N.Y. Mayoral Race Heats Up in a War of Words
The growing political drama here has more subplots than a highly rated soap opera.
Can a mayor who has come to symbolize New York’s feistiness and furor hold on for a historic fourth term? Will the income tax troubles of his chief challenger doom his bid to become the city’s first black chief executive? Will the longtime comptroller, who hates the mayor, finally succeed in getting his job?
And those are just the Democrats.
As for the Republicans, can a former ambassador to Austria whose mother is a cosmetics tycoon, who so far has spent $8.2 million, mostly his own money, find political happiness? And what about the former prosecutor--can he make the transition from jailing crooks on Wall Street to corralling enough votes to make him the first coalition mayor of New York in two decades?
The race for mayor in New York City began in earnest Wednesday with Mayor Edward I. Koch debating his Democratic rivals for the first time. The words were sharp and the attacks were highly personal. When it was all over, the consensus was that no clear winner had emerged.
But some of the dynamics of the unfolding campaign were clear for all to see. Koch sought to create sharply focused doubts about his principal opponent, David N. Dinkins, while the Manhattan Borough president sought to appear mayoral, remain somewhat above the fray and maintain his lead.
The challengers sought to make the election a referendum on Koch’s third term leadership, his personality and his record. And throughout the debate, the dilemma of Dinkins’ opponents was evident: how to discredit him without raising charges of racial bias.
Koch lost no time in pressing his chief rival on his failure to file federal, state and city income tax returns for 1969-72, which Dinkins first disclosed when he withdrew from consideration as deputy mayor in 1973.
While Dinkins, who some polls show with enough votes to avoid a runoff in the primary on Sept. 12, looked on stonily, the mayor went on the attack.
“If you are a lawyer and you do not pay your taxes, not one year but year after year for four consecutive years, what else would be an appropriate description--negligence, forgetfulness?” Koch, his voice hoarse with laryngitis, argued. " . . . I believe that he committed tax evasion.”
Moments earlier, Dinkins tried to put the tax issue to rest.
“I paid all taxes, all penalties, all interest,” Dinkins said at the debate sponsored by the New York Post. “No one has ever accused me of tax evasion. This is not something of which I am guilty. That was a long time ago, almost 20 years. I take responsibility for that. I am sorry it happened. It is my fault. I blame no one but me. It hasn’t happened since and it will not happen again.”
So far, in contrast to Koch’s high-profile rhetoric, Dinkins has run a careful campaign, stressing his vision that the next occupant of City Hall must be a conciliator and New York needs to undergo a cooling-off period from the Koch years. Dinkins has been endorsed by former Mayors Abraham D. Beame and John V. Lindsay, New York’s last coalition mayor. He has the support of the Central Labor Council and other unions, a source of volunteers and phone banks for the primary.
The Rev. Jesse Jackson also has endorsed Dinkins, which presents both opportunities and potential problems for the front-runner. On the one hand, he already has the vast majority of black votes, which contribute more than 25% in Democratic primaries. But he also needs the support of white liberals, who in Democratic primaries are mostly Jewish. With that constituency, Jackson arouses fears.
Dinkins did not mention Jackson during the debate, and in his closing statement, he stressed the theme of togetherness.
“I have a vision of New York, where racial groups will not be pitted against each other, where classes will not be pitted against each other,” he said.
Dinkins also sought to portray himself as the probable winner of the primary by attacking former U.S. Atty. Rudolph W. Giuliani, who is heavily favored to defeat Ronald S. Lauder in the Republican primary. Lauder is a former ambassador and cosmetics company millionaire who so far has spent $8.2 million, $7.9 million of it his own, on the campaign.
Dinkins criticized Giuliani, who has the endorsement of New York’s Liberal Party, for opposing abortion, for saying New York’s mayor should not speak out for Israel, for advocating the detaining of Haitian refugees during the early 1980s and for backing the unsuccessful nomination of Robert H. Bork to the Supreme Court.
Giuliani’s mayoral campaign has gotten off to a slow start and has shown serious organizational problems. On Tuesday, he hired Roger Ailes, President Bush’s media adviser, who had started New York’s political season working for Lauder. Ailes left in a rift with the candidate four months ago.
Koch is being advised by David Garth, the well-known political strategist who has helped engineer all his City Hall victories and who has remained a close and trusted friend. Dinkins has hired Doak, Shrum & Associates, who worked for Missouri Rep. Richard A. Gephardt during the 1988 Democratic primaries.
The angriest exchange of the debate Wednesday came between Koch and his longtime rival Harrison J. Goldin, New York’s comptroller. The mayor said that in 1977, the Securities and Exchange Commission had criticized Goldin for deliberately misleading the holders of millions of dollars of city bonds by lying about the city’s fiscal condition. He said that in 1981, a State Investigation Commission audit of the comptroller’s office had found “shocking incompetence.”
“Do you think the people of New York are ready to make the most investigated comptroller in the city’s history mayor?” Koch asked before answering his own query. “I hope not.”
When his turn came, Goldin shot back, listing by name mayoral appointees who had left the Koch Administration in trouble.
“They haul them off in manacles,” he said. “They throw them in jail. You’ve got to dismiss them in disgrace. That’s the difference, and that’s a record you can’t laugh away and you can’t quip away and you can’t trivialize away,” the comptroller said.