New York's Loneliest Liberal

Taking stock of people and ideas in the news.
Aug. 10 1997 3:30 AM

New York's Loneliest Liberal

Ruth Messinger's bad rap.

Illustration by Steve Brodner

Ruth Messinger, the favorite to become the Democratic nominee for mayor of New York, is being treated here as a kind of anthropological curiosity. After Messinger gave a major address a few weeks back, the Daily News sardonically endorsed her as the "Mayor of Mars," observing with a characteristically light touch that her speech had furnished evidence of life on "the Red Planet." Messinger hasn't just lost the Reagan Democrats who read, or at least edit, the city's tabloids. A recent poll found Mayor Rudolph Giuliani beating her by 18 points. Among Jews, bearers of the New York liberal tradition that Messinger represents, Giuliani leads by the staggering ratio of 79-to-21.

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You have to pity Messinger--first because the brand of liberalism she is identified with was the universal philosophy of the city's elite until a few years ago, and second because nobody's listening to the second thoughts she's been having about it. A couple of weeks ago, Messinger gave a speech before a business group, in which she proposed to reduce the city's budget by $1 billion, to force work-rule changes on unions, to permit private contractors to compete with city agencies--the kinds of innovations common in Republican-dominated cities like Indianapolis and Phoenix. She even said, in what passes in politics for a mea culpa, "You learn a lot in two decades, and I have." The NewYorkTimes editorial page applauded, but nothing Messinger does will remove the scarlet L from her brow. Ed Koch, the former mayor, says, "I believe in epiphanies," but adds that when he looks at Messinger, he sees a younger version of Bella Abzug, the hat-wearing, megaphonic incarnation of the New York Left of the previous generation.

That's fatal, and a bit unfair. Messinger is actually not that kind of New Yorker--she can keep her hands in her lap when she talks. She's a child of the middle class who attended Brearley, New York's most rarefied girls' school, and Radcliffe, from which she graduated in 1962. She has a master's in social work. Messinger is widely respected for her intelligence, her studiousness, her belief in the fine distinction. But there's something of the killjoy in her. She's brisk, and pinched, and a bit censorious--you have the feeling that she has a moral position on, say, French food.

Messinger's supporters claim that she's been typecast based on her milieu--the predominantly Jewish Upper West Side--rather than her beliefs. The problem with this is that Messinger has a history of beliefs that look rather embarrassing in retrospect. In 1979, while a member of the City Council, she hosted a coming-out-of-jail cocktail party for John R. Hill, who had murdered a corrections officer on the first day of the Attica riots. In 1984, she returned from a trip to Sandinista-led Nicaragua to assert that women there "participated in everything" and were "ready to die for this freedom."

In the City Council, Messinger was generally considered a staunch voice for tenants, for children, for the homeless and the poor. In the mid-1980s, she proposed extending rent control from individuals to businesses, a suggestion very few real-estate developers have forgotten. In 1981, she endorsed Frank Barbaro, about the closest thing the city has recently had to a Democratic Socialist candidate for mayor. She consistently argued for more spending, even as it was becoming clear that the Wall Street boom of the '80s was flattening out.

Of course, practically everyone, including Koch, wanted to spend more than the city had--that's what it meant to be a New York liberal. In The Future Once Happened Here, historian and polemicist Fred Siegel quotes Mayor Robert Wagner, circa 1965, as saying, "I do not propose to let our fiscal problems set the limit of our commitments to meet the essential needs of the people of this city." The problem, as Siegel notes, is that the definition of "essential needs" grew exponentially, forcing New York and other cities not only to raise taxes but to scant such traditional services as parks and sanitation in favor of a whole new range of social services.

By the time David Dinkins became mayor in 1989, this kind of spending had made New York ungovernable. The economy was dead, the budget was in perpetual crisis, and crime was shooting through the roof. Dinkins did nothing to reverse the trend, and in 1993, four prominent Democrats, including Koch and Robert Wagner Jr. (son of the former mayor), abandoned Dinkins in favor of Giuliani. Dinkins was New York's first black mayor, and his election had been heralded, by Messinger among others, as the dawn of the Rainbow Coalition. It turned out to be the last gasp of traditional liberalism.

Crime, and a broad sense of civic disorder, probably had more to do with Dinkins' defeat than spending did. But Messinger, like Dinkins, cannot find a way of sounding convincing when she deplores crime--she has spent too many years thinking about it as a civil-rights and civil-liberties issue. Nor can she bring herself to say that Giuliani was right about the merits of arresting low-level offenders and cracking down on "quality-of-life" violations.

Dinkins lost to Giuliani by only four points. Now it appears that many of the Jewish liberals, Catholic union members, and Hispanics who had stuck with Dinkins are going to decamp in favor of a Republican with the personal appeal of a Torquemada. A Giuliani victory by more than, say, 10 points is bound to be seen as a repudiation not merely of Messinger but of everything she stands for. But the truth is that urban liberalism is not as bankrupt as the election is making it appear. Reformers such as Harvey Robins, a former top Dinkins aide, and Ray Horton, an independent budget monitor, have been arguing that the city could save billions of dollars by targeting long-standing perquisites--such as the endless array of paid holidays for city workers or large amounts of down time for cops and teachers--then investing the savings in parks and libraries and in restoring the city's neglected neighborhoods. They have made plausible arguments for raising some taxes and lowering others.

Messinger has at least been alluding to the new reformist thinking, while Giuliani merely mocks good-government proposals as so much eyewash. In fact, in a truly remarkable public-relations coup, the mayor has managed to gain a reputation as a pitiless reformer without reforming anything except the Police Department. He has disappointed conservatives by treating rent control as part of natural law, and by making no serious inroads on the city's bloated labor costs. To hack away at the mayor's reputation, Messinger has recently taken to issuing press releases with headlines like "He Just Keeps Lying ... And Lying ... And Lying ..." But it doesn't seem to matter. Messinger can't break Giuliani's stereotype, or break out of her own.

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