Bloomy’s New Crew Sends a Message

The New Mayor Adds—and Subtracts—at City Hall

Even Rudy Giuliani's biggest cheerleaders rarely raved about his surrogates. They weren't supposed to. His was a star that shined brightest alone; other light-gathering bodies only diminished his luster. So his first-term picks to head city agencies and run City Hall were notably dull, if more or less competent.

Not all of them, however. In a series of temporary embarrassments long since forgotten by the media and the public, a couple of Giuliani's new aides had to be quickly hustled out of office after they were found to have dramatically misrepresented their backgrounds. In one case, an appointee neglected to mention an old heroin bust.

The first administration's strongest performer, police commissioner William Bratton, was, of course, sent packing for having dared to burnish his own reputation. But by the end of Giuliani's second term, the collective gene pool of his administrators had declined considerably, while the mayor surrounded himself with a cadre of bullet-eyed true believers whose life experience was limited to clearing paths through the crowd for their leader and themselves.

Michael Bloomberg with new deputy Dennis Walcott
photo: Richard B. Levine
Michael Bloomberg with new deputy Dennis Walcott

In the midst of severe health crises, a psychiatrist with no background in public health—one who happened to be married to a cousin of a top Giuliani aide—was running the city's health department. The city's vast and complex Human Resources Administration, the agency responsible for the poorest citizens, was headed by a think tank-bred conservative embarked on a ruthless ideological crusade. The commissioner remained despite documented accusations by the city's comptroller that he had sought to steer massive contracts to friends and allies. And the city's buildings department was firmly under the control of Queens Republican bosses, although several of their designees were shot down by a burgeoning influence-peddling scandal.

Other agencies—those charged with providing programs and aid for the needy, like the Department of Employment and the Department of Youth and Community Development—were allowed to slip into near oblivion. Last month, a report by the city's Bar Association ripped the city's Commission on Human Rights for having virtually abandoned its mandate to actively pursue discrimination.

All of which goes a long distance toward explaining why so many people involved in advancing the everyday well-being of the city were so heartened by the first tangible signals from Mayor Bloomberg about the shape of his new administration.

Marc Shaw, Bloomberg's choice for deputy mayor for operations, had been Giuliani's first budget director, one of those early Rudy appointees whose nonideological approach was widely appreciated but who quickly moved on to other pursuits. Patricia Harris, the new deputy mayor for administration, was recalled as an affable aide to former mayor Koch. But the strongest signal that Bloomberg was taking a different course from his predecessor was his selection of New York Urban League director Dennis Walcott as deputy mayor for policy.

That move grabbed the attention of many who were regarded over the past eight years as little more than dubious strangers by their own municipal government.

"There isn't an astrological metaphor large enough to describe the difference," said veteran good-government advocate Gene Russianoff of the contrast between Giuliani's regime and Bloomberg's initial choices.

Walcott was an early, if nonmilitant, critic of police abuse, and an outspoken education advocate. In contrast to Rudy's stable of lockstepping ex-prosecutors, Walcott even sued the MTA in 1995 over a discriminatory fare hike, along with Russianoff's New York Public Interest Research Group.

Perhaps most important, Walcott's appointment brought a sense to many that, for the first time in years, there was someone they could reason with.

"It reminded me of when we started," said Bill Lynch, the political architect of David Dinkins's 1989 victory. In that mayoralty, Lynch played the role of touchstone for many activists. "In the opening days of an administration, folks have got to feel they have access, and [Bloomberg's] shown that," said Lynch, adding that those relationships face a crucial test not far down the road. "The real crunch will come with the budget, when people see what's getting cut," said Lynch.

In the afterglow of Bloomberg's victory, there were reports—undisputed by the billionaire mogul's aides—that the new mayor would seek to retain as many members of Team Giuliani as possible. While some Giuliani aides, notably police commissioner Bernard Kerik, opted to move on, several others let it be known they very much wanted to remain. Instead, Bloomberg has practiced a kind of addition by subtraction.

City health commissioner Neal Cohen, according to several involved in the transition effort, was one of those who asked to stay. Cohen, a psychiatrist who was related by marriage to former Giuliani deputy Randy Mastro, was controversial among health advocates who complained he lacked the background for dealing with the city's most virulent health problems. In any event, Cohen's bid to stay was rejected in favor of a former health department official, Thomas Frieden, who won applause for devising an innovative approach to stamping out drug-resistant tuberculosis when it threatened to grow to epidemic proportions in the city in the late 1980s.

"It is very exciting to have somebody who is a true public health expert in the job again," said Judy Wessler of the New York Commission on the Public's Health System, of Frieden's appointment.

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