Giuliani = La Guardia? NOT!

How Rudy Stacks Up Against His Hero

In September 1989, after his victory in the Republican Mayoral Primary, Rudolph Giuliani said, "In 1933, a mayor of integrity . . . came forward and carried on a courageous campaign to save this city. . . . His name was Fiorello La Guardia. La Guardia was a Republican like I am, a Republican who reaches out for the support of others." Giuliani lost the general election to David Dinkins.

On December 30, 1993, Giuliani, having beaten Dinkins in a rematch, recalled La Guardia's desk to the City Hall rotunda from the warehouse to which Dinkins had consigned it. His private swearing-in that night at the home of a judge reprised La Guardia's 60 years earlier. He often referred to La Guardia as his hero, his patron saint, his role model in creating a non-partisan city government. In March 1995, Giuliani pointed to the portrait of La Guardia in his office and said it gave him guidance.

Now the mayor's eight years at City Hall are up, and it's worth looking at the degree to which his oft-stated admiration for La Guardia translated into actual emulation of programs and policies. Certainly there are stylistic similarities, some superficial, some not so. Both men were vigorous, hands-on, well-informed managers; impatient, demanding bosses; and mercurial, sharp-tongued public figures intolerant of critics. Both had keen instincts for media stunts, such as donning uniforms and rushing to fires and police raids.

Much of what La Guardia did benefited the neediest citizens—not so with Giuliani.
photo: Frances M. Roberts
Much of what La Guardia did benefited the neediest citizens—not so with Giuliani.

As mayors they both engaged in prudish crusades against public and private vices. La Guardia fought slot machines and newsstand literature he considered offensive. Giuliani made war on sex shops, clubs, and museum exhibits he considered offensive. Both were merciless with what they felt were embarrassing or shameful symbols of their Italian American heritage—La Guardia with organ-grinders, Giuliani with mafiosi.

But all these similarities pale beside the stark contrasts between their legacies.

La Guardia, mayor from 1933 to 1945, was a Republican, but off-the-charts left of any Republican these days, or in the last few decades. Like President Franklin Roosevelt, he took office at the height of the Great Depression, a time of far greater economic woes than we face now.

During La Guardia's first two terms, before the war and the end of the Depression, the physical landscape of New York was transformed. Forging a dynamic working relationship with Roosevelt and his New Deal, La Guardia used federal money to build schools, hospitals, low-income housing, neighborhood health clinics, parks, playgrounds, libraries, roads, bridges, tunnels—and plenty of each, plus an airport.

Much of what he built, and many of the services he delivered, directly benefited the poorest and neediest citizens of the city. Improving their lives was something he cared passionately about, and he considered it an essential crusade of government.

Of course he couldn't have achieved all this without the willing partnership of FDR. And he had at his side Robert Moses, someone who, notwithstanding his imperious approach, could get things built like no one before or since. Moses and FDR hated each other from their earlier years together in Albany, but the rivalry didn't prevent an amazing array of accomplishments.

Giuliani didn't have an FDR in Washington—Bill Clinton and George W. were both poor substitutes—and Congress has been largely dysfunctional as well. And he certainly had no Moses. But he did have, for much of his eight years, whopping surpluses that could have been used to build. And yet he did almost none of what La Guardia did.

Even Ed Koch, during his last term as mayor, despite his renunciation of much of his pre-mayoralty liberalism, made a significant commitment to the building and rehabbing of low-income housing. Housing stock that fell into the city's control during the Giuliani years was largely offered to private developers, who were looking to create market-rate housing—out of reach to the poor. There was no real commitment to honoring a pledge to use the Battery Park City surpluses for low-income housing.

With regard to public schools, Comptroller Alan Hevesi's office estimated that to meet needs, it would take $28 billion to build enough schools and to repair others. In partial response to that study, Chancellor Rudy Crew came up with a five-year, $11 billion capital plan. Giuliani twisted arms to get the Board of Education to reduce it to $7 billion, and now with cost overruns, only $4 billion is on the table to address the $28 billion of needed work, and the boom is over.

The mayor did spend lavishly, however, on the park in front of City Hall and the Tweed Courthouse, and he built minor-league Mets and Yankee stadiums. He also endeavored mightily, right until the end, even with looming deficits and the 9-11 disaster, to give massive amounts to those teams for new major-league stadiums, despite the fact that few shared his enthusiasm for them or his calculation of their public benefits.

He also budgeted for a new New York Stock Exchange and for contributions to the expansion of worthy, but very well-endowed arts institutions such as Lincoln Center, the Museum of Modern Art, and the Guggenheim.

And it's not just that he didn't build for ordinary citizens. In the delivery of city services, and in the funding of private, not-for-profit providers, he consistently aimed to slash the budgets of programs serving the poorest and most helpless residents. Year after year, he cut or stymied funding for homeless services, welfare, food stamps, food pantries, hospitals, health care and prescription-drug programs, AIDS services, low-income housing, day care, neighborhood parks, after-school and recreation programs, seniors' programs, small museums, small cultural and arts programs, libraries, and legal services for the poor.

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