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A Tale of Two Cities' Elections: New York's Slugfest Offers an Exciting Diversion for Bored Bostonians

Stacey E. Blau

Boston politics have gotten dull. Next month, Boston's mayor Tom Menino stands for re-election, but there are no other candidates running against him. Why is the race for the highest office in the city going uncontested? The conventional wisdom is that Menino, who has had popularity ratings of above 70 percent, is simply unbeatable. Most of the would-be candidates concluded months ago that waging a campaign against him would be a lost cause from the start.

And who can blame them for deciding not to run? Detractors need only turn their attention to the current mayoral race in New York City. The race, between Manhattan Borough President Ruth Messinger and Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, has proved a string of embarrassments and defeats for Messinger. Giuliani is overwhelmingly popular in New York, a fact all the more amazing considering that he is a Republican in a heavily Democratic city. He stands to be the first mayor in New York to win re-election since Ed Koch in 1985.

Giuliani has won his popularity with what he would proudly call his no-nonsense approach to governing. He has cut crime tremendously and has begun to reform New York's extraordinarily problematic welfare system. His four years in office have seen the initiation of construction projects to revive some run-down sections of New York City.

Equally importantly, Giuliani has played well into New Yorkers' proud mentality about their city. He has not hesitated to open his mouth widely and loudly in New York's defense. He is, after all, the man who said earlier this year that New York City might be better off without the United Nations. The statement came in response to a protracted dispute with Russian diplomats over parking tickets. The ill will between Giuliani and the U.N. grew so large that the problem required a series of mediation sessions with the State Department to resolve.

Brashness and all, Giuliani has done good by New Yorkers' lights, and the people are ready to re-elect him. His victory has seemed a sure thing to most people for at least several months. Messinger went out on a limb when she decided to run against Giuliani. Come-from-behind victories are certainly not unheard of, but they require waging incredibly difficult and draining campaigns, particularly in the face of an unlikely win. There is also the possibility of a lasting political scar from a disastrous loss. But yet there were Democrats in New York who wanted the job badly enough to face Giuliani. Messinger battled Bronx Borough President Fernando Ferrer, City Councilman Sal Albanese, and - pathetically enough - Al Sharpton, to finally emerge as the Democratic candidate.

Messinger's campaign could not be going worse. Her campaign kick-off fell flat, and each successive stunt has fizzled similarly. One early embarrassment was a campaign commercial focusing on education, the centerpiece of her platform. The commercial zeroed in on public school overcrowding and showed children piled into a school bathroom. But Messinger was criticized for the commercial, particularly for one image that depicted a child with his back up against a urinal. The capstone to the embarrassment came when the city schools chancellor himself revealed that the commercial was shot in a private school.

Such mistakes can be written off to ineptitude. But Giuliani has been after Messinger as well. And his tactics have not been clean. Just two weeks ago, Messinger planned a campaign stop in public school where reporters would cover her teaching a history class. But at the last minute, the city schools chancellor stepped in and said that reporters could not come because it would not be right to use a public school for a campaign event.

Giuliani, of course, quickly backed him up. He also defended his own impending visit to a public school, calling it a mayoral event and not a campaign event, thus justifying the presence of the press. Giuliani did not, of course, mention his press-attended campaign stop in a public school during his campaign four years ago when it was candidate Giuliani, not Mayor Giuliani, running for office.

Giuliani has attacked Messinger with such Nixonian ferocity that one might actually think that Messinger actually stood a chance at winning. He called Messinger a promoter of sex shops after she defended their right to exist. He said she was an enemy of professional sports when she said she didn't support building a new stadium for the the Yankees, and he nearly blamed her for New York's loss of the Giants, Jets, and Dodgers. In fairness, the mud-slinging has gone both ways; Messinger has called Giuliani a sexist and has accused him of dodging the Vietnam War draft.

The race, in short, has not been pretty. And the candidates have been so locked in mortal combat that real issues have come up short. Messinger has articulated a vision for the city, focusing on big issues like education and recent problems like police brutality. That's far more than can be said for Giuliani, who knows ultimately that he has the election locked up. But that's no excuse for not making a case to the voters. After all, that's why we have elections.

Other New York Democrats are, of course, thanking their lucky stars that they aren't in Messinger's shoes right now. Messinger may be running a poor campaign, but few can doubt that Giuliani would have spared other candidates his brand of venom. If Giuliani can be faulted for using insults as his modus operandi, it's only fair to ask where all the would-have-been candidates are in the Boston election. Giuliani has shown he is above addressing the electorate in New York. And so too have the other candidates who wouldn't dare to run against against Menino here in Boston.

The burden of tough elections is obvious, but the importance of debates on substantive matters is more important. It may be difficult to pin the blame on individuals making the politically wise move not to run in such elections, but ultimately their decisions represent a collective duck of responsibility. Call Messinger whatever you will - misguided, inept, or just plain wrong - but at least she had the gumption to run.

Stacey E. Blau '98 is from Great Neck, New York.