Hours after his reelection to a second term, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani stood in a hotel ballroom and made a stirring promise to the city’s minority communities. After shouting that, “we did it, we turned this city around,” Giuliani lowered his voice and acknowledged that this victory had not been shared equally. “We have to do a better job of serving all of you. We have to reach out to all of you. And if we haven’t, I apologize. I’m sorry and it is my personal commitment that we will try, endlessly and tirelessly, to bring all of you into the kind of success and optimism we have in this room.” that room, of course, was overwhelmingly white and filled with the fat cats who had feasted during his first term.
For Giuliani, it was a rare hopeful note during a sour campaign, one that featured the slogan “One City, One Standard,” trite political code for “Some people around here are not pulling their weight.” On that November 1997 evening, as he delivered an elegiac reflection on opportunities missed and bridges left unbuilt, it seemed Giuliani was ready to change the way he governed.
It is not clear how long that hope may have lasted— or even if it could be measured in days, as opposed to hours and minutes. Because it quickly became evident that Giuliani’s promise was empty, just more cynical shtick. The mayor was anything but penitent. Whether it was fear, bravado, or prejudice that kept him from acting on his words remains unclear.
But now, Giuliani can’t get away with his impervious act anymore. The mayor and Police Commissioner Howard Safir will no longer be able to summarily dismiss their critics as malcontents, the usual suspects out to defile City Hall. Despite the increasingly coarse nature of New York City’s political life, City Hall can no longer afford its poisonous us-versus-them mentality.
Because after Amadou Diallo, the city will never be the same.
No matter how often Giuliani invokes the warm images of his Brooklyn youth and a bygone New York, this is not that city. In his sixth year as mayor, Giuliani’s winning streak has ended. The Republican’s miscalculations in the wake of the Diallo killing were so monumental that they have served to galvanize a remarkable cross-section of New Yorkers— rabbis, teachers, social workers, and even some Giuliani allies.
In the name of a slain African immigrant they did not know, a young man who fought to immigrate here only to be blown away in a dingy Bronx vestibule, this group of New Yorkers has succeeded in forcing the mayor, for the first time, to behave as if he is accountable to those outside his political base. As he did on election night 1997, Giuliani has again started talking about reconciliation and is beginning to meet with minority leaders he shunned for years. But this redemption song may have as much to do with his future electoral ambitions as it does with his current predicament. Either way, given the mayor’s history of rancor and insouciance, forcing his hand was no small feat. In fact, some Giuliani partisans, like the angry souls at the Post, want desperately to dismiss this movement as nothing more than the misguided doings of Al Sharpton and supposed “limousine liberals” like Susan Sarandon. This is their panic speaking.
Because if Giuliani fails to rise above the petty and vindictive behavior that has become a sad hallmark of his administration, his impressive accomplishments and legacy will be marred by the worst kind of municipal malfeasance. He will have rebuffed an invitation to heal. That, of course, would be a dangerous career path for someone as politically ambitious as Giuliani. At a moment when the city finally appears to be rejecting his stifling brand of law-and-order conservatism, the mayor, who crippled himself, will have to settle for watching as others lead the way. Toward restoring some degree of respect for civil liberties. Toward establishing healthier relations between the races. Toward restoring a multitude of bridges neglected for far too long.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on March 30, 1999