It's time for Rudy to go

New York's mayor has done a great job in a time of crisis. But extending his term is a power grab that reminds his critics of the old Giuliani.

By Anthony York

Published September 28, 2001 6:45PM (EDT)

It's time for Rudy Giuliani to leave City Hall. The New York mayor, who has come to explemplify strong leadership and compassion under unbelievable pressure, has tarnished his inspiring performance over the last two and a half weeks by trying to wrestle another term as mayor, or extend his current term by a couple of months.

While there is no questioning Giuliani's importance to the city of New York over the last 20 days, by piggybacking on the horrific attacks on the World Trade Centers as a justification for extending his political career, Giuliani has reminded New Yorkers, and the nation, why so many people were uneasy about him in the first place.

Giuliani has long had a reputation for running City Hall with a firm grip, dubbed "fascist" by "Tonight Show" host Jay Leno (Leno later apologized for the remark). While a majority of New York voters agree that he has cleaned up the city, and herald his success in reducing crime, even some of his supporters cringe at the hard-line approach he has taken to get those results.

The problem, then as now, with Giuliani, is not the substance, but the style. Former Mayor Ed Koch, a Democrat, once said of the mayor, "I agree with about 80 percent or more, substantively, of what he wants to do. It's the way he wants to do it."

It's not fashionable to remember it now, but New York was tarnished by several scandals under Giuliani's watch, including the death of Amadou Diallo, who was shot 41 times by police officers and turned out to be unarmed. The mayor waged war against taxi drivers, street vendors, sex shops and indecent art -- all in the name of cleaning up the city.

Now he's ready for the ultimate cleanup, and it's tempting to say he should be allowed to preside over it. I don't live in New York, but I understand the deep, emotional attachment many New Yorkers have formed with their mayor in this time of crisis. And Giuliani is right: There probably are a lot of New Yorkers who would take added comfort if the mayor hung around a little while longer. But as a citizen, I would take even more comfort in knowing the machinery of democracy functions, impervious to crisis.

If Giuliani wants to remain a vital part of the city of New York, that's great. He's right when he says New York could use his help at this critical stage. But it's not a good enough reason to push democracy aside.

Giuliani insisted his desire to stay is motivated only by the needs of New Yorkers. "It will give people in the city who have fears about what's going to happen, and how it's going to happen, a certain sense of confidence," he said.

One of the men who would be mayor, Mark Green, who has been a persistent thorn in the mayor's side, agreed to postpone the next inaugural until March 1 because of an "urgent need for a seamless transition and the importance of a united city," Green spokesman Joe DePlasco told the Associated Press.

Republican candidate Michael Bloomberg has also signed off on the idea of postponing the next mayoral inaugural.

"These unique circumstances justify such a nonpartisan, nontraditional approach to encourage unity and planning," DePlasco said.

But it is this "nontraditional approach" that is the crux of the problem. Tradition is the linchpin of our constitutional system. Breaking with tradition was a bad idea when Franklin Roosevelt attempted to use the Great Depression as a justification to pack the Supreme Court, and it's a bad idea for Giuliani to now try to stick around -- regardless of whether the public will is there.

That doesn't mean the City Council, or the new mayor, can't be creative. Why not just keep Giuliani around in another capacity to aid with the transition, serving the new mayor? Or better yet, find another job for him. If he wants to leverage his current popularity into a position heading the cleanup and rebuilding effort, for example, that would allow him to control the multibillion-dollar budget and would keep him in the news, which could satisfy a need for stability that many New Yorkers now have. Cleaning up New York in the wake of those attacks will be a full-time job, and the mayor will have to appoint someone to lead the effort. There is no better candidate for that job than Giuliani.

Of course, there is nothing sacred about the idea of limiting a New York mayor to two terms -- term limits were only adopted in 1993. But there's something fundamentally unfair about changing the rules of the election in the middle of the game. We are a nation of laws, and laws should not be cast aside in times of crisis. In fact, to change the law especially in the middle of an emotional upheaval like the Sept. 11 aftermath is unwise and dangerous to democracy.

Anthony York

Anthony York is Salon's Washington correspondent.

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