Papal Pandering


This Sunday, the mayor was on three morning network talk shows insisting that his war on the Brooklyn Museum was a “matter of principle.” The proof of his apolitical highmindedness, declared Rudy Giuliani, was that he was pushing ahead despite a Daily News poll that showed New Yorkers opposed to him 2 to 1. If the mayor had any plans of going to mass that morning, his televised lie would surely have disqualified him from communion.

The News poll only tested the pulse of Giuliani’s former constituents, the people of the city he is still technically elected to serve. He’s now more the county executive of Erie, Onondaga, and Suffolk than he is a mayor for Brooklyn or Manhattan. His only interest in NYC from now to the 2000 Senate election is in nailing down a hardcore minority of its voters, exceeding the 30 percent most statewide GOP candidates get. His laser-beam focus is on a state whose electorate is at least 44 percent Catholic, according to exit polls conducted in 1998 by the Voter News Service.

As transparent as is his rhetorical reach for the hinterlands, Giuliani is also playing to a local audience of one: Conservative Party boss Mike Long, the super-Catholic father of nine who controls a ballot line without which no Republican has won statewide in a quarter of a century. An ex-marine who rules his party from a Bay Ridge foxhole a few miles from the museum, Long told the Voice: “Of course, his actions enhance his pluses with Conservative Party voters. What he did was correct.”

Long, whose party has refused to endorse Giuliani in all three of his mayoral races, attended the Saturday rally protesting the exhibit. “I put out a mailing to our members for it,” Long said. “We had every bit of 500 people there.” Long insists that he’s had “no conversations” with Giuliani “or his people” about the museum issue, saying, “It’s hard to believe they sat around a table figuring out how to appeal to us” and came up with this issue. Long declined to say whether Vito Fossella, the Staten Island congressman who led the museum protest and has become Giuliani’s point man in Washington, is “a conduit” between the mayor and him, paving the way for a likely future embrace.

The truth is that Long has already publicly set a high standard for his party’s endorsement of Giuliani: the mayor must move away from his announced support of what Long emphatically calls “partial birth abortion.” If Giuliani thinks the raw meat he’s tossed the rabid in the museum fracas will take him off the spot on an abortion position Long says Giuliani shares with only “a handful of elected Republicans” across the country, the party leader says Giuliani has another thought coming.

“I’ve made that a very important issue. That hasn’t changed. I can’t back away,” Long said. “I’m going to give Giuliani a little room on it. He’s never had to vote on that issue. He’s only talked about it. I’m not sure he’s given it a lot of thought.” Long said he “hopes” Giuliani’s museum moves are “a beginning of involvement on a lot of issues,” including abortion.

Giuliani, on the other hand, seems to believe his rant over an elephant-dunged Mary will give Long the ideological camouflage to deliver the ballot line without the necessity of an abortion switch. From City Hall’s cynical vantage point, a super-Catholic pose on a symbol is far better than a vote-costing conversion on substance, though Giuliani may ultimately have to do both.

Long aside, while the Madonna grandstanding should help Rudy upstate, he’s also taking some heat on it there. The Syracuse Post-Standard and the Albany Times Union have opposed his stand, with the Times Union calling him “autocratic” and the Post-Standard blasting him for not trusting the public “to make its own decision.” Even the former GOP Erie county chairman Victor Farley thought that yanking the museum’s funding and lease was “crazy,” telling the Buffalo News: “I don’t see it as hurting him in the long run. But it is a little weird.”

Indeed, the irony that small-government conservatives want mayors to vet art is hardly lost on the less partisan on the right. Why not encourage citizen action, from boycotts to regular mass protests, to close an exhibit they find offensive?

For example, Giuliani’s championing of school vouchers— most of which would be used to buy desks in religious schools— flies in the face of his museum rhetoric about the right of taxpayers not to subsidize what they don’t approve. So did his scuttling of Peter Vallone’s 1998 attempt to let taxpayers decide by referendum how a billion dollars in Yankee Stadium expenditures might be spent.

The best evidence of Giuliani’s current crass political agenda is his posture in prior similar circumstances. He remained stone silent in 1996 when his eventual Democratic opponent, Ruth Messinger, went public with a letter to a Manhattan public access channel protesting a show that featured two men having sex on a Bible. City Hall is directly involved in cable franchise and public access channel decisions.

His NYPD facilitated the 1998 showing of Corpus Christi, a play about a gay Christ who has offstage sex with his apostles, when threats temporarily stymied its staging at a publicly subsidized theater.

The administration’s funding of the Gay Men’s Health Crisis was unaffected by deaths at its well-publicized annual drug orgy on Fire Island, and he never misses a Gay Pride Parade, even though it features what the Post calls “grotesque mockery of the pope, cardinal and church.” It’s only now, when term limits and Hillary Clinton have changed his constituency, that Giuliani has become a public censor.

The museum defunding, just like his attempted voucher funding, is part of a 1999 rush of Giuliani reversals designed to reposition him for the Senate. In August, his switch from opponent to champion of the milk cartel bill slipped by the press, with barely a note of criticism. Only seven months earlier, Giuliani’s chief lobbyist had written a memo to the state legislature, saying that the city “strongly opposed” the bill, which upstate farm interests demand. The memo said it “could cost NYC consumers $30 million per year.”

The memo assailed the bill for permitting an across-the-board price hike, saying it “does not distinguish between large successful dairy farms as opposed to smaller farms which might require greater financial assistance.” The memo concluded that “there has to be a means of assisting the dairy industry without hurting NYC consumers.”

Since Clinton had already backed the cartel bill too, the issue quickly disappeared. But Hillary is not sworn to represent the interests of city residents only; she’s not supposed to be our spokesperson at a bargaining table with those who embody broader state interests. Rudy is.

Clinton did stake out a decidedly pro-NYC position on the $792 billion federal tax cut proposal of congressional Republicans— showing how it would butcher city education aid. Yet Giuliani’s endorsement of a tax gouge so deep it would cripple future city budgets has earned him no real rebuke. It’s gotten a fraction of the attention that the museum and FALN flaps have, suggesting that the mayor and his allies at the Post have so far been able to tilt the campaign coverage.

He’s also collapsed to upstate interests on a city-owned camp for the homeless in Orange County and wetlands development near the watershed reservoirs. His turnabouts were undisguised bows to pressures from upstate GOP officials, who publicly gloated over his sudden acquiescence, reversing his pre­ Senate-race positions. “We got more than we asked for,” the Orange County attorney boasted when the city moved to settle a lawsuit involving the camp that it had fought for five years. The city’s homeless, who will now be quarantined in an almost prisonlike camp, and its wetlands, which may be damaged by less-restrained developers, are no doubt seen by the mayor as sacrificial lambs in service to his own upstate ambitions.

When Christie Whitman dropped out of the New Jersey senate race recently, she said: “Part of what I set out to determine during the past nearly three months was whether or not it’s possible to implement our programs, policies, and reforms while at the same time running an aggressive race for the Senate. I have come to the conclusion that it is not.”

She was a statewide official considering a run for a different statewide position, and she found a conflict. The clash between city and upstate interests has long been the engine driving New York politics; yet the mayor acknowledges no conflicts even as he betrays his city.

We now have a mayor who will torment us with a needless and divisive controversy like the museum madness— just as he did by stonewalling after the Diallo shooting— so that he can gain a few points above the Bronx. Ed Koch was the last mayor to run statewide, but he only ran in a six-month Democratic primary campaign, and could not resort to upstate pandering that would have damaged him in his base. Rudy Giuliani seems prepared to run against his own city for most of two years, recasting himself in a state where the overwhelming lion’s share of the Republican vote is located in regions he doesn’t represent.

It’s city bashers, not Catholic bashers, who are setting the Giuliani agenda.

Research: Jennifer Warren