I buried some of them myself." Bloomberg, who has rarely appeared at any multi-candidate forums, let alone actual debates, won't get within miles of a soundstage that has Badillo on it.

Unless he's pressured to. Editorial boards love to lecture candidates about debates. It will constitute an unprecedented free pass for a candidacy if the Times and especially the News (I say especially because the News editorial page has shown signs of bending its usual criteria to favor Bloomberg) don't jab the points of their swords in Bloomberg's back.

  • Comptroller The candidates here are Herb Berman, a city councilman for 26 years, and Bill Thompson, a former president of the Board of Education. Both are Brooklynites. Thompson, the only black candidate for citywide office, is a soft-spoken and somewhat remote man who worked in the securities field, while Berman, from Canarsie, is more the hail-fellow-well-met type.

Their political pedigrees bear striking, and only partially inspiring, similarities. Thompson's father was a judge, and the son, now 48, worked first for a member of Congress who got caught up in scandal and later for Borough President Howard Golden. Berman, 67, came out of an old-line Canarsie political club and was part of a group of people who were close to Koch when he was mayor (Koch has endorsed him). Both can manage the books, but a good comptroller is someone who doesn't mind taking heat from the mayor, and neither of these men has been a boat-rocker, to put it mildly. The one who'll deserve to win is the one who shows he can change that habit.

So far, this race has played out almost entirely under Wayne Barrett's byline in the Voice, where the tenacious scribe has lit into Thompson for doing securities transactions without a license, among other charges. Thompson says, "The firm I worked for didn't believe it was necessary, and believe me, the firm was very careful about this." Whatever the truth, the real question is whether Barrett's stories will hurt Thompson with the Times (the Berman camp has mailed Barrett's pieces to the editorial boards), whose nod in this race is probably dispositive.

  • Public advocate Was there ever a better marriage of pol and office than Mark Green and public advocate? The activist schooled in Naderism, handed a staff and subpoena power. Rudy's presence made it even richer; Green, especially with Hevesi mostly ducking mayoral skirmishes, became a sort of opposition leader, giving city government a quasi-parliamentary gloss that was the framework for some lively and important ideological warfare.

But now, since everybody who'll be in office next year will be a liberal Democrat, what's the point? This office will be a bare room, and the person who can furnish it most creatively -- by hiring good staff and thinking of intelligent things for them to do -- deserves the job.

At a forum I attended last week, Brooklyn councilman Steve DiBrienza and Manhattan assemblyman Scott Stringer came across as best prepared to do that. The NYCLU's Norman Siegel has name recognition and an undeniable history as an advocate of many causes; one wonders whether his stated enthusiasm for litigating policy questions is really what the job calls for. Betsy Gotbaum, David Dinkins's parks commissioner, is at the anti-Siegelian, conciliatory extreme. She has raised the most money and is considered a favorite; but she evinced less knowledge of the specifics of government than her opponents, and that knowledge is something the person who hopes to be useful in this office should have. Lower Manhattan councilwoman Kathryn Freed has the knowledge, but she's had trouble raising money and expanding her base. Finally, salsa king Willie Colon is running, but my space is getting short, so he'll be saved the embarrassment of my retailing the particulars of our conversation, in which I asked him if he could tell me (within $3 billion) the size of the city budget; he could not, and then called back and left a message in which he was obviously reading from a crib sheet with numbers describing the city's capital budget (an entirely different thing).

  • City Council, Brooklyn, 33rd District, the Heights and Williamsburg I highlight this race because nowhere in the city is there so stark a choice as here, with an excellent candidate facing uphill odds against a troubling one.

David Yassky is a professor at Brooklyn Law School, but he used to be the chief counsel to the House crime subcommittee when the Democrats were in the majority and it was chaired by Chuck Schumer. This man basically wrote and oversaw the passage of -- ready? -- the Brady law, the assault-weapons ban, the Violence Against Women Act, and the clinic-access law. He organized the hearings, did the lobbying, and put together the coalitions that passed them. A person who's done that -- and he's only 37 -- and wants to be on the City Council should be ushered in to the sound of trumpets.

But alas, he has to get votes. And he's running against Steve Cohn, a longtime Democratic district leader whom Jack Newfield once called "the tunnel between the clubhouse and the courthouse." (Cohn's law firm was the single biggest recipient of judicial patronage in Brooklyn.) Cohn has raised a ghastly $290,000 in a race where he's only allowed to spend $137,000, which suggests that he may be intending to bust the caps in the race's final days, when campaign officials may be too busy with bigger races to notice.

There are two other candidates from the Heights in the race, by all accounts good fellows. But David Yassky is the textbook definition of the sort of person who can change the council for the better. He will need every vote he can get to stop Cohn. So you see, something is at stake after all.

E-mail: tomasky@aol.com


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