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It is hard to remember how low New York’s fortunes had sunk in 1992 and how rapidly they were going from bad to worse. Murders had topped 2,000 per year, drug dealing was a public activity, squeegee men assaulted drivers coming out of the Lincoln Tunnel, Mayor David Dinkins had allowed an anti-Semitic riot to “vent” in Crown Heights for two days before his police commissioner finally seized the initiative and put a stop to it — and that wasn’t the half of it.
Under Dinkins and former Governor Mario Cuomo, New York had tried to tax its way out of the 1991 recession, losing 330,000 jobs in the process — one out of every four job losses in the country. Private enterprise was headed for the exits. Unemployment was at 11 percent. One of every five New Yorkers worked directly for the New York City government and another one in five worked for the non-profits and social services industries that survive on government handouts. And that didn’t count the one in six residents (1.2 million people) on welfare. When Time ran a 1990 cover story, “The Rotting of the Big Apple,” no one put up a fuss.
What did Giuliani have going for him when voters desperately turned to him by a thin 52-48 percent majority in 1993? Absolutely nothing. He had no party (there were only three Republicans on the City Council), he had no unions, and he had no organized constituency. All he had was his own remarkable executive skills honed in his years as a federal prosecutor, his stubborn independence, his inexhaustible capacity for work (he regularly prowled the city until 4 a.m.), his years spent in immersing himself in the details of local government — and a fountainhead of ideas coming from conservative scholars at the Manhattan Institute, which played a largely unheralded role in the Giuliani-led Renaissance.
By now everyone knows the story of how Giuliani adopted James Q. Wilson and George Kelling’s “Broken Windows” theory, undoing 30 years of liberal damage to the justice system and rolling the clock all the way back to 1965 when murders numbered only 600 a year. (With three times the population, New York now has fewer murders than Chicago.) The squeegee men were gone in a week. (There turned out to be only about 60 of them.) Turnstile-hopping was halted. (In some subway stations, almost half the riders weren’t paying.)
Then, just as predicted, the re-establishment of public order drove crime off the streets and gave public spaces back to law-abiding citizens. Sidewalk traffic increased, businesses flourished. The biggest renaissance was on Harlem’s 125th Street, where a commercial strip that didn’t have a single grocery store or movie theater in 1994 now boasts Disney, Sony, Magic Johnson Theaters, Pathmark, The Gap, Cineplex Odeon, Barnes & Noble — and the offices of Bill Clinton.
That was just the part that made national headlines. Beneath the radar, Giuliani was taking on each and every one of the city’s vast, overwhelming battalions of interest groups and public-spending beneficiaries, telling them that the old days were over. The police were demonstrating every day outside City Hall in response to Giuliani’s budget cuts.
When Giuliani decided to break the Genovese family’s stranglehold on the Fulton Fish Market, his commissioner of business services, Rudy Washington, and deputy chief of police, Wilbur Chapman — protected by 60 young cops — ended up literally backed against a wall by angry union members wielding fish hooks. Washington and Chapman had to draw their guns to fend off disaster.
When Al Sharpton’s anti-Semitic protest against a Harlem clothing storeowner led to a deranged protester setting a fire that killed eight people, Harlem Congressman Charles Rangel blamed the whole thing on Giuliani because he had criticized Sharpton.
In one memorable vignette drawn by Siegel, Giuliani returns from a weary day of battling interest groups all over the city, only to find the inimitable Bella Abzug standing on the steps of City Hall waiting to tender her resignation from the Women’s Commission of something-or-other. “Why don’t you send it in?” said Giuliani, brushing her aside. Then he added a few steps later, “I have the feeling when I get it I’ll accept it.”
“In one era and out the other,” quipped a bystander.
IN THE MIDST OF NEW YORK’S perpetual political theater, Giuliani held daily afternoon press conferences, trying to convey his message to the public over the heads of a hostile press. Quoting journalist Andrew Kirtzman, Siegel portrays the scene: “Thousands of protesters, union members, politicians were fighting one man, who stood alone each day at the podium inside City Hall’s Blue Room, a solitary figure facing a sea of skeptical reporters. He was an army of one.”
And this all happened before September 11th.p>For the first three days after that historic attack, Siegel notes, Giuliani was essentially “the de facto spokesman for a grateful nation.” br> /p>
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It won’t take long for conservatives to scratch this presidential wannabe off their 2008 scorecard.
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