The words "New York mayor" and "low profile" are rarely uttered in the same breath these days. Rudolph Giuliani tends to dominate the headlines. His predecessor, David Dinkins, has been at the center of recent protests against police policies. And one would practically have to make an effort to avoid the opinions of three-term mayor Ed Koch, a newspaper columnist, TV commentator and, until recently, radio host.
But Mayor Abraham Beame rarely makes public appearances or issues statements. A quiet and modest man, the city’s 104th mayor spends his days in a small, memento-filled office at Sterling National Bank on Park Avenue, where he is a senior consultant.
He’s been out of politics for more than 20 years, but even at 93, New York’s first Jewish mayor (unless you count Fiorello LaGuardia, who had a Jewish mother), keeps up to date on civic matters. During a recent interview, surrounded by aging photos of himself with U.S. presidents and Israeli leaders, Beame had a copy of the Independent Budget Office’s review of this year’s proposed city budget on his desk.
Beame, who ran the city from 1973 through 1977, still has a sharp recall for names and dates and a keen sense of politics, although his hearing isn’t what it used to be. He believes Giuliani, whom he’s met only once or twice, "has done a good job, although he has his failings. He can’t take criticism. He gets abusive in terms of his personality. That’s why he has antagonized a good portion of the city, certainly the minorities in this city." With a shrug, he adds, "I didn’t run an administration that way. I was always ready to listen and talk to people that disagree."
As for plummeting crime rates, Beame says fellow Democrat Dinkins deserves some of the credit, for initiating the community policing program and hiring thousands of new cops. "Without those two things, crime would not have declined to the extent it has." Beame supports a Senate candidacy by Hillary Rodham Clinton. "She’s well-equipped to understand the problems of communities." The carpetbagger issue? "The Republicans didn’t talk that way when [Connecticut resident] Jim Buckley was made a senator" in the 1960s, he says. As for the 2001 race for mayor now taking shape, Beame says he has no preference, although he believes City Comptroller Alan Hevesi is making a mistake in seeking to change the rules of succession to keep rival Mark Green, the public advocate, from being next in line to the mayor. "The charter shouldn’t be tampered with," says the ex-mayor.
Born Abrama Birnbaum in London, Beame immigrated here with his Russian parents in 1906 at 3 months. One of the last of the so-called "machine" politicians who rose through the ranks with the backing of local political clubs (most of which no longer pack the deal-making wallop they once did) Beame served as comptroller and city budget director before his election as mayor in 1972.
His mayoralty came to be defined by the worst economic crisis in the city’s history, a possible reason why (despite his decades of political experience) he has not become known as an elder statesman of city politics.
"He will always be remembered for presiding over the city at the time it was on the edge of bankruptcy," says Koch, who defeated Beame in a seven-way primary in 1977.
But supporters say Beame was unfairly blamed for the mistakes of previous administrations. "His administration was the single greatest period of municipal reform in the history of local government," said financial consultant Jacob Ukeles, a former aide to Beame. "He gets no credit for this."
From where he sits today, Beame sees the other side of the fiscal coin: problems brought on an administration by largesse, including demands for higher union wages and tax cuts, such as the recent repeal of the commuter tax, which he considers unfair. "The city has too much money," he says. "When you consider that you don’t always have the same good times, once you cut taxes you affect the future."
Beame’s election was a milestone in a city which today has more Jews than gentiles eyeing the 2001 race for mayor. But he insists it was no big deal being the first Jew to live in Gracie Mansion.
"I had never thought about it in terms of running as a Jew," he said. "It was worked up as such, but I never dwelt upon that. I had relationships which were good with all parts of our city."
But Beame has several stories only a Jewish mayor could tell. Like the time he visited Jerusalem in 1975, despondent over a state moratorium on paying off more than $900 million in bonds he considered crucial to maintaining the city’s financial credibility. He inserted a note into the Western Wall with one word: Help.
The next day, he was summoned home when the State Court of Appeals overturned the moratorium.
And then there’s the visit in 1976 by King Juan Carlos of Spain to celebrate America’s bicentennial. The king was so pleased with the red carpet treatment in New York that he inducted Beame into the Order of Isabella, the 15th century queen.
"It didn’t dawn on me until later that Queen Isabella was the one who started the Inquisition against the Jews," he said with a laugh.
Beame says the Jewish community has changed politically since his days at City Hall. "In my day, the Jewish community judged people on what they did," he said, hinting at the strong Jewish loyalty to and rare criticism of Giuliani. "If it was right they were with him, if they were wrong, they didn’t hesitate to oppose him." Beame has two children, five grandchildren and two great grandchildren, but he is no retiree. He puts in regular hours at Sterling, serves as chairman of the Friars Foundation, as well as on the boards of the City College and Baruch College foundations, and is active in UJA-Federation. His wife, Mary died in 1995 at 88.
Beame insists he has no regrets about his administration, citing his luring the 1976 Democratic National Convention here (a feat Giuliani was unable to accomplish with the 2000 Republican convention) and New York’s place at the heart of bicentennial celebrations the same year. He says he gave over the city to Koch with a balanced budget. ("Ridiculous," says Koch, who says it took years to move from red to black.) The truth, say analysts, depends on one’s definition of balanced.
Asked how he would write his own legacy, Beame said: "I tried to do all I could to keep New York as the No. 1 city in the world. And I got along very well with all segments of the community."