Berman for Comptroller
Siegel for Public Advocate
Voice Primary Choices
Months before this mayoral campaign was even under way, the prevailing wisdom adopted by the pop analysts of mainstream media was that the four Democratic candidates were hopeless: they were boring, uninspired, uncharismatic, too wed to the past, too tied to special interests to take on the system. Openly pining for hints of rudyesque fire, the pundits looked longingly to the novice billionaire running as a Republican, showering him with an attention denied all other contenders. Unfortunately for them, Michael Bloomberg has proven to be mostly a bumbling embarrassment.
At the same time, largely unheralded in the media, those on the Democratic line have been working overtime to present workable, if unsexy, solutions for issues on police-community relations, education, affordable housing, job growth, and the future of welfare—solutions, in short, for all the genuinely tough tasks that Rudy Giuliani was too busy name-calling or planning fantasy stadiums to undertake.
For sure, none of the Democratic candidates has a future in show business. None of them are electrifying speakers, none have fashioned a single issue that captures the imagination. But measured by their combined level of experience and governmental talent, this year’s Democrats are as capable as those on the 1977 primary ballot, when Bella Abzug, Herman Badillo, Abe Beame, Mario Cuomo, Ed Koch, and Percy Sutton all vied for votes.
Peter Vallone has transformed himself from a clubhouse drone into a leader whose gut instincts led him to approve antitobacco laws and campaign finance reforms, all against the urgings of lobbyists and incumbents who viewed them with horror.
Alan Hevesi has always been a thoughtful official, one who prides himself on choosing negotiation over confrontation. But the comptroller’s finest moment was his refusal to approve efforts to award a mammoth $104 million welfare-to-work contract to the mayor’s cronies, a move that ultimately made Hevesi the chief target of Giuliani’s venom in these last days of the race.
Fernando Ferrer, also a product of politics-as-usual, was so appalled at the condition of the borough he inherited that he spent the past 15 years laboring in the trenches, trying to turn the Bronx around. His aborted 1997 mayoral campaign, in which he twisted himself into corkscrews trying to run to the right of Ruth Messinger, was a denial of much of his own background. Candidate Ferrer of 2001 found his true voice and put forth a clear call to those who have been neglected by the Giuliani years.
The defining moment of the 1977 primary summer was the devastating blackout riot that frightened an electorate into following Ed Koch’s pro-death-penalty chant. In 1989, it was an ugly racial slaying in Brooklyn that helped many voters decide between Koch and David Dinkins. In 1993, echoes of a riot in Crown Heights nudged Giuliani past Dinkins.
New Yorkers have been spared that sort of tragic high drama this summer. Instead it has come down to four, all eminently qualified candidates slogging it out, position paper by position paper, endorsement by endorsement. At the end of the day, the ruling pundits have it wrong: If anyone is a captive of the past it’s Rudy Giuliani, who has steadfastly rebuffed the city’s black and Latino communities; whose idea of effective governance has been rule by secrecy, fear, and selective prosecution; whose own system of patronage and favors for friends and allies has drastically outweighed anything the city saw in the four years that preceded him under an administration Giuliani still derides as the old-style clubhouse.
The biggest challenge to the next mayor isn’t how to continue the acknowledged innovations Giuliani brought to policing; whoever wins will seek to continue and expand them. Rather, it is how to handle the detritus Giuliani will leave behind while at the same time juggling an apparently unavoidable steep downturn in the city’s fiscal fortunes.
The best candidate for that mission, we are convinced, is Mark Green, the hardest working man in politics, a man who has spent his entire career speaking truth to power.
Green is a rare combination: The author and editor of 16 books, he is one of the preeminent analysts on the obstacles to democracy and the role of unchecked corporate power. Even if he wasn’t a candidate for high elected office, he would be on anyone’s list of original and perceptive thinkers about the business of government. At the same time, he has spent 11 years working in city government, advancing legislation and learning the art of the possible.
He made his name as a consumer advocate, a calling that has helped advance the political fortunes of many others. The difference was that while Green did his share of press conferences aimed at easy targets like small, price-gouging tourist shops, what he really relished were fights with the Big Boys.
He didn’t have Giuliani’s schooling in the ways of organized crime when, as Consumer Affairs commissioner under Dinkins, he launched the city’s first attack on mob control of the private carting industry after recognizing that citizens were paying far higher prices than necessary.
He was relentless in his assaults on the tobacco industry, the first to denounce cigarette makers for using cartoon characters in advertising designed to lure a new generation of nicotine addicts. He understood both the dangerous implications and the influence of HMOs long before most others, and his studies of the industry led to fines and law changes.
He brought the same insight and perspective to office when he was elected the city’s first Public Advocate, and unlike many other leaders in his party, he consistently refused to duck battles with Giuliani. A year into the Giuliani administration, Green found that the welfare office was improperly denying benefits to the needy. He blasted Giuliani’s first budget for its draconian cuts to recycling, bridge maintenance, libraries, and day-care centers while at the same time the mayor was handing huge tax breaks to major corporations.
The result was that Green’s name was placed atop the administration’s ever growing enemies list, the budget for his office cut, and the Public Advocate barred from speaking at city housing projects. While others in city government seemed to have difficulty finding their voices when it came to challenging Giuliani, Green stood openly and often courageously alone.
But he has always been more than just a critic. He has rightly prided himself on being a forward-thinking politician, rushing to embrace new technologies, calling on state and city government to aid emerging businesses by cutting utility taxes, making cheaper power available, and creating new high-tech zones.
Is he still often too clever by half? Do his overuse of quips, his penchant for green ink, his love of TV cameras often make us cringe? Are we already weary of that ever-raised index finger that always seems to be accompanied by the use of the first-person pronoun? Oh yes. Luckily for him, these are not the things on which most voters decide.
More seriously disturbing has been his rush to adopt new positions in an effort to make himself palatable to moderates, including his call for an end to all parole without even knowing who would be most affected.
But these hesitations are far outweighed by his long record of active concern and assistance for those left behind by the economy, those shut out of government, and the victims of official abuse. They are also put aside in the belief that, in a general election matched against a free-spending billionaire who cares nothing for campaign finance reforms, Green is the most likely to prevail. We urge readers to cast their votes for Mark Green.
Berman for Comptroller
The rationale for the Voice‘s endorsement of City Councilman Herb Berman for comptroller starts with his opponent, William Thompson. In a diverse city in desperate need for diverse leadership, Thompson at first appeared to be an able and amiable option.
But he could not answer fundamental questions raised in news stories published in this paper about his rather bizarre and disturbing professional history. His gross violations of securities regulations as an investment banker over a period of years, as well as his tainted business associations and misleading submissions to the city’s Conflict of Interest Board, disqualify Thompson for this sensitive and significant post.
As chair of the City Council’s powerful Finance Committee, Herb Berman has long been an accessible, intelligent, mediating influence in the city’s budget process. He brings decades of experience and sound judgment to the job of chief fiscal officer. His progressive roots and fiscal probity indicate that he will continue—in the tradition of outgoing comptroller Alan Hevesi—to use his pension investment, audit, prevailing wage, and budget oversight powers to balance the city’s efforts to meet social needs with its ability to pay the bills.
Berman, however, also failed to answer critical questions raised in these news pages about his acceptance of $55,000 in contributions from the Wilpon family and associates at the same time that he steered through the council a minor-league stadium boondoggle for the Mets. While Berman argues that he championed the stadium because it was the only way to rescue a barren Coney Island, he cannot explain why he did nothing to try to alter the terms of a deal that was a giveaway to his benefactors.
Even more troubling was Berman’s refusal to take a clear stand during his endorsement interview on a potential billion-dollar city investment in two major-league stadiums—one more for the Wilpons and one for George Steinbrenner. Even though Rudy Giuliani appears just a primary away from announcing these deals, Berman kept telling the Voice that any position he might take now would be “premature.” Berman’s stadium bluster suggests that he and his sidekick, Council Speaker Peter Vallone, may already have a secret deal with Mayor Baseball.
Despite these errors on the Berman scorecard, we have confidence that over a long four-year season, Herb Berman will do many of the right things necessary to lead and safeguard this city.
Norman Siegel for Public Advocate
It’s easy to imagine underachievement in a Public Advocate. The citywide office has a tiny budget, limited ability to investigate, and no enforcement power. Yet its mission is vast: to make government good, both by resolving the day-to-day complaints of individual New Yorkers and by identifying and seeking reform of systemic failings and abuses. The current and only Public Advocate so far, Mark Green, has done a good job. But the possibilities for this young office remain wide open; the potential for innovation, in fact, is exciting. The post requires an individual with an ambitious—even radical—vision for progress, boundless energy, intelligence and insight, genuine empathy for the people he serves, and, perhaps most important, a certain irreverence for convention.
That individual is Norman Siegel.
He faces a number of strong, capable opponents, most of whom have significant experience in government. Councilman Stephen DiBrienza especially has earned our respect for his 16 years of dedicated work fighting for public services for poor and working families.
But as head of the New York Civil Liberties Union for 15 years until he resigned to campaign, Siegel was a relentless and often ingenious advocate for some of the city’s most disadvantaged. He organized lawsuits and public campaigns in support of underserved minority students, immigrant taxi drivers, and welfare recipients, and in opposition to police abuses and the death penalty. He won 23 First Amendment lawsuits against the Giuliani administration, no small feat considering the vindictiveness and tenacity of his opponent.
He has, in alliance with fellow progressives across the city, helped let in the light during times that were dark for anyone who believed in the importance of public protest, freedom from racial profiling and police brutality, and publicly accountable government. He speaks movingly of the perils of racial injustice, which he began fighting during the 1960s civil rights movement, and has backed his words with action.
He plans, if he wins, to augment paid staff with hundreds of volunteer complaint handlers and investigators—a prospect imaginable only given Siegel’s record of rousing and recruiting others. With a proven disregard for political niceties, he promises not to relent in his investigation of official abuses no matter who the target and vows to push the limits of the office to the outermost. He calls himself a troublemaker, and we believe he will be, in all the right ways.
Voice Primary Choices
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This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on September 4, 2001