Before Rudolph Giuliani became mayor, the best a young campaign aide with no political experience could hope for after the election was a patronage job as a press aide, or perhaps a spot in the ethnic liaison office.
But with the ascension of Bruce Teitelbaum, Giuliani’s aggressive and dogged right-hand man, the bar has been raised for young aspirants to City Hall stardom. In recent political history, no Jewish aide has become more closely associated with his boss than has Teitelbaum with Giuliani.
He’s worked his way from avid denouncer of David Dinkins in the 1993 campaign to chief of staff in the Giuliani administration, to managing the campaign for one side of the nation’s hottest Senate race.
All this for a 37-year old lawyer who says he had no ambition to enter politics until he met Giuliani during a 1992 walking tour of Queens, shortly after graduation from Brooklyn Law School. "I always found politics very interesting but not something I thought of making a career out of," he said in a recent interview.
"I thought that his cause was right running against Dinkins, that he was the right guy at the right time and I wanted to get to know him better."
The fact that Giuliani’s most loyal and ubiquitous aide is a Jew with strong affiliations in the community is, to many observers, not incidental. Giuliani has relied strongly on Jewish ballots (and checkbooks) in three mayoral campaigns as well as the current Senate race. Accordingly, there is scarcely an issue of importance to traditional Jews, particularly the cohesive Orthodox community, Giuliani hasn’t supported: from private school vouchers to Jonathan Pollard to an American embassy in Jerusalem.
For a Republican, Giuliani won an unusually high 62 percent of the Jewish vote in a 1989 mayoral loss to Dinkins. That was before he met Teitelbaum. But his numbers have risen steadily in the subsequent elections (67 percent in 1993 and 72 percent in 1997) with Teitelbaum assiduously working the Jewish community.
Yet at a time when several other close mayoral aides, such as the once-powerful communications director Cristyne Lategano, have left the City Hall inner circle, and alliances with such figures as Democratic Comptroller Alan Hevesi and the Rev. Floyd Flake are crumbling, Teitelbaum’s staying power seems to be a testament to a personal bond that transcends political utility.
"They seem to be soul mates," said William Rapfogel, director of the Metropolitan New York Coordinating Council on Jewish Poverty and a seasoned political observer. "They have a commitment to similar principles."
Teitelbaum describes the relationship as personal as well as professional. "He’s been a friend to me," he said of the mayor. "I’ve had some difficult times over the past couple of years, and he’s been a tremendous source of support and comfort to me."
Teitelbaum is regularly at the mayor’s side at events and campaign forays, such as a round trip to Tennessee on the day before an interview last week. With little chance to rest, he was up early the next day to attend a Gracie Mansion reception for the Women’s International Zionist Organization, and then straight to his Friends of Giuliani office to answer reporters’ questions about Giuliani’s dip in the polls following the Patrick Dorismond shooting.
Strolling about the office, Teitelbaum shows evidence of his boss’ authoritative manner. He issues a stream of orders to aides trailing behind him. While on the phone, he waves a finger at a subordinate, who then promptly introduces himself to a reporter.
At a time when Giuliani’s response to recent police incidents has confounded many of his Republican supporters, some observers speculate that Giuliani surrounds himself with sycophants quick to endorse his decisions and slow to offer advice. But Teitelbaum insists he’s no yes-man.
"I am nothing if not outspoken," he says, sitting in the Friends of Giuliani office, where the sign "RudyYes.com" is plastered almost everywhere. "We’ve never had a major disagreement because frankly almost everything that he’s done … the way he’s handled things I agree with.
"But I let him know where I stand. Often I tell him when I think something should be handled differently. [But] once the mayor makes a decision we are all on the same page."
A Brooklyn native and graduate of the Yeshivah of Flatbush and SUNY Binghamton, Teitelbaum insists he’s not the same man who made the scene as a brash young lawyer angered over Dinkins’ handling of the Crown Heights riots, who quickly found himself in a position of power and influence over jobs and funding. Once known for his acerbic defenses of the mayor, he now says he tries to relax, catch up on his reading and spend more quality time with his wife, consultant Suri Kasirer, whose clients include The Jewish Week.
Teitelbaum says he’s now in the middle of Joseph Telushkin’s new "Book of Jewish Values."
"People forget that I was 28 years old and had never been in government before," he said of his early days at City Hall. "I think I’ve matured over the years, and I think that I deal with people differently than I did six or seven years ago."
But in the wake of his self-styled maturation, there remain numerous political enemies. He has been accused of manipulating the Crown Heights Jewish Community Council’s election to oust a Giuliani foe and of having city employees fired for political reasons, including the alleged leaking of information to the press that was damaging to Kasirer regarding her City Hall lobbying.
Teitelbaum also has been accused by supporters of Assemblyman Dov Hikind, a former Giuliani ally, of somehow instigating a federal probe that led to Hikindís indictment and trial on corruption charges, of which he was acquitted. Hikind and Teitelbaum’s working relationship during Giuliani’s 1993 campaign reportedly was something akin to that between the Serbs and Croats in Bosnia.
Now Teitelbaum has himself been drawn into a federal investigation, which probes the relationship between City Hall and chasidic builder Chaim Ostreicher. Authorities say Ostreicher’s shoddy construction led to a fatal building collapse, and federal prosecutors want to know if someone at City Hall ousted an inspector critical of Ostreicher’s practices.
Rather than distance himself from Teitelbaum, as questions about his role in the scandal lingered, Giuliani promoted him to campaign manager for his planned Senate race, another testament to their strong bond.
If critics of Dinkins said the former mayor was not sympathetic enough to Jewish concerns, critics of Giuliani might say the opposite. But Teitelbaum insists the mayor has been true to his message of one standard for one city, and does no special favors for supporters, despite controversies about parking permits, city contracts and the allocation of day care vouchers.
He mentions three Orthodox contributors to Giuliani who are having trouble with city investigators. "There are people who are very strong supporters of the mayor who sometimes say they are being treated unfairly," he says. "Some who are being attacked in the media say not only did they get no special treatment, they are hurt by their association with the mayor."
At the same time, Teitelbaum seems to defend the administration’s loyalty to political allies. "These are the people that we work with and are close to," he says. "They are friends of ours. I mean, are we supposed to go out and embrace and work with people who are our political enemies?"
Teitelbaum insists he’s used his position to help people who might not have gotten a call back from City Hall in previous administrations. For his efforts to support Jewish causes, he has been honored by organizations such as the Council of Jewish Organizations of Flatbush and the National Council of Young Israel.
"Whenever there was any sort of issue in the community, we could always call on Bruce and he was always responsive," says Abraham Biederman, an investment banker and political activist in the Orthodox community loyal to Giuliani. "Whether it was Agudah or Hatzoloh, he was right in the center of power and used it to help."
Teitelbaum critics, though, prefer the comfort of anonymity, saying they fear repercussions for organizations they are affiliated with, a cutoff of access to the mayor or the retribution Teitelbaum still has the ability to dish out through his connections to city government.
"I think in the long run [Giuliani] will not be served by Bruce," said one Jewish leader, noting that the Jewish vote in the Senate race appears to be up for grabs. "I think they get along because they are both willing to go through bricks to get to whatever their goal is."
For now, Teitelbaum is focusing on doing all he can to get Giuliani to Washington. If that happens, he said he’ll decide what to do next "down the road," adding: "Our relationship will endure long after my association with him professionally is over."