Rudy loses big -- but does it matter?

New Yorkers overwhelmingly reject the charter reform their mayor sold as a referendum on his tenure, and Hillary Clinton backers see as Round 1 in the New York Senate race

Published November 4, 1999 1:40PM (EST)

At a midtown Manhattan hotel late Tuesday night, Mayor Rudy Giuliani was looking stunned. The Republican mayor, who has won two elections in a city where Democrats have a 5-1 voter registration edge, the Senate wannabe who is a rising star in the national GOP lost badly, and as the returns came in, he conceded defeat.

"I made a mistake," said the man who is not known for such admissions, "and I accept responsibility. The people who ran the campaign on the other side ... did a very good job, and they're entitled to feel elated by their victory."

No, he did not concede defeat in that election, the one where he is going up against Hillary Rodham Clinton to succeed Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan. That election is a year away.

But Giuliani managed, by pushing a package of revisions of New York's charter -- the city's constitution -- to make the election of 1999 a referendum on his legacy. The result: 74 percent of voters rejected his charter revision proposal, 26 percent supported it.

And it just so happened that the very coalition that will be supporting Clinton next year -- the state's labor unions and its leading Democratic elected officials -- had an awful lot to do with that defeat. The first lady herself didn't lift a finger, didn't speak about charter change, didn't deploy any staff or volunteer time on the measure. But many scored this early electoral skirmish Hillary 1, Rudy 0.

It all started in the spring, when Giuliani appointed a commission with the express mandate of changing the rules of mayoral succession. In New York, the public advocate -- which is to government what the appendix is to the body: a useless organ that tends to go unnoticed except when it causes pain -- takes over if the mayor leaves office before his elected term is over. But the current holder of the public advocate's office, Mark Green, a former Nader-raider, tends to goad the mayor frequently on issues like police brutality and consumer protection.

Green represents all that the mayor has derided as the left-wing, defeatist ideology that ran the city in the bad old days -- which was apparently the city's entire history before Giuliani was elected mayor.

The initial idea of the commission, chaired by Giuliani's former deputy mayor, Randy Mastro, was to change the charter to require a special election if Giuliani left office early, that is, say, if he were elected senator in 2000.

But even though most good-government groups, including Common Cause, the Bar Association, and the League of Women Voters (known in this city as the goo-goos) usually think elections are a good idea, they cried foul at the attempt by the mayor to tinker with the charter for his own personal revenge.

By the end of the summer, the commission, which met briefly in generally inaccessible locations around the city, had backed off some. It proposed requiring a special election if a mayor left office before finishing his or her term, but to take effect in 2002, so it wouldn't involve the Giuliani senate race. The commission came up with another 13 proposals that did everything from the benign -- require trigger locks on guns -- to the controversial -- require the city to sock away budget surpluses for a rainy day (instead of, say, spending them on raises for city workers).

The goo-goos were still in a tizzy.

The mayor saw a chance to use charter reform to promote what he calls the positive changes he's made in the city -- lowering crime, improving the quality of life, responsible fiscal management. And in the process, he helped make the charter-reform election a mandate on his time in office.

Ten days before the election, a flier hit voters' mailboxes. Next to a large picture of the mayor, it said: "Our proposed charter reforms are about our children's future." The next day, Giuliani did what he's always done when he has a major campaign-style policy address to deliver: He gave a speech at the Sheraton Hotel -- on charter reform.

"Let's take the things that have happened in city government that have been positive things, that have helped propel the city in a very, very good direction and let's make them permanent," the mayor said.

This just happens to be exactly the kind of language you might find if you visited the mayor's Senate campaign Web site -- but it was paid for with $1.5 million in taxpayer dollars, because, commission chairman Mastro said, the commission had a "legal mandate" to "educate" voters. And the 1989 charter reform commission had spent $1 million on advertising, so there was precedent.

But like any well-run media effort in a low-turnout race, the first flier was just one in a wave of communications with voters. On Wednesday, voters got another brochure from the charter commission, headlined "keeping our city's progress going into the next century."

On Friday, yet another mailer hit, this one calling itself a "supplement to the campaign finance board's voter guide." Now, the CFB is a nonpartisan agency in the city, and it tends to take seriously its role of publishing balanced guides and enforcing the city's campaign finance laws. It mailed out a 63-page guide that published the full text of the ballot measure and listed pros and cons. The revision commission's "supplement" contained a full side of an 8-by-14-inch flier of letters in support, and one sixth of a side had statements in opposition.

Nor was that all. There were 14-page inserts distributed in the New York Daily News and the Staten Island Advance, and ads in the New York Times and weekly newspapers. The mayor's political action committees spent $110,000 on telephone messages from the mayor urging voters to back charter change.

The goo-goos again, were going nuts. "'All about the future of the city's children' -- you can't tell me that's education! It's advocacy, it's political sloganeering," said Gene Russianoff, senior attorney at the New York Public Interest Research Group and a major agitator against charter reform.

But Giuliani wasn't the only one dipping into taxpayer funds to make a political point. City Council Speaker Peter Vallone, a Democrat, spent $135,000 on two mailings to "likely voters" urging a "no" vote, according to Vallone spokesman Mike Clendendin. Just why the City Council maintains a list of who likely voters are, Clendendin didn't say. Mark Green also dipped into taxpayer coffers, to the tune of $15,000, to mail out a newsletter with a significant portion devoted to discussing charter change.

But these relatively feeble advertising efforts were just the visible elements of the Democrats' campaign. A top aide to Green, Richard Schrader, took a leave from his city job and camped out in the offices of the newly minted Working Families Party, and organized political clubs to fight the proposal. Unions, furious over the budgetary provisions in the charter-reform proposal and just plain mad at the mayor for keeping pay raises down for years, did their own focus groups, mailed out their own flier, but mostly made hundreds of thousands of phone calls and fielded an army of 1,000 volunteers on a miserably rainy, blustery Election

These are the very people -- the teachers union, the municipal workers union, the hospital workers union -- who have pledged their support to Clinton, before she's even made her candidacy official.

But it was Giuliani's own taped phone calls, in a city going a little sour on his take-no-prisoners style (and on the heels of a judicial drubbing about his attempt to withdraw city funds from the Brooklyn Museum over a controversial art exhibit that features a dung-spattered Virgin Mary) that may have gotten many of the no voters to the polls.

The calls were made to Democratic neighborhoods that had supported the mayor, but this time residents weren't buying it. On Election Day, voter after voter at Giuliani's own polling site on the Upper East Side said the phone call from the mayor had reminded them to come out and vote "no." In the end, 281,265 New Yorkers voted against charter change. Only 90,838 voted for it.

The day after the election, most all the state's top Democrats -- state Comptroller H. Carl McCall, and Green, and Vallone, and what seemed like most of the City Council, gathered in front of City Hall to gloat over their victory. Said Bronx Borough President Fernando Ferrer, who, like Green and Vallone, wants to be succeed Giuliani: "This is the first sign of Giuliani fatigue."

Maybe. Giuliani is famous for making endorsements that backfire -- backing former Democratic Gov. Mario Cuomo over George Pataki was his biggest miscall -- but great at winning his own elections. Said Republican consultant Joseph Mercurio: "Even though voters are willing to elect [the mayor], and by large margins, and even though he's ahead in the Senate race, [they said] this time we're not with you, but we'll be with you next time."

There's evidence for that. A New York Times poll taken in March had Clinton nine points ahead of the mayor. This week, she was four points behind. (The Times called this a "statistical dead heat.")

But still, as Clinton breezed into Westchester Wednesday to measure the windows of her Chappaqua home for curtains, her minions were smiling.

By Andrea Bernstein

Andrea Bernstein is a New York journalist.

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Hillary Rodham Clinton Republican Party Rudy Giuliani