It was a year of bluster and blunder, ascent to higher office and descent to name-calling. This year’s collection of political stars includes big-spending Democrats, a loose-lipped senator, irresponsible Council members and an attorney general whose motto of "never say die" probably killed his career.
Person of the Year: This year’s Senate race was a clash of the titans, and Democrat Charles Schumer emerged as the surprise winner. He’s the biggest political mover and shaker of this election year. But during interviews with voters, we were struck by the number of people who likened Sen. Alfonse D’Amato’s efforts against the Swiss banks to the role of righteous gentiles during the Holocaust. D’Amato could have done nothing, or done just enough to score some points. But the ferociousness with which he attacked this issue demonstrates sincerity and commitment.
D’Amato took some bad advice from top consultant Arthur Finkelstein when he tried to disparage Schumer’s Jewish record and exploit survivors for political gain. But D’Amato’s legacy of achievement in Holocaust reparation, and his impact on New York politics this year, make him the most important person of 1998.
Mr. Congeniality: Nice guys don’t always finish last. State Comptroller H. Carl McCall, this year’s top Democratic vote-getter, is one of our most underestimated and unappreciated leaders. The Democrat seems to have few, if any, enemies, and gets along with Republicans such as Gov. George Pataki with a professionalism that’s rare in Albany.
McCall’s role in the Swiss banks controversy was important, yet unrecognized by the Knesset or the World Jewish Congress, which lauded D’Amato and City Comptroller Alan Hevesi for their crucial roles. McCall also spoke out early, and unequivocally, against the racist Million Youth March. Best Democratic Political Consultant Named Hank: Mr. Morris did a fine job managing Schumer’s campaign, but in the end Schumer’s win had as much to do with D’Amato’s missteps as Morris’s media counterpunch strategy. On the other hand, Hank Sheinkopf took on a lesser-known, if well-financed candiate, Eliot Spitzer, and pulled off a more unlikely victory in the attorney general’s race. Expect both Hanks, who are old rivals, to wage war in the 2001 mayoral race.
Hey, Big Spender Award: This was the most expensive campaign year in state history. But the hands-down winner in this category is Spitzer, who spent more than $10 million of his familyís fortune in the attorney general race. Runner-up is Councilman Noach Dear of Brooklyn, who made the race to succeed Schumer in the House the most expensive in the nation, splurging $1.5 million of other people’s money. At least Spitzer walked away with the prize, as opposed to Dear’s third place finish.
Schlemiel of the Year: After stereotyping Latinos as criminals in a Jewish Week interview, Attorney General Dennis Vacco further disgraced himself by implying at a news conference that the paper conspired with Spitzer to divert attention away from Spitzer’s campaign loans. Then, after losing, he pulled every trick short of handcuffing himself to his desk to stay in office. Casting doubt on the citizenship of minority voters smelled particularly bad after the bodega remarks. Hasta la vista, Dennis.
Sanction of Hate Award: There’s enough blame to go around for New York’s lack of a bias crime bill, but the leader of the pack is Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno, who doesn’t see any difference between spraying your name on a wall or spraying "Gas the Kikes." Runner up: The New York Conservative Party, which lobbies against the bill.
Most Outrageous Rhetoric: A tie between Brooklyn Councilwoman Una Clarke, who blamed Gov. Pataki for "crimes against humanity" over his day-care cuts, and her colleague from Harlem, Phil Reed, for declaring that City Hall was "this administration’s Tianenman Square" because Mayor Rudolph Giuliani halted press conferences for security reasons. Term limits are beginning to look like a better idea all the time.
Most Alarming Behavior: Mayor Giuliani has certainly changed life for the better in this town. But in the past year, he’s barricaded City Hall, installed public surveillance cameras, tried to circumvent the City Council and eliminate the public advocate’s office, refused to disclose public information, picked on street vendors, cabbies and ex-mayors, while all the while claiming to restore civility.
Survivor of the Year: A jury found that Brooklyn Assemblyman Dov Hikind committed no crime in accepting money and favors from COJO of Boro Park officials, who were found guilty of related offenses. The jury’s still out on Hikind’s future as a powerbroker.
Quote of the Year: D’Amato: "That putzhead was out on the steps of the Capitol, giving a press conference and laughing."
Person To Watch In ’99: Rep.-elect Anthony Weiner won a razor-thin victory in the race for Schumer’s seat by sheer force of his vigorous campaigning. Already elected a Democratic whip for the freshman class, he’s bound to make a name for himself.
Disgrace of the Century: Remember the good old days when we worried that President Bill Clinton’s kid brother, Roger, would be a national embarrassment?