(Check out my Wikipedia exposé, “Wikipedia on Race,” in the July 2008 American Renaissance!)
September 11, 2001
In a press conference last May, which should have been his farewell from public life, 72-year-old Herman Badillo instead announced his candidacy for the New York City mayoralty. On Tuesday, September 11, Badillo is expected to be slaughtered in the Republican Primary by media billionaire and political novice, Michael Bloomberg. Both men are longtime liberal Democrats who only recently switched political parties.
[The primary was cancelled, on account of the terrorist attack on New York City that morning, and rescheduled for two weeks later.]
A man used to being the “first Hispanic everything” (Bronx borough president, congressman, housing commissioner, deputy mayor, president of the City University of New York Board of Trustees) will not fulfill his dream of becoming the city’s first Hispanic mayor. Once a New York political heavyweight, Herman Badillo threatens to become its version of Harold Stassen. Badillo is a walking embodiment of the rule that in New York City, where talk of high-minded ideals is often no more than a front for ethnic and racial loyalty, politics is driven by ethnicity.
Like so much of the Badillo legend, it’s not even clear how many times he has run for mayor: Depending on who’s reporting, it’s the fourth or the sixth time. In fact, it is at least the sixth go-round for Badillo: 1969, 1973, 1977, 1981, 1985, and now. And if you count an abortive, 1993 campaign, this is Badillo’s seventh shot at the brass ring. And yet, the New York Times editorial board has announced that this is Badillo’s fourth mayoral campaign, and who am I to argue with the Times?
(Such sloppiness can be seen on the same newscast: On the September 8, late night newscast on “The WB’s” New York station, Channel 11, two reporters said that it was Badillo’s “fourth” and “sixth” campaign, respectively.)
The legend begins when Herman was 9 ... or 11 ... or 12—again, depending on who’s doing the telling—and arrived on the mainland from Puerto Rico, an orphan who didn’t speak a word of English. But he learned fast. Indeed, Herman Badillo became a classic, New York success story, graduating magna cum laude in 1951 with a degree in accounting, from what was then the most exclusive undergraduate school in America, the public City College of New York. And despite having to go to school nights, while working full time as an accountant, Badillo graduated first in his class from private Brooklyn Law School, in 1954.
During the 1960s and 1970s, Badillo’s drive was nearly unstoppable. He won the Bronx Borough presidency in 1965, and won a congressional election in 1970, giving up his seat in 1978, to be deputy mayor.
Like so many young, New York dynamos, Herman Badillo sought the mayoralty, and for him, as for so many others, that prize proved an impossible dream.
In 1969, liberal Republican mayor John V. Lindsay (1921-2000; mayor, 1966 through 1973), who fancied himself a racial healer, had in four years brought the city to the brink of a race war. Lindsay was beloved by New York’s blacks and upper-middle-class, white socialists and communists, and hated by everyone else.
On the Democratic side, Badillo competed against Robert Wagner (1910-1991) and Mario Procaccino (1912-1995) for the Democrat mayoral nomination.
Wagner, the aristocratic yet accessible liberal (1954 through 1965), was with liberal Republican Fiorello LaGuardia (1882-1947; mayor, 1934 through 1945) one of the two most popular mayors the city has had since its 1898 incorporation of Brooklyn, The Bronx, Queens and Staten Island. (Both men served three complete terms as mayor.) In part due to the death of his first wife, Wagner had tired of being mayor. However, he soon found that not being mayor bored him even more. The Italian-born Procaccino, was the working-class, law-and-order, conservative Democratic city comptroller. To stave off charges of racism, Procaccino insisted he was “a moderate, progressive Democrat.” Of the three, Badillo was the farthest to the left. Badillo and Wagner split the liberal vote, and Procaccino won the nomination.
John Lindsay, whose radical policies had lost him the support even of his own party, ran on the Liberal Party line. He could easily have been beaten by one solid opponent, but was blessed with two semi-solid types, the crude Procaccino and the relatively patrician, conservative Republican state senator, John Marchi. Procaccino and Marchi split the anti-Lindsay vote, and despite getting only 42 percent of all votes, Lindsay — who had outspent both his opponents combined — won another four years, which he used to bankrupt the city.
If any year was Badillo’s, it was 1973. There was no incumbent mayor, no dominant figure in the Democratic Party, and Congressman Badillo was at the height of his political powers. But you might say that Herman Badillo went to bed too early that year.
Badillo was gunning for the endorsement of the socialist, New Democratic Coalition (NDC), with which he was closely associated. As Chris McNickle tells the story in To Be Mayor of New York: Ethnic Politics in the City,
His candidacy offered a chance to marry minority supporters to liberal Jewish voters with more strength than the other contenders. The combination seemed so attractive that Badillo simply assumed he would win. He appeared so certain of himself that many delegates found his bearing arrogant. They felt that he acted as if their endorsement belonged to him by “divine right,” one journalist reported.
Although the NDC was pro-minority, it was run primarily by Jewish leftists, who chose one of their own. Upper West Side state assemblyman, Albert Blumenthal, who had assiduously courted the group’s delegates, prevailed. Badillo cried racism, saying “We can’t have a coalition that says a fellow can’t be mayor because he’s Puerto Rican.”
That year, Comptroller Abe Beame (1906-2001), a reliable, regular Democrat, took nothing for granted. Beame organized support within the party organization, and used the resources of his office. In the primary, Beame barely edged Badillo, 34 percent to 29 percent. In the run-off, however, Beame trounced Badillo, 61 percent to 39 percent, before going on to victory in the general election.
Already at the time, Badillo cried racism over Beame’s tactics. Beame’s campaign had taken out advertisements in Jewish newspapers saying, “Vote as if your life depends upon it, because it does.” In a televised debate, condemning all such appeals to ethnic solidarity, Badillo confronted Beame about the ads, which Beame repudiated. Beame then turned the tables on Badillo, accusing him of making exactly the same appeals to Puerto Rican voters. Beame added, “Now if I said Jewish people should only support Jews, I would be ridden out of politics.”
As chronicled by Chris McNickle, “Badillo finally lost his composure during the last television debate ... when he called his diminutive opponent a racist, and ‘a vicious little man.’”
In a feature in the August 31 Daily News, veteran political reporter and former City Hall bureau chief Joel Siegel (not to be confused with ABC’s Joel Siegel) supports Badillo’s contention, though the new story is that Beame’s “racism” was responsible for Badillo’s primary defeat in 1973:
In his 1973 bid, he lost a runoff to Abe Beame after anti-Badillo forces sent trucks blaring Latin music into white districts, urging a vote for Badillo. The lanky Badillo did not help himself by calling the 5-foot-2 Beame a "malicious little man."
Said Badillo: "They stole an election, using racist techniques.”
That was Badillo’s last realistic shot at the mayoralty.
In 1977, most Democratic strategists agreed that, due to the city’s demographics, the party’s candidate was bound to be a Jew. Based on the city’s financial insolvency, which had been caused by the cooking of the books and lies to which then-Mayor Lindsay and then-Comptroller Beame had become addicted, incumbent Mayor Abe Beame was the most unpopular man in town. Flamboyant, radical feminist/socialist Bella Abzug, who in a city obsessed with an explosion of violent crime and arson, supported the right of policemen and firemen to strike, proved equally adept at hogging the spotlight and shooting herself in the foot. That left reform socialist Greenwich Village congressman, Ed Koch. In a brilliantly cynical campaign, Koch remade himself into the law-and-order candidate. On the street, the candidate greeted potential voters with, “Hi. I’m for capital punishment. Are you?”
Even more than the present election, the 1977 Democratic primary was a campaign of closely bunched candidates. The results, which broke down largely along ethnic lines, were: Koch, 20 percent; New York State Secretary of State Mario M. Cuomo, 19 percent; Mayor Beame, 18 percent; Bella Abzug, 17 percent; black Manhattan Borough President Percy Sutton, 14 percent; and Badillo, at 11 percent.
Badillo had the greatest success at siphoning black votes away from Percy Sutton, who was enraged (but at whom?) that he was able to win only 55 percent of the black vote, but aside from some wealthy white socialists, Badillo had fallen back into the minority political ghetto.
Koch beat Cuomo in the Democratic run-off, 55 to 45 percent, and then again in the general election, 50 to 42 percent, with Cuomo heading the Liberal Party ticket.
In hindsight, after 1977, Herman Badillo would have done well to give up on his dream of citywide office. But it wouldn’t have been like him to do that.
In 1978, newly-elected mayor Ed Koch (1978 through 1989) made Badillo deputy mayor. In Koch’s first term, he was the most popular mayor the city ever had. In 1981, Badillo made rumblings about running for about five minutes.
In 1985, a still very popular Mayor Koch was running for his third term of office. A coalition of minority black and Hispanic Democratic politicians decided to try and unseat the incumbent for no other reason than the color of his skin. (Having just returned to New York after five years spent in West Germany, I heard white socialist political operatives, some of them Jews, speak passionately about trying to unseat Koch, presumably with a minority candidate, without yet feeling the anti-Semitic, racist undercurrent of such talk.)
The group, Coalition for a Just New York, was supposedly black and Hispanic, but was dominated by black pols who used Hispanics, but had no intention of giving them parity, let alone leadership. The group was run by Congressman Charles Rangel, City Clerk David Dinkins, state assemblyman and Manhattan Democratic Party chief Herman “Denny” Farrell and Brooklyn assemblyman Al Vann. Badillo managed to gain the support of the majority of the coalition, including many black votes, but the group’s black leaders were so racist, that as much as they wanted to defeat Ed Koch, they would rather lose with a black man, than win with a Hispanic. And so, Denny Farrell stabbed Herman Badillo in the back, taking the nomination himself.
Farrell’s primary campaign was a model of ineptitude, and failed even to attract black voters. Because this was New York, the racism of Farrell, et al. did not cause them to suffer at all with their political peers or with the media.
Note that nowhere in Joel Siegel’s lengthy profile of Badillo in the August 31 Daily News, does he mention that Badillo even ran for mayor in 1985. The racially opportunistic Siegel exaggerates the “racism” of Jewish mayor Abe Beame that supposedly cost Badillo the Democratic nomination, and thus, the mayoralty, in 1973, without at all mentioning the virulent black racism that destroyed Badillo’s 1985 campaign.
The 1985 campaign showed that time had passed Badillo by. Perhaps it had passed New York by, as well.
After his 1985 debacle, Herman Badillo should have retired from public life. But at 56, he was still in the prime of life, the age when executives customarily are driving at full throttle. And besides, he had a fever for becoming mayor. He couldn’t help himself.
Badillo devoted himself to the East Side law firm he co-founded, Fischbein, Badillo, Wagner, Harding, which specializes in lobbying power brokers. (Co-founder Ray Harding is the head of the New York Liberal Party, an organization with no clear political posture, which has deteriorated into nothing more than a patronage operation.) A member of the City University Board of Trustees, he would give talks at the neo-conservative Manhattan Institute and CUNY Association of Scholars on education reform. The small, wealthy circles of listeners at those soirees surely encouraged Badillo to run, as did his old lobbying cronies. However, for all the money and the influence their members had, those groups were so small and insular, that they could not help someone get elected dog catcher, let alone mayor.
I have no doubt that Badillo’s neo-conservative turn was the result of the political knife Denny Farrell & Co. put in his back in 1985. But New York’s political reality and Herman Badillo had only begun to separate. After Badillo’s second wife, Irma, died after a lengthy period of Alzheimer’s, during which Badillo nursed her, black supremacist police officer Eric Adams, the founder of 100 Blacks in Law Enforcement Who Care, argued that Badillo should have “married one of his own.” (Irma Badillo was a Jew.) Adams suffered no repercussions, and indeed, is constantly sought out by the city’s mainstream media outlets, who either ignored the remark, or quickly developed amnesia.
The centerpiece of Badillo’s 2001 campaign is “standards” in education, but even this is a double-edged sword.
In 1997, Rudy Giuliani got his new political ally, a longtime member of the City University of New York Board of Trustees, named vice-president of that body; in 1999, Giuliani got Gov. George Pataki to name Badillo CUNY Board president. Badillo set about restoring standards to CUNY’s system of 19 undergraduate, graduate, and professional schools.
Badillo was in for some rough sledding. In the $4.5 billion patronage mill that CUNY had become, entrenched interests among faculty, administration, staff, and even student politicians would fight reform to the death. Even though he is Hispanic, Badillo was vilified by leaders of all of the above groups as a “racist.” And yet, he did succeed at ramming through a reform plan, whereby students who required remediation could not attend four-year CUNY colleges without first passing the necessary classes at community colleges, and community college students could not graduate, without first passing proficiency exams.
Badillo’s supporters give him all of the credit for saving CUNY, except that he hasn’t earned such praise. As the Daily News showed in late 1999, CUNY Chancellor Matthew Goldstein has been smuggling community college students who cannot do college-level work into classes on four-year campuses. Despite the exposé, Chancellor Goldstein did not halt the practice, and Badillo and Mayor Giuliani did not force him to cease and desist. And so, like so much recent “reform” in New York, CUNY has only been reformed in the realm of press releases.
And Badillo’s recent pronouncements notwithstanding, he bears much of the responsibility for the destruction of education in New York. It was Badillo, as Bronx Borough president, who did much of the heavy lifting that brought about “bilingual” (read: English-free) Hostos Community College (“established in 1968 and opened in 1970,” according to its website). Hostos’ present state is not a corruption of noble ends; Hostos was conceived as an anti-educational bastion of Puerto Rican corruption and patronage. Similarly, Badillo was the greatest local champion of bilingual education. As a congressman, he wrote the 1974 Bilingual Education Bill. And even now, in his incarnation as a Republican, he has not spoken of dismantling bilingual education in the city’s schools.
Republican Gov. George Pataki has sought since May to talk Badillo out of running against Mike Bloomberg, and Badillo’s “ally,” Mayor Giuliani, has gone “neutral” in the primary race, fueling the familiar refrain of “betrayal” among Badillo’s supporters. Badillo has complained long and hard of the injustice of Bloomberg getting around campaign finance rules, by financing his own campaign. And yet, coming from a seasoned political veteran and lawyer-lobbyist, who never remained loyal long to any political ally, such talk smacks of political “secondary virginity.”
The truth is, Rudy Giuliani gave Herman Badillo every chance to turn his CUNY Board of Trustees presidency into a power base, but Badillo blew it. His political muscles had atrophied.
In the July 31 Wall Street Journal, Dorothy Rabinowitz opined of Badillo, “He is an imposing figure, no doubt about it, and a well known one in New York, his lack of campaign ads notwithstanding. In the elevator all eyes are on him, and on the street people swivel around to look at him.”
And yet, one month later, Joel Siegel would write in the Daily News, that on the street, most people DO NOT recognize Badillo. Was one writer lying?
No; they were simply talking about different streets. Siegel was writing of Badillo’s old power base, on The Bronx’ Sheridan Avenue, teeming with Hispanic Democrats; Rabinowitz was writing of his current one, on Manhattan’s tony East Side, where his law office is, and where the streets teem with lawyers and financial consultants. The problem is, for an Hispanic politician, in 2001 as in 1971, the votes are in The Bronx. Herman Badillo is an ethnic politician without an ethnic constituency. The “green people” provide no substitute.
Five years ago, I saw Badillo’s strengths and weaknesses simultaneously on display. At the invitation of the CUNY Association of Scholars, he spoke at CUNY’s John Jay College on the need to reform CUNY. Badillo observed that someone who is a weak reader, will listen attentively in class, take copious, detailed notes, and avoid majors with the heaviest reading loads.
That was more sense than I ever heard in five years as a CUNY adjunct instructor, teaching students who were poor readers.
At the same time, when someone asked Badillo if reforming CUNY wouldn’t necessarily bring with it a reduction of enrollment, he ducked the question.
There were all of nine people present, including Badillo, the organizers, and myself, at least three of whom were registered Democrats. Politically, Badillo’s future hinged on his willingness to give the same talk to a working-class, Hispanic audience, and convince its members that CUNY reform was in their interest. But Badillo avoided such audiences like the plague. He had traded the street he needed, for the one he could use.
Herman Badillo was not sold out; he simply fizzled out. A longtime contender among the heavyweights of New York ethnic politics, on May 11 he will be carried out of the ring on his shield.