CityFather v the Godfathers

Rudolph Giuliani has made New York a safer place. He stopped the squeegee pirates, the fare dodgers and welfare fraud. And now he's after the Mafia. David Usborne looks at the mayor facing the mob
Click to follow
The Independent Online
When Mayor Rudolph Giuliani suggested on late-night TV's David Letterman Show that the new slogan for New York City might be "We can kick your city's ass", he might have added, "because that is what I have been doing to mine ever since I was voted into office". Just ask the windscreen squeegee men who have been evicted from the city's road junctions, the fare dodgers who have been chased from the rail subways or the legions who have found themselves separated from their welfare checks. Best of all, ask the Mafia dons.

No politician in America - including the freshly re-elected President Clinton - can claim to have so directly touched the lives of those who elected him than New York's Giuliani.

He has presided over a decline in New York's crime rates that is the envy of every city in the land and, along the way, carried on a campaign against organised criminals in the Mafia mob that suggests a script for a sequel to On the Waterfront.

Giuliani can be peevish and a bully. His thirst for public exposure and acclaim can on occasion make him look like a spoiled child. But when his turn comes for re-election next year, Giuliani will be hard to beat. And that in spite of the fact that he is a Republican in a town that is Democrat by a margin of five to one.

America's Newsweek magazine this month highlighted the seeming paradox that is Giuliani. He is, it declared, the "most hated" mayor in America. It also said that he was the most successful, putting him on its front cover alongside Willie Brown, the mayor of San Francisco, under the headline "City Slickers". While national politics may be all waffle and government reform by baby steps, the magazine argued, it is in cities like New York that the real action can be found.

After his razor-thin defeat in 1993 of New York's last Democrat mayor, David Dinkins, an African-American, Giuliani made a single pledge: to improve the city's quality of life.

Three years later, it is impossible to deny that he has made good on the promise. This year some 1,000 murders will be committed in the city, still a terrifying number, but less than half those recorded in 1993. In FBI rankings of America's most crime-ridden cities, New York has sunk so low as to be almost invisible.

Advertising billboards for the Sony Corporation play on the company name as denoting "So New York". The city that only a few years ago was the international symbol of urban violence and decay is suddenly hip again. Companies want to be associated with it. Hotels and tour buses are overflowing again as tourists overcome their fear of the Big Apple's once-homicidal reputation.

"He ran on a central platform that he would make New York safe again," explains Mitchell Moss of New York University's Urban Research Center. "And palpably, it is a safer place". Writing on Giuliani in New York Magazine this month, Michael Thomasky puts it this way: "How often does a politician promise stunning results and actually deliver on them?"

Hence Giuliani's enviable position in the mayoral election race that will climax in 12 months' time.

He has had some luck. Crack cocaine, a drug that feeds aggression, has ebbed in popularity and given ground to heroin, which has a more mellowing effect.

And, although it has lagged the nation as a whole, New York is at last seeing the effects of the economic recovery. Thanks to booming business on Wall Street, the city last week discovered a $450m windfall in tax revenues, taking it above the year's projections. Adding to the feel-good factor, last month New York, with its population of 7.5 million, was able to wallow in an orgy of civic pride when the Yankees baseball team defeated the Atlanta Braves to win the World Series.

Nor is it clear that being "hated" will necessarily work against the mayor. It is true that his approval ratings are ominously low, never rising above the 50 per cent that is regarded as a must-break threshold by most politicians. He is regularly labelled as vindictive by his foes, including Ed Koch, the still-ubiquitous predecessor of Dinkins, who recently called Giuliani a "horse's ass".

Giuliani drew wide opprobrium a year ago when he turfed Yasser Arafat out of a Lincoln Center concert given for delegates at the UN's 50th anniversary. But this being New York, where rudeness is worn with pride, voters may appreciate the mayor for his lust for confrontation. "Nobody voted for him for his personality," says Moss, "but his style of governing is what most New Yorkers feel comfortable with".

Nothing better symbolises the pugilism of Giuliani than his crusade against organised crime. He began it after his appointment as a federal district attorney in New York in the early 1980s.

"The Mafia will be crushed," he famously declared when three leading members of New York's mob families came to trial in 1986. The pursuit of the dons, their capi and consiglieri has borne fruit, most notably with the 1990 conviction of John Gotti, head of the Gambino family, for setting up the execution of a gangland rival in front of a Manhattan steak house.

In June this year Giuliani got the credit when mass charges were filed against 19 members of the Genovese clan. These ranged from murder and bank robbery through to large-scale theft of equipment and plant from construction sites. Charges, involving sums up to $20m, included the theft of cash donations from a religious shrine at San Gennaro during the Little Italy Festival.

As mayor, however, Giuliani concluded that imprisoning the ringleaders was not enough and opened a second front: rooting out the Mafia from where it thrives, most notably from the city's huge wholesale markets and the $1.5bn-a-year waste collection business. Giuliani may be of Italian heritage, but his commitment to crippling the Cosa Nostra is unswerving.

It is no wonder that when this mayor travels his fief it is always in an armoured Chevrolet Suburban with bodyguards at his side. Hollywood may have given us a picture of the Mafia in New York that seems overblown and romanticised, but, as Giuliani's battles have demonstrated, even in the 1990s celluloid fiction and reality can often overlap.

When the Giuliani administration took on a 17-strong cabal of Italian hauliers that controlled all of Manhattan's rubbish routes and allowed a non-New York company, Browning-Ferris Industries of Texas, to break into the market with cartel-breaking prices, one of its top executives had a taste of Mafia intimidation first hand. He awoke one morning in his Westchester home to find a severed dog's head on his front lawn.

Today, hauliers proven to have had organised crime connections have been banned from the city and everyone in the industry must undergo background checks and finger-printing before they are licensed. Manhattan businesses have begun to see their rubbish collection bills fall to a fraction of what they used to be.

Giuliani's boldest move came early last year, however, when he declared that he was taking full control of the Fulton Fish Market, the nation's largest seafood wholesaler, on the grounds that it was a hot-bed of Mafia extortion, intimidation, shake-downs and loan-sharking.

"New Yorkers have had to pay a 20-25 per cent premium for the pleasure of having organised crime here," the mayor alleged. The initiative triggered anguished protest from operators who complained of intimidation not by the Mafia but the mayor and of a violation by the city of their constitutional rights. Lo and behold, the next day, when checks into all of the market's residents were about to begin, a mysterious fire swept through one of the main warehouses. Few doubted that the building had been set alight by arson.

Encouraged by a city report released just last week showing a 2 per cent drop in fish prices at the market this year, compared with a 13 per cent increase in prices nationwide, the mayor is preparing to take his assault a step further. The same anti-Mafia measures are to be applied to New York's other four main wholesale food markets. In addition, a new regulation now pending before the City Council aims to break the link between workers' unions and the mob. All union officials will have to go through finger- printing and background checks and any found with Mafia ties will be banned from the markets for life. Terry, the mob turncoat played by Marlon Brando in On the Waterfront, would be cheering.

The Mafia campaign generates the headlines, but it is Giuliani's success in tackling all varieties of crime that will most endear him to voters. The elimination of the Squeegee pirates, who would threaten drivers with damp cloths and washing liquid until appeased with money, has become the metaphor for the mayor's now-feted "quality-of-life" approach to policing.

As well as acting to merge the city's three police forces into one, Giuliani determined that even the most commonplace of infractions, from spitting to defacement with graffiti, had to be prosecuted to the full in the belief that the return of order at the lowest level would percolate through to all levels of crime. While "go ahead on red" may still apply at most New York traffic lights, the crime statistics - and the overwhelming interest shown by police forces from around America and from abroad - suggest there is something to the theory.

Giuliani has, meanwhile, also harnessed his capacity for ruthlessness to make a start at taming New York's age-old malaise of a grossly overbloated city workforce, further paralysed by intransigent unions. Propelled by an overwhelming need to tackle the city's monster deficit, he has trimmed the city bureaucracy by more than 15,000 and announced plans to close three of its 11 municipal hospitals. He claims also to have pruned New York's giant welfare rolls - a legacy of the city's decades of liberal Democratic leadership - by as many as 180,000 people, of which some 37,000 have been found new jobs.

Such actions do not come without risk and, as they begin to bite, a Democratic challenge to Giuliani next year might not look so hopeless. A sure Achilles' heel is education. While the mayor has waged repeated and bitter wars with the city's Board of Education over management issues, he is perceived to have done little to alleviate the chronic overcrowding and underfunding of the public schools.

The poor of New York, meanwhile, have not fared well under the mayor, as witnessed by an explosion in the numbers of charity soup kitchens. There are now 907 kitchens in the city, compared with 750 when Giuliani took office. Physically, meanwhile, the city is as decrepit as it ever was, with its roads, bridges and airports a crumbling mess.

As New York stifles its yawns over this year's presidential race and braces itself for the real election season - the choice of the next occupant of the mayoral Gracie Mansion --Mr Giuliani is confronted with this dilemma: should he try to soften his image or should he carry on playing the bully in the belief that in this town that is what gets you respect? But then he, of course, may see himself only as Mr Reasonable. "I think I'm very congenial," he recently told a reporter. "I don't fight with anyone who doesn't fight with me".