President Giuliani v. Congress?
As the crusading mayor of New York working with an institutionally weak City Council — a former member once said you’d never call the council a rubber stamp, “because at least a rubber stamp leaves an impression” — Rudy Giuliani was used to getting his way.
But in 1998, over Giuliani’s objections, the council voted to change how the city provided emergency services for the homeless. The Republican mayor vetoed the bill, but the heavily Democratic council overrode the veto. By then, Giuliani’s “my way or the highway” reputation was well-established, and New Yorkers were used to watching him wage war on his political enemies.
What happened next may prove instructive to Members of Congress.
Giuliani moved to evict five community service agencies from a city-owned building in the Brooklyn district of the bill’s chief sponsor and threatened to open a homeless shelter there instead. Only after weeks of community outcry and condemnation in the city’s usually friendly newspapers did Giuliani back down.
Recalling the incident in a recent interview with a British online news service, former Councilman Stephen DiBrienza (D), the object of Giuliani’s ire back then, called Giuliani “the most divisive elected official in modern history.”
Is that a cautionary tale for Congress?
Giuliani’s status as a frontrunner in the 2008 White House race is based not only on his sure-footed performance in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, but also on his reputation as a decisive leader who helped transform a seemingly ungovernable city. But many veteran New York political watchers say that collegiality with other elected officials and community leaders was hardly the former mayor’s strong suit.
“He can get angry if he thinks people are trying to subvert what he’s doing,” said Henry Stern, a former city councilman who served as Giuliani’s parks commissioner — and made the trenchant observation about the council and a rubber stamp.
But Stern, who now runs a good government group in New York, said Giuliani’s fights were all policy-related: “He would not get into wars just out of pique.”
‘A Splash in the Face’
So what kind of relationship will Giuliani have with Congress if he is elected president — particularly if Democrats retain control on Capitol Hill?
“You think there’s going to be one?” mused one New York political insider who did not want to be named.
Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-N.Y.), who served on the City Council during Giuliani’s first five years as mayor, predicted Giuliani will be surprised, if he is elected, by how powerful Congress can be after dealing with the council.
“It’s going to be a splash in the face of President Giuliani when he realizes he can’t govern by fiat, that being president of the United States isn’t the same thing as being a field general,” Weiner said.
A Giuliani campaign spokeswoman last week promised to arrange an interview for this article with Tony Carbonetti, a longtime Giuliani lieutenant. But Carbonetti never called.
Some of the former mayor’s key Congressional allies say they’ve already had conversations with Giuliani about how he would work with Congress to advance his policy agenda if he makes it to the White House.
“I find Rudy very willing to reach out,” said Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.), who has known Giuliani since the two were summer clerks together in Richard Nixon’s Manhattan law firm 40 years ago.
King said that in his discussions with the candidate, Giuliani has asked savvy questions about Congressional procedures and personalities.
“He knows issues,” King said. “He knows big-name people — presidents, Cabinet members. He wants a real feel for how Congress functions.”
While observing that Giuliani has “mellowed” since being diagnosed with prostate cancer in 2000 and serving as mayor during the Sept. 11 attacks, King conceded that the ex-mayor is “tough” and “hard-nosed.”
Rep. Pete Sessions (R-Texas), who has helped Giuliani plan his presidential bid for the past three years, said the former mayor’s strong leadership style stands in contrast to the other Republican presidential contenders. Of the group, Giuliani is the best able to articulate and execute his agenda — skills that will serve him well with Congress regardless of which party is in control, Sessions said.
“I think that he will do very, very well under a Republican House and Senate,” he said. “But does he understand how to do business with Democrats? Darn right. Even though in New York City you could fit [all the] members of the Republican Party in a phone booth, he got things done.”
‘His Methodology Was Brilliant’
King said Giuliani has a defter personal touch with leaders he must work with than most political executives do and often searches for common ground. Giuliani and Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), for example, are Italian-Americans of the same generation, and Pelosi’s father and brother both served as big-city mayors.
Giuliani’s admirers include Peter Vallone (D), who was Speaker of the New York City Council, where Democrats hold a 9-1 edge, for the entire eight years Giuliani was mayor.
Vallone, a moderate Democrat, said that while Giuliani was “impatient” in the beginning, he learned to work with the council and other officials as time went on. Vallone said he met with Giuliani on a weekly basis and spoke to him almost daily.
“It started out rocky, but we came out as really good friends — and I think 9/11 capped all that,” he said.
But that did not prevent Giuliani and the council from suing each other on a couple of occasions. The council won a suit to create a civilian complaint review board for the police but lost one that would have given the council the right to investigate alleged police wrongdoing.
“His methodology was brilliant, and there was always a level of cooperation,” Vallone said of Giuliani. “Where we had our differences was [over] who had the power to do what.”
Boycotting Al Sharpton
But even if Giuliani had a collaborative relationship with Vallone, he often shunned more liberal political leaders who criticized him. He prided himself, for one thing, on never meeting with the Rev. Al Sharpton.
More mainstream black politicians also said they had little contact with Giuliani. A few years ago, former state Comptroller Carl McCall (D), who was the highest-ranking black officeholder in New York during Giuliani’s tenure, told an interviewer he only met with Giuliani once or twice — after a racially charged police shooting in New York. In the same article, Rep. Gregory Meeks (D-N.Y.) said he didn’t have a single meeting or phone conversation with Giuliani in eight years.
In the fight for the Republican presidential nomination, Giuliani’s opponents include four former governors, all of whom dealt with legislatures that had Democratic majorities for at least part of the time they were in office. Weiner — who ran unsuccessfully for mayor in 2005 and is likely to try again in 2009 — said it is wrong to assume that Giuliani’s experience with the council is similar to the governors’ relationship with their legislatures, because the council is institutionally so weak.
“If Mayor Giuliani is going to campaign and say, ‘I know what it’s like to deal with a contentious legislature,’ it just isn’t so,” Weiner said.
But at the same time, Giuliani’s relationship with the state Legislature in Albany was never particularly strong. While he was mayor, for example, the Legislature rescinded a tax on suburbanites who worked in New York City, which cost the city more than $200 million in annual revenues.
Most tellingly, the Legislature shortly after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks rejected efforts to change state law to extend Giuliani’s mayoral term.
In 1993 and 1996, city voters had approved two-term limits for the mayor and council — and Giuliani had supported both measures. A bid to repeal term limits failed in a City Council committee in March 2001.
As it happened, Sept. 11, 2001, was primary election day in New York, with voters set to choose the Democratic and Republican nominees for the general election to replace Giuliani as mayor. Even though voting already had begun when the planes struck the World Trade Center, the primary was postponed for two weeks.
With Giuliani riding high in the polls in the aftermath of the attacks, some supporters suggested that voters ought to write in his name on Election Day. The New York Conservative Party, which had denied Giuliani its ballot line during his previous campaigns for mayor, flirted with the idea of replacing its 2001 nominee with Giuliani.
A bill was introduced in the state Assembly to overturn the city’s term limit law if Giuliani won a third term in November. But the measure never saw the light of day, following the highly vocal objection of the Black and Puerto Rican Legislative Caucus in Albany.
Next, Giuliani aides quietly went to work on the liberal Democratic councilman who had sponsored the legislation earlier in 2001 to rescind the term limits, promising to ensure its passage if he reintroduced it. The councilman refused.
Finally, as the Democratic mayoral runoff began, Giuliani asked the candidates who were vying to replace him if they’d consider letting him extend his term three more months. Mark Green, Giuliani’s longtime nemesis who became the Democratic nominee, said yes — and some pundits believe that may have contributed to his defeat at the hands of Giuliani’s preferred successor, Michael Bloomberg (R).
A Democratic political consultant who watched Giuliani’s City Hall tenure closely called his efforts to change the term limit rules something Members of Congress ought to keep in the back of their minds.
“You don’t respond to an attack on democracy [like Sept. 11] by dumping democracy,” the consultant said. “But that’s what Rudy tried to do.”