It was a year of few surprises but plenty of drama. And as much as New York’s Jewish community hates to offer opinions, we’ve heard a few about the year’s political winners and losers, prompting this maiden roundup of achievement awards.
# Person of The Year: Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, but not for his historic Jewish vote or dominating the news. The unnoticed story about Giuliani is that while he has showed his tough-as-nails veneer to everyone from fired commissioners to New York magazine, protecting aid for the underprivileged is one good thing he deserves to take credit for.
True, a strong economy has largely avoided the kind of painful cuts his predecessors faced, but Giuliani has been supportive both in practice and attitude.
When a frazzled chasidic mother of five warned on a radio show that she might jump off a bridge if she had to continue waiting for a child-care voucher, Giuliani took charge, visiting her home and lubricating the bureaucratic machine. This was two weeks after the election.
Giuliani told The Jewish Week in October the biggest regret of his first term was the failure of the Child Welfare Administration, which he has re-created as the Administration for Children’s Services.
Credit also goes to City Council Speaker Peter Vallone and Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, who have shielded aid to the elderly, immigrants and disabled.
# Grace Under Fire Award: Hands down to Ruth Messinger for staying on the high road during what seemed like a hopeless mayoral campaign from the get-go. Messinger raised some important issues, all the while facing abuse, Democratic abandonment and some sexism for her efforts.
Too bad Messinger couldn’t cap off her career in public service with a stronger message against racist demagoguery directed against primary opponent Al Sharpton, whom she too readily gladhanded. Many will remember Messinger for showing her toughest side to a largely benevolent mayor and her softest side to the dangerous Sharpton.
# Guts and Glory Award: Comptroller Alan Hevesi for standing apart from the Democratic pack to denounce Sharpton. Sure there was politics involved — Hevesi wants Jewish votes for mayor in 2001 — but many others stuck their head in the sand. The Sharpton forces have promised to make Hevesi pay.
# Ostrich Award, Guts and Glory’s evil twin: Rep. Charles Schumer, who stood out among the Democrats when asked if he would back a nominated Sharpton. While campaigning for the Senate upstate, Schumer said he would have to sit down and learn more about the reverend — the city’s single most outspoken personality — before making his decision.
Runner-up goes to Sharpton himself, who chickened out of a Jewish Week interview, claiming one of our reporters was “biased” in a previous interview. (Too bad no one on staff remembers talking to him.) We got a good glimpse of what the interview would have been like when Sharpton was Zev Brenner’s guest on radio’s “Talkline.” He spent a half-hour challenging Brenner to prove he’s an anti-Semite, insisting it was a bum rap concocted by racists.
# Quoth The Maven Award: Ed Koch, who hasn’t uttered the words “off the record” since leaving City Hall in 1989. Beholden to no one, the former mayor is always ready with a chutzpadik, and typically on-target, assessment of the issues of the day. Here’s looking forward to another year of his fearless and insightful commentary.
# Roadblock Award: Shared by Gov. George Pataki and Senate Republicans, who have yet to move on a state bias crime bill that would increase penalties for acts of hate. The senators are old hands at stalling the bill because it would protect gays, but Pataki raised expectations in February when he announced a new version. It quickly was lost in the shuffle during the battle over rent control and the record-overdue budget.
# Person To Watch In ’98: Assemblyman Jules Polonetsky, who was named consumer affairs commissioner this week. After running with Giuliani on a fusion ticket, Polonetsky was loathed by some Democrats, admired by others. Now it’s payback time. Polonetsky seems to think his star would be brighter in City Hall than in Albany, and he may be right.
Instead of awards, Political Memos bestows the following gifts for 1998:
# A year’s supply of reasonable doubt for Assemblyman Dov Hikind, who will need it to beat the rap on fraud and corruption charges he claims are the result of “rocking the boat,” “Jewish self-hatred,” yada yada yada. In the court of public opinion, Hikind’s already been convicted, but let’s hope he’s sitting on evidence that will clear his name, as he’s purported to believe. He serves no one’s interests in jail.
# A complimentary Swiss watch for Sen. Al D’Amato for his round-the-clock concern about funds stolen from Holocaust victims, along with the hope that it wins him more Jewish votes than he loses by trying to take away tenure from teachers, thousands of whom are Jewish.
# A four-year supply of riot gear for the people of Houston, who ignored the irresponsible handling of Crown Heights by ex-top cop Lee Brown and elected him mayor.
# Joseph Telushkin’s book on frequently asked questions about Judaism for Councilwoman-elect Margarita Lopez of the Lower East Side, who planned inauguration festivities for this Saturday, then scrambled to put together an alternative event Friday when she learned her district’s sizable Orthodox population would be excluded.