In New York, Mayor's Race Means Race

NEW YORK — NEW YORK -- As New York City goes, so goes the nation.

Well, maybe not. The Big Apple has always been praised and vilified as epitomizing the best and the worst of U.S. political, cultural and social life, so it is not the norm, but a benchmark which defines the American experience in terms of its extremities, good and bad.


This said, some important -- and disturbing -- national themes run through the subtext of the bitter mayoral race in which the incumbent, Democrat David N. Dinkins, the first black person to hold the job, is fending off Republican-Liberal challenger Rudolph W. Giuliani.

Across the Hudson River in New Jersey, Gov. Jim Florio, a Democrat, is defending his record against Republican opponent Christine Todd Whitman in a conventional, if at times downright nasty, campaign turning on nationwide preoccupations such as taxes, jobs and gun control.


New York's debate has hit much closer to the U.S. gut.

Day-to-day electioneering has focused on crime and schools and jobs and taxes. But the racial issue is never far beneath the surface. It is not so much whether Mr. Dinkins or Mr. Giuliani should be elected simply because one is black and the other is white. The question seems to be whether a black progressive Democrat is any better equipped to promote racial and ethnic harmony than a white traditionalist Republican.

The Los Angeles riots of 1992 heightened awareness of the profound racial divisions underlying American society. But life in New York has been punctuated by racially inspired violence for years -- not seismic upheavals like the uprising in South Central Los Angeles, but small outbursts of hatred like the bubbling-up of some overheated caldron.

Such incidents were much on the city's mind in 1989, when Mr. Dinkins, facing Mr. Giuliani for the first time, campaigned on a promise to smooth the friction between the jagged shards of what he was pleased to term the "gorgeous mosaic" of New York's racial and ethnic groups.

Instead, racial incidents have poisoned Mr. Dinkins' term in office, and the 1989 campaign phrase now rings emptily. Disenchanted New York voters, more concerned with gunplay in the streets and decay beneath them, seem ready to settle for a modicum of tolerance.

For many, that means "thinking the unthinkable," as the Village Voice put it, and crossing long-held partisan lines to vote for a Republican.

President Clinton made matters worse in declaring last month while stumping in Manhattan for Mr. Dinkins that "too many of us are still too unwilling to vote for people who are different than we are."

That was intended as an exhortation against prejudice, but overlooked that Mr. Dinkins has been little more successful at racial reconciliation than he has been at reversing the general decline of New York.


Mr. Giuliani, a dour figure almost entirely lacking in charisma, made a name for himself as a take-no-prisoners U.S. attorney in New York in the 1980s. He has capitalized on the sense among New Yorkers that Gotham is becoming uninhabitable, stressing crime enforcement and restoration of the deteriorated quality of life, and on discontent with high taxes and shoddy services, pledging a tight administrative ship.

But these are perennial election-year items in New York and every other major U.S. city. Mr. Giuliani has struck a more sensitive chord by implicitly rejecting Mr. Dinkins' "gorgeous mosaic" philosophy, which in practice merely intensified social fragmentation, promising instead to strictly enforce "a single standard for all New Yorkers."

Mr. Giuliani has not dwelled on the issue. But his phrase expresses one position in the continuing debate over how to resolve competing claims of a democratic society and its component groups, between so-called political correctness and an approach based on pragmatism.

This was echoed in the controversial Supreme Court decision in Shaw vs. Reno, holding that electoral districts cannot be redrawn to ensure that a minority is represented. Justice Sandra Day O'Connor commented that "racial gerrymandering, even for remedial purposes, may Balkanize us into competing racial factions; it threatens to carry us further from the goal of a political system in which race no longer matters . . . [which is one] to which the nation continues to aspire."

Justice O'Connor's "Balkanization" has been all too evident in New York, and by defining the city as a "gorgeous mosaic," Mr. Dinkins bound himself to the progressive position, becoming a hostage to special interests and opening himself to charges of favoritism. Personal limitations aside, Mr. Dinkins was unable to make tough mayoral calls when racial strife flared.

Few question Mr. Dinkins' sincerity, but even the Democratic liberals, who gave him a narrow victory margin of fewer than 50,000 votes in 1989, question his leadership abilities. Many are distressed, too, at how Mr. Dinkins, defensive, has played the race card this election year.


"What is striking about it is [that] Dinkins has clung to race in this election as a kind of security blanket," says New York University Professor Richard Sennett, a city historian and sociologist. He voted for Mr. Dinkins in 1989, but now concludes the mayor has been "inept," especially in racial matters. "Over the course of four years, it's his lack of ability to lead as a mayor that has shaped what looks like a totally racial [electoral] confrontation," said Mr. Sennett.

Mr. Dinkins' finest hour may have come in April 1992, when the rioting in South Central Los Angeles unleashed rumors of bloodshed in Brooklyn and "wilding" black youths in Midtown. Thousands of commuters literally fled to the trains and the highways in a panicky exodus.

Dignified and calm, Mr. Dinkins seemed to fulfill his campaign pledge as he took to the airwaves urging New Yorkers to steady their nerves and keep the peace. New York did not follow Los Angeles.

But his term was already marred by racial tragedy in Crown Heights. Blacks in the Brooklyn neighborhood attacked Jewish residents after a black child died from injuries caused by a car in the motorcade of a Jewish sect leader which had jumped the curb. Youths were reported to have shouted "Kill the Jew!" as they chased down and fatally stabbed Yankel Rosenbaum, an Australian Jew and Holocaust scholar.

The August 1991 episode has haunted Mr. Dinkins. Some Jewish leaders laid Mr. Rosenbaum's death at his doorstep, charging that the mayor, as a black, hesitated to take firm action against the rioters. This fall, a state commission concluded Mr. Dinkins was out of touch with events in Crown Heights and moved slowly to instruct police to restore order. Mr. Dinkins himself has acknowledged he made errors in the incident.

Other issues have piled up, inflicting further political damage: an embarrassing contracts scandal in the Parking Violations Bureau, scene of a major corruption case in the 1980s; a crisis in the schools after the discovery that asbestos, supposedly removed before Mr. Dinkins came to office, remained a threat to student health; the distribution by the Democratic State Committee of a Dinkins leaflet portraying Hispanics as indigent victims, alienating many Latin voters.


"Mayor Dinkins presides over an administration in utter disarray," former Mayor Edward I. Koch, whom Mr. Dinkins defeated in the 1989 Democratic primary election, wrote in a New York Daily News column. Mr. Koch is no friend of Mr. Dinkins', but even liberals who view Mr. Giuliani with distaste wonder whether they can give Mr. Dinkins their vote a second time.

"Dinkins has aroused a great deal of passion, a great deal of disappointment," says Mr. Sennett, while Mr. Giuliani, "for most of the people I know who are middle-aged professionals, is a kind of remainder. He's what happens after a Democratic mayor fails."

Brendan Murphy, a former UPI foreign correspondent and financial writer, has lived in New York City for the past four years.