Has Rudy gone too far?

Hillary Clinton attacks the mayor, and the race's two big issues -- Al Sharpton and Giuliani's anger -- take center stage.

Published March 22, 2000 5:00PM (EST)

In the early stages of the most closely watched congressional race in the country, Hillary Rodham Clinton stayed meekly within the box drawn by her advisors, careful not to step out of line and inexplicably offend anyone. After last month's acquittal in the Amadou Diallo case, her response was measured to the point of near-absurdity: "The police must strive for a better understanding of the community they serve and the community must strive for a better understanding of the incredible risk that the police face," she said.

That all ended at roughly 6:40 p.m. Monday night. It took her a few days, but she finally attacked New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani for responding to the city's most recent police killing of an unarmed man by releasing the victim's arrest history, including a juvenile arrest. That's when she took on the mayor loved by many for his successful war on crime for displaying virtually no compassion for the war's casualties.

Clinton apparently decided she is comfortable exploiting the mayor's dark side, a tactic that could easily spill over into even more revelations about his perpetually awkward relationship with people whose skin color happens not to be the same as his. Whether this tactic will work through a full campaign is one question. As of Tuesday evening, it looked like Giuliani was behaving just as Clinton desired: as a guy simply too mean to lead.

Speaking before a mostly African-American, standing-room-only crowd Monday, in the stuffy confines of the Bethel AME Church in Harlem, Clinton unleashed a verbal barrage against the mayor. The mayor, she charged to thunderous applause, "has hunkered down, taken sides and further divided this city."

Reading from a prepared text, she added, "At just the moment when a real leader would have reached out and tried to heal the wounds, he has chosen to [incite] divisiveness."

Some background: Early last Thursday, Dorismond, a Haitian-American, was shot and killed in Midtown Manhattan after an apparent struggle with undercover police who were finishing up a night of marijuana busts. One officer allegedly approached Dorismond, who worked as a security guard, and asked him if he had some marijuana. The request apparently enraged Dorismond, a scuffle ensued and in a matter of seconds he was shot and killed by one of the other officers.

Giuliani quickly ordered the police department to distribute Dorismond's arrest history -- which included convictions for disorderly conduct and a previously sealed record of an arrest when he was 13 years old. Dorismond, Giuliani explained to a Fox News Sunday audience, may not have been "an altar boy."

The move prompted a firestorm of criticism from local African-American officials and activists (and even some normally tepid Democrats) revolted by the mayor's latest attack. Democratic State Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver yesterday announced a committee would probe the propriety of the release of the sealed juvenile-court records.

"New York," Clinton later added, her hands glued to a podium, "has a real problem and all of us know it -- everyone, it seems, except for the mayor of New York City."

The mayor, however, remained unbowed. Speaking to reporters Tuesday, he defended the release of the dead man's juvenile arrest record ("You cannot libel a dead person"); cast further doubt on the unarmed man's character ("That Mr. Dorismond has spent a good deal of his life punching people is a fact"); and lit into the reporters who questioned the move ("I am just giving you facts that you resist printing").

But perhaps most significantly, Giuliani resorted to a reliable part of his arsenal: the specter of the Rev. Al Sharpton.

Over the years, Sharpton has become to many white politicians a more perennial version of Willie Horton: a black guy with a bad history (much of it very real: He has consorted with organized crime figures, may have helped incite a fatal fire in Harlem and libeled several officials with the lies of phony rape victim Tawana Brawley), whose name gets trotted out periodically in the expectation it will energize white voters.

Indeed, as first reported by the New York Post earlier this month, Giuliani has already linked Clinton to Sharpton in campaign literature.

"Mrs. Clinton and the Rev. Al Sharpton are reading from the same script," the mayor angrily declared Tuesday at City Hall. "The words that Mrs. Clinton used yesterday about polarizing are the same words that Al Sharpton said that she should introduce in the campaign in an interview about six or seven months ago. It's quite clear that they're reading from the same script. And what they're trying to do is to take a difficult situation and try to turn it into a politically polarizing situation for her advantage ... She's reading from Al Sharpton's script."

He added: "When was the last time Mrs. Clinton spoke up on one of these things? When did she offer an opinion on this before? Why did she have campaign operatives around? And why did she use the script written out for her by Al Sharpton?"

Giuliani's used the tactic before. In 1997, for example, he challenged his prospective Democratic mayoral opponent, Ruth Messinger, to say that Sharpton, her opponent in the party's primary, was not qualified to be mayor. Messinger refused, for fear of alienating African-Americans, a bloc of voters long since written off by the mayor.

"Any time you're in a public pissing match with Al Sharpton, you help yourself with blue-collar Catholics in the city," said Republican strategist Roger Stone. "People outside the city think the city's ungovernable. When the cops kill somebody with a criminal record, people don't lose a lot of sleep in Westchester. They think the guy probably deserved it. That's why they moved to Westchester in the first place: They were tired of having their cars broken into, tired of getting mugged, tired of getting robbed."

Stone added: "I don't think it's calculated (on Giuliani's part) but I think it has that effect."

Others speculated that this attempt by Giuliani to smear the reputation of the victim could haunt him. "If his behavior continues in this way, it will be a referendum on his character rather than his performance," said Hank Sheinkopf, a consultant who worked on President Clinton's 1996 campaign. "A referendum on his character or her character is a referendum that neither wants to face, because both of them are very polarizing people."

The specter of a spate of protests around this episode could also be disconcerting: Weeks of such civil disobedience around the Diallo shooting last year practically brought Giuliani to his knees, forcing him to meet with several African-American officials he had previously eschewed (including Harlem Rev. Calvin Butts, who had called Giuliani a "racist").

But the issue, as played by Clinton, also served another purpose. It got under his skin. And it drove him to more of the same animated, angry distraction that had seem so unappealing for the last several days

At one point Tuesday, he launched into a pop-psychological profile of his opponent. "There's a process called 'projection' in psychology," he began "It means accusing someone of what you're doing. That is precisely what Mrs. Clinton was doing. What I'm doing is what I've always done, which is try to get all the facts out to balance the situation in which there is a knee-jerk reaction to blame everything on the police. And these are facts that -- and you're not going to accept this, people rarely accept the things that are going on in their unconscious. You're not going to accept that you block dealing with these facts, because it is so much easier to blame the police immediately. I'm not rushing to judgment. I'm not necessarily supporting the police version of it. I'm trying to get out that there's another version to this, which very, very often you do not appropriately cover."

But ultimately, this most recent episode involving the city's combative chief magistrate again illustrates his stunning disconnect from the city's minority residents. After more than six years, his administration's upper reaches remain nearly all-white. (At his news conference, his highest-ranking African-American appointee, Deputy Mayor Rudy Washington, was absent.)

His attack on Sharpton may be blunted by the fact that he has virtually no African-American allies to rely on. (During his campaign for reelection in 1997, Giuliani enjoyed the visible support of several powerful African-American municipal union officials. But most of them have since been indicted or forced to resign in the wake of a massive corruption scandal.)

Dennis Walcott, the president of the New York Urban League has been one of the city's few prominent African-American officials to maintain something approaching an open line of communication with the Giuliani administration. He pointedly decided not to take part in last year's protests at police headquarters around Diallo's shooting, preferring to wait for the grand jury to conclude its investigation.

But this latest episode has left him perplexed. "At all levels in the black community, people are very unclear as to why these aspersions are being laid at the feet of Mr. Dorismond," said Walcott. "People are just wondering why have we had such a rapid escalation around the death of a man who is minding his own business. You can't put a negative spin on this guy."

Of Giuliani's latest salvo, Walcott added: "I think this thing is really spiraling out of control and I have no idea why."

By Jesse Drucker

Jesse Drucker covers politics for Salon from New York.

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Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Crime Hillary Rodham Clinton Rudy Giuliani