When George Pataki was campaigning for re-election last fall, Rudy Giuliani’s people offered up the mayor to hit the stump with the governor in the nearby suburbs. Pretty good fit, it would seem: the man who cut their taxes, delivered to enthusiastic crowds by the man who tidied up the handful of square blocks they regularly visit.
But Pataki’s camp, one insider tells me, demurred, suspecting that what Giuliani really wanted out of this little road show was to elevate not the governor but himself – you know, let some of those swing voters who help elect senators lay eyes on him. One can’t help thinking they were right.
Two-kings-one-hill is an old story in politics, but Pataki and Giuliani are acting out the parts with a truly special vim and vinegar. What started with the usual off-the-record brickbats and items planted with political columnists took a nasty turn when the governor realized he could use the city’s public schools as a political weapon. Nearly two years before either one has to run for anything again, it’s already getting nuclear.
To say nothing of pointless. Look around us: The economy is strong, crime statistics are where they were when kids were going to the Peppermint Lounge, New York is doing well, and you might think that the first two Republicans to give their party control of both the mayoralty and the governorship in 30 years would find it within themselves to survey the sunny landscape, link arms, and say, “See? We Republicans did this.”
But there’s an even older story in politics, one we might call ecosystemic: That is, two politicians who are proximal both ideologically and geographically will generally despise each other. This has almost always been true in the recent history of New York. Nelson Rockefeller and John Lindsay were both moderate – in Lindsay’s case, more plainly liberal – Republicans, one governor, the other mayor. Things commenced well enough, as Rocky backed Lindsay’s 1965 mayoral bid. It was down the slide from there, though – over the 1966 civilian-review-board proposal, which Lindsay pushed (and which moved him toward relying on a black, read non-Republican, constituency); over the garbage strike in the spring of 1968, when Rockefeller wanted to run for president and Lindsay thought he stood a passing chance of being Nixon’s veep; over the elections of 1969 and 1970, when each, as incumbent, supported the other’s opponent. Then Abe Beame and Hugh Carey, both Brooklyn regulars, ended up at such loggerheads that at a mid-1970s Kings County Democratic dinner, Carey was booed and Beame was cheered. Mario Cuomo and Ed Koch ran against each other twice, but after both were settled into office they managed, to a decent extent, to break the chain. But that was because they appealed to somewhat different constituencies – and even then Cuomo was not above calling Koch an “old jalopy” in 1989, when the latter was running unsuccessfully for his fourth term (although, by the quizzical logic of New York politics, that remark was taken as a tacit endorsement, since Cuomo was actually praising the quaint reliability of old jalopies).
And of course the principle has also created its opposite – pols who aren’t alike generally find it easier to get along (except for Rudy, who doesn’t get along with anyone). Pat Moynihan and Al D’Amato got on nicely, but can anyone doubt that Moynihan’s decision to retire was based in some wee part on Chuck Schumer’s defeat of the Fonz? Remember, he announced it three days after Schumer won. Moynihan sensed – correctly – that Schumer would inevitably try to upstage him. Neither New York nor liberalism being what it once was, there’s room in Washington for only one Important New York Democrat, and Moynihan, in his sunset years, is well past wanting to fight for the title.
Which brings us back to Rudy and George. On the national canvas, there’s room for only one New York Republican. And so Giuliani, who seems boxed into running for a seat – Moynihan’s – he doesn’t really want, will find, as he marches toward glory, the teeth marks of Pataki minions in his heels every time he lifts a foot. “Rudy had better worry about the primary first,” a Pataki strategist told me a few weeks ago.
The Pataki camp has floated a handful of possible Giuliani opponents, but none has the juice to beat the mayor in a primary. The bottom line is that right now, Pataki is trying to block King Rudy with pawns. The day after Giuliani wins a GOP Senate primary, Pataki will find himself in a hole that will take months to dig out of, unless Hillary bails him out – Pataki is the only person in the country who wants Hillary to move out of the White House more than Monica does.
On the other hand, a governor has many weapons at his disposal. Mostly, the city-state wars have been good sport for insiders, but last month, Pataki suddenly entangled about 1.1 million people – New York City schoolchildren – in the intrigues.
Schools Chancellor Rudy Crew started hearing rumors the afternoon of Friday, January 22, that the governor was empaneling a special investigatory commission to look into corruption at the Board of Education and the School Construction Authority. Crew called Albany around 5:30 and was told the governor was out of town. He finally spoke to gubernatorial aide Brad Race on Saturday evening.
“We had some pretty painful words for each other about this,” Crew says. “He kept saying, ‘The governor wants me to have you understand that this is about helping the school system, and ultimately it will mean more money.’ Well, one of us has lost his mind. And I told him as much.”
Crew can be forgiven for not welcoming this – after all, he and Bill Clinton are the only two people in the country who’ve been doing their jobs with a special prosecutor permanently empowered to look over their shoulders (you-know-who, and schools investigator Ed Stancik). And he’s right to suspect Pataki’s motives, because there are only two, neither having much to do with helping education or spending more money. First, he wants to campaign for president and be able to say he did something about education, which he can’t right now. Second, assuming his commission locates some waste and fraud – and let’s face it, how could it not? – he wants to be able to pin it on Giuliani.
The chancellor gets it. “He’s trying to stop the mayor as a force in Republican politics,” he says. “But I’m in the middle of this, my people are in the middle of this, the schoolchildren are in the middle of this, and he has shown no interest in these children, caught between the pillar and post of poverty and politics. That’s what drives me nuts. It’s like riding into town after the war and shooting a movie. You know – you weren’t there. If this is all you bring, shame on you. Shame on you.”
Strong words. Crew would be in a stronger position to say them if he were winning universal acclaim, but he’s not these days. His relations with the reporters at Livingston Street are strained; the tabloids, the Post especially, are down on him. There is, around town, a general sense that after the initial lovefest and a strong sophomore year, in which Crew won reforms in Albany and seemed to be tackling some perennial problems, his past eighteen months or so have been lugubrious. In a system that swallows everyone, he has yet to prove truly exceptional.
Still, he has good reason to be angry. Pataki is probing school construction and inflated attendance figures. The School Construction Authority surely needs reforming, but the only scandal of recent times involved a Borough Park student killed by falling bricks that weren’t secure because Pataki’s appointment to the SCA hired his secretary’s unqualified husband to do the job (the appointee, Paul Atanasio, quietly resigned).
The attendance allegations are shaky, too. The Post reported 55,000 “missing” students, a number Pataki picked up on. In fact, these were students who had indeed been absent for somewhat extended periods – anywhere from three to ten consecutive days – but the board’s own investigators later tracked down 46,000 of them, according to board spokeswoman Chiarra Coletti. It can be hard for a city this size to keep an eye on every student; immigrant families move back to wherever, struggling kids lose interest, and both have the temerity to do so without informing the Board of Education. But the fact is that Crew – who, whatever his shortcomings, is an honest and committed educator – streamlined accountability and added staff and extra money in the past year to improve attendance monitoring.
Pataki has taken a mundane political fight and turned it into one with serious real-world ramifications. He’s aimed his rifle at Giuliani here, but it’s Crew who might catch the bullet.
And for what? Does anyone besides George and Rudy’s chief yes-persons and their families (if that, in Rudy’s case) think either of them is really going to be president someday? Strange things happen in politics, but right now, it’s awfully hard to imagine today’s GOP looking to two pro-choice New Yorkers for leadership. “When you have two people fighting because their national ambitions collide,” says consultant Phil Friedman, “but the nation isn’t interested, why fight?” Because you can’t buck the ecosystem.