"Everything has changed"? Please. That is so September 11. New York's mayoral race has turned into a pie-fight. In other words, things are returning to normal.




October 20, 2001

At this writing, Freddy Ferrer still refuses to count himself out of the Democrats' New York mayoral run-off, which was held last week and seemed to elect Mark Green by a margin of 20,000 votes. In fact, Ferrer said Green got 20,000 votes more than he did when he appeared to concede on Election Night. But then someone told him about 34,000 uncounted paper ballots, and Ferrer put himself back in contention, as his agents complained loudly of a "divisive" last-minute phone and flyer campaign push -- specific, credible examples of which I have yet to see.

Then Republican candidate Mike Bloomberg jumped in and exploited the tsimmis, getting behind the Ferrer camp's charge of divisiveness, apparently in hopes of promoting enough division of his own to pick up some votes.

I'm delighted. I hope Ferrer wins this eye-gouging contest, but if Green pulls it off, that's okay too. As for Mike Bloomberg, I think he's nuts, but good luck to him while we're at it.

Because one thing's for sure: in a few weeks, we'll have a general election and a new Mayor. And for a few shaky days last month, that was not a sure thing.

I got behind Ferrer early. For one thing, I make it a point of honor to vote for any citywide candidate endorsed by Al Sharpton. Reverend Al is one of our city's treasures, a delirious combination of Marcus Garvey and P. T. Barnum. During eight years of the undertakerish Giuliani, Sharpton has provided a needed splash of color to our public scene, and I would hate to see his robust presence fade from view.

But I had other, better reasons. Before the primary my Latino neighborhood was peppered with horizontal Ferrer posters featuring a New York City skyline, much like the one on the old Rheingold label. "A Mayor for all the people," it read.

This endeared me further to the candidate: so retro, this notion that non-white citizens had some say in the governance of their city. And that skyline! You could practically hear "The Sidewalks of New York" playing in the background. The very idea that one should celebrate the city for its enduring fundaments, its confluence of towers and tenements, its streetlife and its sweet life, as something more than the by-product of some high-level decision by brokers and Police Commissioners -- it was so encouraging, so heartening in the fullest sense of that word, that even though I assumed Ferrer would be defeated -- Mark Green had all the endorsements and earmarks of a Democratic champion, and occupied the hallowed "middle" ground -- I knew it would be a noble, glorious defeat, one I was anxious to be part of.

And so I looked forward to September 11. Well, that day achieved its red letter, but of a far different sort than I had hoped.

So the primary was left hanging. This was necessary, of course, but it also left a gap into which some ugly opinions quickly rushed. Two days after the attacks, the New York Post's Maggie Haberman said the elections were now "virtually meaningless," and the paper ran polls proving that most citizens wanted Giuliani to stay, despite the prohibiting term limits (and surely Post's polls were more legitimate than the kind run by the goldurned gummint).

The Post dropped the other shoe on the 21st: Giuliani "needs to stay on," the paper editorialized, for an indefinite period of time ("three months, or six, or 12") past the proposed election date. The Democrats went ahead and scheduled a runoff between Green and Ferrer anyway, but the chilling prospect of government by fiat still hung in the air.

Right after the attacks, I had thought: boy, these terrorists picked the wrong fucking city to try and terrorize. Citizens are strongers than that; we're not prone to panic and we don't like anyone telling us what to do. These attacks brought us sorrow and pain, but terror? Gimme a fuckin' break. It was like Bogie told the Nazi officer in Casablanca: "There are certain parts of New York, Major, that I wouldn't suggest you invade."

But now a big newspaper was beating the drum: give up your election, Everything Has Changed. Let wise men lead you, for you are not good enough to lead yourselves.

And I admit, my faith was a little shaken. I worried that my fellow citizens might yet be driven to that condition warned of by Ben Franklin: eager to abandon liberty for safety, and deserving of neither.

And then came Giuliani's attempted putsch...

How to describe the rare justice of it? For weeks we'd had Rudy at his best: his devotion to duty made him the man of the hour, and that hour was earned -- he performed admirably. But when the heat of the moment cooled, the Mayor's inflamed ego still smoldered. Of course the media around the country, who have always loved him for taking a stick to our unruly polity -- believing, I am sure, that Rudy hated the City as much as they did, and taking pleasure in his discipline of it -- stooped to kiss his ass; and Rudy obligingly dropped his pants.

I should have had more faith in my City. For when the Godfather tipped his hand, summoning the candidates for a sitdown and delivering his ultimatum, Freddy Ferrer made his bones. And suddenly we all got a refresher course in one of the City's oldest lessons: when you stand up to bullies, with the force of the Law in your hands, you can win.

The message spread throughout the city, borne as if on the wind. The press, I really believe, was behind the curve: it reported the facts, then ducked and covered. But one could feel it in the air. It was as bold as "Ford to City: Drop Dead" or "A cop has turned. No one is safe," though, as the press blushed, it was at first written nowhere but in the hearts of the citizens: Someone said "no" to Giuliani.

Suddenly even the Wall Street Journal was saying, well, this IS a republic, after all... The Post rages as before: but with its very shrillness, it is acknowledging defeat.

And Giuliani is revealed as a Coriolanus, a public servant who thought he was the public's master; a man who, having performed his duty to the people, felt a duty was then owed him. That his gifts were acknowledged was not enough for him; he himself had to be acknowledged -- not just acknowledged, but deified. But, had he forgotten? New Yorkers are notoriously godless. Even in hard times, we can only stand so much of the old strong-arm, and the day always comes when we force it back. Even the Tammany Tiger fell before our indignation. What chance had Rudy, once he crossed the line?

Now look: the election is afoot. And it's wild, nasty, ignoble -- in short, it fulfills the hallowed traditions of New York electoral politics. Disappointments and disasters will follow -- they always do; even a brute mayor can no more defend against them than Giuliani could have defended the Twin Towers against attack -- but we will deal with them as we have since the days of the Dutch traders: with our industry and our cunning. Alliances will be forged; deals struck. And when they are, there is a chance -- a small one, but where the people rule there is always a chance -- that the city's poorest will once again be also at the table.

The man I stood up for at his wedding a few weeks ago moved to New York from Chicago a few years ago. At his bachelor party, deep in his cups, he told me that the attack on the Towers had clinched the deal for him: he wouldn't turn his back on the town, he would stay; how had discovered in the cauldron of crisis where his loyalties lay; he was, by God, a New Yorker. I embraced him and welcomed him to our great fraternity. For he knows what we all learn after a while: one is granted citizenship at first, but over time one finds that citizenship -- this citizenship, anyway -- must also be earned.

In recent weeks, millions of New Yorkers earned again the price of citizenship. And in recent weeks, they have shown again that they know what it's worth.

It has for years been my proudest boast that I am a citizen of New York, but I've never been more proud of that than I am now.