Three Jewish mayors

New York State elected a Jewish governor and senator long before NYC chose its first Jewish mayor.

bloomberg kotel 88 (photo credit: )
bloomberg kotel 88
(photo credit: )
George Washington Plunkitt, rogue philosopher of the Tammany Hall political machine, once offered this prescription for electoral success in polyglot New York. The ideal ward heeler, he explained, "eats corned beef and kosher meats with equal nonchalance, and it's all the same to him whether he takes his hat off in church or pulls it over his head in synagogue." For decades, Plunkitt's advice took the form of what was known as the "balanced ticket." It divided up the candidates for the city's major offices among products of the ethnic groups that comprised the Democratic coalition - Irish, Italian, Jewish, and in later generations, Hispanic and African American. Yet, paradoxically, New York State elected a Jewish governor (Herbert Lehman) and a Jewish senator (Jacob Javits) long before New York City, the largest Jewish city in the world, chose its first Jewish mayor. By the time Abraham Beame took office in 1973, the city was well into the process of losing Jews to suburbia, their exodus caused both by growing prosperity and disenchantment with much of the liberal social contract. With the reelection to Michael Bloomberg as mayor in early November, however, the city has its third Jewish mayor. By the time Bloomberg finished his second term and must relinquish the office under the term-limits law, he, Beame, and Edward Koch will have led New York for 24 of the previous 36 years. TO LOOK back over the characters and policies of these three men is to see with startling clarity a kind of Jewish political evolution, from machine loyalist to reformer to meritocrat. Ideologically as well as chronologically, they form distinct generations. The child of immigrant parents from Poland, Beame was just as much the progeny of the balanced-ticket era, a politician exceptional only for the patience he showed in waiting for his turn to be put forward for mayor. He came into office on the reputation of being fiscally prudent, having served as the city's comptroller, the antidote to the "Fun City" excesses and experiments of his predecessor, the swashbuckling John Lindsay. Instead, Beame went on to disprove every self-congratulatory Jewish assumption about how it takes a yiddische kup to be good at business. Having inherited a $1.5 billion deficit from Lindsay, Beame authorized an ever-increasing amount of short-term borrowing, which reached a depth of $6 billion and brought New York to the precipice of bankruptcy. When Beame pleaded for help from Washington, the Daily News distilled the presidential response in its famous headline FORD TO CITY: DROP DEAD. New York State ultimately stepped in to oversee and reorganize the city's finances in what the journalist Ken Auletta dubbed "fiscal martial law." Beame left office disgraced not only by the near-default but the arson and looting that ravaged the city during his tenure. Even the Rolling Stones, nobody's idea of social conservatives, sang, "This town's in tatters." More seriously, Beame's mayoralty brought an end to a certain kind of Democratic philosophy of governing - generous contracts with unions and extensive public spending, all of it paid for with rising taxes and borrowed millions. KOCH HAD cut his political teeth as an insurgent against Tammany Hall. Embodying the postwar idealism of American Jews, he volunteered in Mississippi during the Civil Rights Movement and helped found the iconoclastic weekly paper, the Village Voice. As a congressman, he investigated the military juntas in South America so vigorously that he was at one point targeted for assassination. It was widely believed that Koch was gay, too, though he never directly addressed the issue of his sexual orientation. Very true to his generation of Jews, Koch had begun to move in a neoconservative direction by the time of his election in 1977, assailing antipoverty program operators as "poverty pimps" and taking strikes by the transit and sanitation unions as the price of taming their contractual demands. Precisely because Koch had irrefutable credentials as a liberal, he could hold those positions without losing his Democratic base. His pugnacity was pure New York attitude; he was the mayor who asked passersby "How'm I doin'?" and installed streets signs that read DON'T EVEN THINK OF PARKING HERE. Koch's fall from power came largely because, against his political tendencies, he made alliances of convenience with the remnants of Tammany Hall. A scandal involving a city parking-ticket agency, while not leading to charges against the mayor, put an aura of impropriety around Koch. He lost a primary election in 1989 to David Dinkins, who would become the city's first black mayor. AND NOW, after one term of Dinkins and two of Rudolph Giuliani, we have Michael Bloomberg, the Jew as meritocrat. It is easy to miss that aspect of Bloomberg, because it hardly seems to fit with Bloomberg the mogul, the man who has spent upwards of $70 million in each of his campaigns. Yet the Bloomberg who earned degrees in engineering and business, who worked the trading floor for Salomon Brothers, who created a respected media company, and who in all those guises depended on the unemotional accuracy of data - that Bloomberg very much personifies a contemporary American Jewish type oriented toward achievement rather than ideology. Bloomberg's is the generation that came of age after the civil rights crusade and had college deferments from Vietnam War service, the generation that measured its success in SAT scores and portfolio values. When he entered politics, he changed his party registration from Democrat to Republican out of the cold-eyed calculation that a political neophyte, even a fabulously rich one, stood a far better chance of winning the mayoral nomination for the city's weaker party. He had neither paid dues in the Beame mode nor followed a political philosophy with the fervor of Koch in both his liberal and neoconservative incarnations. The Bloomberg mayoralty has been built around concrete solutions and measurable outcomes, from taking control of the public school system to installing a single phone number for citizens to reach city agencies. (It brings to mind the renowned customer-service operation at Bloomberg's financial-news company.) Most important of all, when the city faced a fiscal crisis of 1970s proportions due to the September 11 attacks, Bloomberg raised property taxes to keep the budget balanced. If there's one vivid proof that Bloomberg has managed to success politically without adhering to the George Washington Plunkitt formula, it may have come on the day this fall when he made a campaign stop at a Harlem restaurant famous for its fried chicken and waffles. The mayor said no thanks, he was on a diet, and still captured nearly half of the black vote on Election Day. The writer, a professor of journalism at Columbia University, is a regular columnist for the Jerusalem Post. His most recent book is Who She Was: My Search For My Mother's Life.