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.
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.
His very last cuts, just before Christmas, to close the projected budget gap, were aimed at all these same targets.
He had homeless men with outstanding warrants arrested in shelters at night during one Christmas season, and when it was pointed out by reporters that some of the warrants were for no more than public urination, he said with a smirk that we wouldn’t want that to go unpunished—raising the question of whether the city had done anything to provide public toilets. His homeless-services commissioner said about the rise in numbers of shelter seekers: “I can’t screw the front door any tighter.”
His Human Resources Administration team, imported from Wisconsin, specialized in reducing the welfare rolls, and tried to award a lucrative welfare-to-work contract to a company employing a friend of the commissioner.
At any number of discussions among not-for-profit social service providers during the last few years, one could hear many tales of how the Giuliani administration was making life miserable for their clients. Most of this traveled below the radar of mainstream pundits, who generally praised Giuliani for the drop in crime and cleaning up the city.
At a forum on Giuliani’s legacy sponsored by the Citizens’ Union not long ago, New York Times columnist John Tierney said that La Guardia was one of the two worst mayors of the century because “he left us too many programs to pay for.”
The main subjects debated during the forum were how much credit Giuliani deserved for the crime decrease, and for getting rid of squeegee men. Unmentioned at this forum, and in so many other evaluations of his tenure, was the question of what the measure of a mayor’s legacy should be. How much does the transformation, or nontransformation, of the physical landscape count? How much does the delivery or non-delivery of government services (other than crime-fighting and prevention) to those most in need weigh?
To paraphrase the punch line of Lloyd Bentsen’s famous retort to Dan Quayle in the vice presidential debate of 1988, we know who Fiorello La Guardia was, and Mayor Giuliani, you are no Fiorello La Guardia.