July 10, 1997

Messinger Says Giuliani Caters to the Rich


NEW YORK -- Ruth Messinger set out Wednesday to define her campaign against Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, portraying him as a servant of the city's upper classes who had neglected the concerns of New Yorkers who rely on public schools, public hospitals and other basic municipal services.

Ms. Messinger chose as the setting a street corner on Manhattan's Lower East Side for what she described as her official campaign kickoff, standing with her back to a dusty yellow school bus and the graffiti-marked brick wall of the Nathan Straus School.

For 17 minutes, under a hot noonday sun that left the candidate and her modest audience wilting, Ms. Messinger sought to undermine Giuliani's contention that he was an advocate for the city's middle classes, charging that the public schools are in bad shape and offering that allegation as proof for her position.

"If you live high up in the sky, send your kids to private boarding schools, go to work in big black cars, eat at the finest restaurants, go to private doctors and need a team of accountants to figure out how much you really made last year, Rudy is your guy," said Ms. Messinger, the Manhattan borough president, shouting without the benefit of an amplification system as she stood in front of supporters who held signs and chanted her name.

"One city; one standard?" she asked, invoking Giuliani's campaign slogan of 1993. "Who is Rudy Giuliani kidding? It may be that he only sees one city -- the one where the powerful and the privileged live -- because he's taken good care of them. The rest of us? Chopped liver!"

Ms. Messinger's speech was longer on broad themes than on specifics. But on education, the central topic of the speech, she said she would push the city's Board of Education for higher teacher salaries; improved staffing, safety and building maintenance, and tougher performance standards for teachers. She said she would also advocate keeping more schools open for communities past closing times.

Ms. Messinger did not put a price tag on her ideas, but asserted that she could do all she proposed without raising taxes.

Later, as Ms. Messinger made her way up Rivington Street back to her city-owned car -- a big, black 1996 Mercury Marquis, as it turned out -- she said now was not the time to explain how she might accomplish that. "We will do this," Ms. Messinger said. "As I think you all know -- and you don't want to do it in the sun right now -- I'm an expert on this budget. There's waste in this system."

With Wednesday's speech, the first in what aides said would be a week filled with similar events at schools, homeless shelters and food pantries across the city, Ms. Messinger, 56, sought to begin a new phase in what many of her own supporters had viewed as a troubled and laconic campaign.

Her public profile has dropped dramatically in the six weeks since her main rival for the Democratic nomination, Bronx Borough President Fernando Ferrer, dropped out and endorsed her.

Ms. Messinger is now running against the Rev. Al Sharpton and City Councilman Sal Albanese for the Democratic nomination for mayor, though most Democrats view her as the inevitable winner in the September primary.

Her aides said the speech marked the start of an energetic chapter of her candidacy. In an effort to draw attention to the speech, Ms. Messinger characterized it as the formal announcement of a candidacy that, in fact, goes back to at least the beginning of the year, if not earlier.

Giuliani declined to respond to Ms. Messinger's attack on his administration. But he did not pass up the opportunity to talk about her. "I think Ruth Messinger has announced six times now, and I expect that when you have her record, you've got to keep announcing and reinventing yourself," the Republican mayor said with some exaggeration.

Ms. Messinger's attempt to depict Giuliani as hostile to middle-class neighborhoods runs counter to what many political consultants and academics and even some of her opponents believe has been at the heart of Giuliani's strength. "She does not have an agenda to help working people, nor can she relate to working people," said one of her Democratic opponents, Albanese, drawing a contrast with the mayor.

In addition, the strategy settled on by her advisers is, as Giuliani's aides later said, a familiar Democratic campaign tactic that paints Republicans as the party of the rich. "This is us-against-them: it's an ugly way to run a campaign," said Fran Reiter, Giuliani's campaign manager.

It also carries some risks. Although her three children graduated from public school, Ms. Messinger herself is not unlike the typical Giuliani constituent she defined in her speech. Ms. Messinger attended the Brearley School as a child, goes to a private doctor, employs a private accountant and lives on Central Park West and 69th Street -- a three-bedroom apartment on the seventh floor with a view of Central Park.

Ms. Messinger said Giuliani had neglected many of the city's basic interests. "In Rudy Giuliani's New York, you cut the schools, slash the hospitals, ignore the neighborhoods, turn away the hungry," she said. "You take care of Wall Street, not your street."

But the central focus of the speech was education. Ms. Messinger portrayed a school system deluged with too many children and too few classrooms, and plagued by deteriorating buildings and outdated textbooks. She said Giuliani was the official to blame for that because he cut projected spending on education by $1.3 billion.

"You want to know where the massive overcrowding comes from?" Ms. Messinger demanded. "The crumbling schools and outdated textbooks? The teacher shortage? Rudy Giuliani cut $1.3 billion from our kids and their public schools."

Ms. Messinger went on to say that the mayor, in a sign of his apparent concern about the school issue, had run television advertisements addressing the topic.

"When our schools needed leadership, Rudy Giuliani took a walk," she said. "Now this guy's got the chutzpah to read to schoolchildren in his campaign commercials?"

Ms. Messinger's aides said she would later expand on this theme, in particular by calling for specific performance standards for teachers, under the threat of dismissal for those who did not meet them.

In taking her campaign to the streets of Manhattan, as opposed to the more controlled setting of an auditorium, Ms. Messinger assumed certain risks, which she was reminded of the moment her news conference began. Her speech text fell to the ground, scattering pages on the ground.

Since there was no sound system, supporters started yelling, "Speak up, Ruth."

And one man in the crowd who had arrived with a baseball bat named for Babe Ruth, which he wanted to show to the candidate, began yelling as she started to speak: "Somebody stole my bat marked Ruth. Where is my bat? Where is my bat?"

Ms. Messinger grimaced for a moment, paused and then pushed ahead.

Copyright 1997 The New York Times Company