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The Right Record

February 18, 2007

By Steven Malanga

Not since Teddy Roosevelt took on Tammany Hall a century ago has a New York politician closely linked to urban reform looked like presidential timber. But today, ex-New York mayor Rudy Giuliani sits at or near the top of virtually every poll of potential 2008 presidential candidates.

And for good reason: He ran New York with a conservative's priorities—and delivered reform to a degree unprecedented in modern U.S. history. All while facing perhaps the only American media and political establishment even more liberal than the national one.

Over the last century, millions of people from all over the world have come to New York City," Giuliani once observed. "They didn't come here to be taken care of and to be dependent on city government. They came here for the freedom to take care of themselves." It was that spirit of opportunity and can-do-ism that Giuliani tried to re-instill in New York and that he himself exemplified not only in the hours and weeks after 9/11 but in his heroic and successful effort to bring a dying city back to life.

To those of us who observed Giuliani from the begin ning, it was astonishing how fully he followed through on his conservative principles once elected—no matter how much he upset elite opinion, no matter how often radical advocates took to the streets in protest, no matter how many veiled (and not so veiled) threats that incendiary figures like Al Sharpton made against him and no matter how often The New York Times fulminated against his policies.

For Giuliani, "the most fundamental of civil rights is the guarantee that government can give you a reasonable degree of safety." He aimed to secure public safety by reinstituting respect for the law. As a federal prosecutor in New York in the 1980s, he had vigorously hunted low-level drug dealers—whom other law enforcement agencies ignored—because he thought that the brazen selling of drugs on street corners cultivated disrespect for the law and encouraged criminality.

As mayor, he instituted a "zero tolerance" approach that cracked down on quality-of-life offenses, like panhandling and public urination (in a city where some streets reeked of urine), to restore a sense of civic order that he believed would discourage larger crimes. He linked the reigning permissiveness, which tolerated squeegee men (street-corner windshield cleaners who coerced drivers into giving them money), to the rise of more serious crime.

Civil-rights advocates warned that Giuliani's promise to deprive the squeegee men of their $40 to $100 weekly shakedown might drive them to more violent crime; in effect, they endorsed a lesser form of criminality, hoping that it would forestall more serious crime. The city's newspapers were happy to print threats from squeegee men, like this one: "I feel like if I can't hustle honestly, I've got to go back to doing what I used to do . . . robbing and stealing." But the squeegee-men campaign provided Giuliani with his first significant victory, showing a beleaguered citizenry that government actually could bring about change for the better. Within months, the squeegee men disappeared.

Giuliani changed the primary mission of the police department to preventing crime rather than merely responding to it after the fact. His police chief, William Bratton, reorganized the NYPD, emphasizing a street-crimes unit that moved around the city, flooding high-crime areas and getting guns off the street.

In a development highly relevant to what's needed in much of today's federal government, the Giuliani-era NYPD brought modern management techniques to its new mission. It began compiling a computerized database to track the city's crime patterns and the effectiveness of the NYPD's responses to them.

The department also "decen tralized"—driving author ity down to its precinct captains and emphasizing that it expected results from these top managers. Bratton replaced a third of the city's 76 precinct commanders within a few months.

The policing innovations led to a historic drop in crime far beyond what anyone could have imagined—with total crime down by some 64 percent during the Giuliani years, and murder (the most reliable crime statistic) down 67 percent, from 1,960 in 1992 to 640 in Giuliani's last year.

Giuliani applied the same principles to social and economic policy, with equally impressive results. Years before Washington moved on it, Giuliani decided to launch a welfare revolution, moving recipients from the dole to a job. Mindful that for years the city's welfare bureaucracy had focused on signing up new recipients, the Giuliani administration first set out to re-certify everyone in the city's own home-relief program to eliminate fraud.

In less than a year, the rolls of the program (for able-bodied adults not eligible for federal welfare programs) fell by 20 percent, as the city discovered on them tens of thousands of people who were actually employed, living outside the city or using fake Social Security numbers.

Giuliani then instituted a work requirement for the remaining home-relief recipients, mostly men, obliging them to earn their checks by cleaning city parks and streets or doing clerical work in municipal offices for 20 hours a week. Welfare advocates vigorously objected; one pronounced the workfare program "slavery." The Times editorialized that most people on home relief were incapable of work. Giuliani persisted.

When Congress finally passed welfare reform in 1996, giving states and cities broad powers to refocus the giant, federally funded welfare program for mothers and children, he was able to broaden his changes. By 1999, New York City's number of welfare recipients finding work had risen to more than 100,000 a year, and the welfare rolls had dropped by more than 600,000.

Giuliani's first budget, submitted just weeks after he took office, stunned the city's political establishment by its fiscal conservatism. He faced a nearly $2.5 billion budget deficit. To demonstrate his disdain for the reigning orthodoxy, when the Times editorial board urged him to solve the budget crisis with tax and fee increases that a special commission had recommended, Giuliani unceremoniously dumped a copy of the commission's report into the garbage and derided it as "old thinking."

After years of tax hikes, Giuliani proposed making up the city's still-huge budget deficit entirely through spending cuts and savings. Even more audaciously, he proposed a modest tax cut to signal the business community that New York was open for business, promising more tax cuts later. "I felt it was really important the first year I was mayor to cut a tax," he later explained. "Nobody ever cut a tax before in New York City, and that was one of the reasons I wanted to set a new precedent."

To balance the city's budget early in his tenure, the mayor played hardball, winning concessions from city workers that other mayors had failed to get.

With such deals, Giuliani reduced city spending by 1.6 percent his first year in office, the largest overall reduction in city spending since the Depression.

Experience made Giuliani into a tax-cut true believer—he saw how the city's economy and targeted industries perked up at his first reductions. One of his first moves was to cut the city's hotel tax. When tourism rebounded, he pointed out that the city was collecting more in taxes from a lower rate.

The combination of a safer city and a better budget environment ignited an economic boom unlike any other on record. Under Giuliani, the city gained some 430,000 new jobs to reach its all-time employment peak of 3.72 million jobs in 2000, while the unemployment rate plummeted from 10.3 to 5.1 percent. During Giuliani's second term, for virtually the only time since World War II, the city's economy consistently grew faster than the nation's.

Today, Americans see Giuli ani as presidential material because of his leadership in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, but to those of us who watched him manage America's biggest city when it was crime-ridden, financially shaky and plagued by doubts about its future as employers and educated and prosperous residents fled in droves, Giuliani's leadership on 9/11 came as no surprise.

What Americans saw after the attacks is a combination of attributes that Giuliani governed with all along: the tough-mindedness that had gotten him through earlier civic crises, a no-nonsense and efficient management style and a clarity and directness of speech that made plain what he thought needed to be done and how he would do it.

Adapted from the Winter issue of City Journal, where Steven Malanga is a contributing editor.

Original Source: http://www.nypost.com/seven/02182007/postopinion/opedcolumnists/the_right_record_opedcolumnists_steven_malanga.htm

 

 
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