Monday, September 12, 2005Being Mayor of New York isn't quite like being Mayor of any other city in America. It's a little like being Governor of state (NYC would rank in the top 10 or so), given the population. And there are a plenty of countries that are smaller. But beyond that, New York is the economic and cultural center of the United States and the world's de facto political capitol. It is therefore no small thing to decide who should lead it.
For the last three years or so I've lived New York City. I'm therefore hardly a native, but I have grown to love this town a great deal. It is here that I have learned to agree with Aristotle - there is something about cities that provides human goods available nowhere else. Whether it is the fact that I am cheek & jowl with every race and ethnicity, or the availability for great cultural institutions and civic space, or even the sheer size and diversity of the place - I have certainly discovered that living in New York is a truly unique experience.
But New York has a problem. For most of its history, there have been extremes of wealth and poverty. But it was also a place where working and middle class people had a real opportunity to make a living, educate their children, find a nice place to live, and start a business of their own. The winds of economic change have made this increasingly difficult all over the country, but particularly here in New York. Many of the city's workers are forced to live in New Jersey, Westchester, or Long Island because the schools are terrible and the rents too high. Every day a row of mom & pop stores gets replaced by a big box chain store. Every day a block of 100 year old brownstones gets torn down to make way for a high-rise luxury apartment building. So every day New York loses a little bit of its soul.
While these changes have occurred, the city has (strangely enough) been led by Republican mayors. Predictably, they have done everything they can to play off one ethnic group against another in an effort to maintain power. While doing so they have done nothing to address the fundamental problem of New York - can regular people afford to live here - while accelerating the process of destruction. Guiliani was in your face about it, which made him very controversial. Bloomberg has a softer voice, but he is actually more single-minded about destroying the essence of New York. When people express a liking for Bloomberg, it makes me extremely angry. Not only can they not point to one specific thing he has done to help the city, but they seem to forget all the things he has done to distract or damage it. So the ethnic diversity that has always been one of the great things about the city has been used against it: Jew against Hispanic against Black against Asian against whatever.
In 2005 we get to elect a Mayor. Fernando Ferrer, the former Bronx Borough President, has a great deal of experience but is clearly an unserious person, as witnessed by his absurd stock transfer tax. He is closely tied to one of the most corrupt political organizations in the country and I have no desire to see the city return to the days of Tammany Hall. The Bronx machine is also a tool in the hands of Puerto Rican nationalists who want to co-opt or marginalize every other ethnic group. Hardly a recipe for a great city.
Virginia Fields, the Manhattan Borough President, is a very nice woman. I've talked to her. She is also boring, long-winded, without ideas, and weak. In a prosperous era when there is little to running New York I might support her - it'd be nice to have a woman mayor - but I'm afraid she just isn't up to the challenge.
Gifford Millor is the Speaker of the New York City Council. He's been a very effective leader and I like some of his ideas - particularly his renter's tax credit. But he's run into some problems with borderline campaign finance practices and has run a pretty flawed campaign. It's been about his ideas, which is good. But this is an age of personality politics, and he's told us nothing about him. More importantly, his positive accomplishments as Speaker have largely been in cooperation with Bloomberg, which makes it hard for him to really distinguish himself from the Mayor.
And finally there is Anthony Weiner. A 40-year old congressman from the outer boroughs, he has a middle-class background and is full or energy and policy suggestions. I'm not crazy with everything he has proposed (such as a 10% tax cut paid for by an increase in the tax on millionaires - something that is fiscally risky and that requires permission from the state), but some of his other notions - like strengthening discipline in the classroom, expanding ferry service, and taking over the MTA, I like very much. More importantly, his entire campaign has been focused on a simple proposition: New York must be led by a Mayor who understands what it is like to struggle and who is focused on the difficulty of a middle-class person making a go of it in this town. He has therefore, I believe, put his finger on the essential problem facing New York. It's smart politics, it transcends racial messages for social ones, and it is exactly the right question to ask. Which is why I'm going to get up at 5Am tomorrow and spend all day campaigning for him.
Wish me luck.