Messinger Challenges Mayor to One-On-One Debate

New York Times, May 14, 1997

NEW YORK -- With her main Democratic adversary stepping aside, Ruth Messinger Tuesday sought to transform the mayoral race into a two-person contest with Rudolph Giuliani, ignoring her remaining Democratic rivals as she demanded a one-on-one debate with the mayor.

Giuliani laughed off Ms. Messinger's demand for an early debate, which she said should be devoted to the candidates' differences on New York's endangered rent control system. But he heartily concurred with Ms. Messinger's assertion that this has become a two-person race, and in a hint of the general election ahead, painted the Manhattan Borough president as ideologically out of step with a changing city, and a Manhattan partisan unable to relate to the four other boroughs.

The give and take between two politicians who now seemed poised to dominate New York's political life for the next six months occurred after Fernando Ferrer announced Tuesday that he was quitting the mayoral race, choosing instead to run for a third term as Bronx borough president. Ferrer said he was halting his troubled campaign and endorsing Ms. Messinger to avoid a divisive primary that would ensure Giuliani's re-election.

Ferrer's abrupt exit put Ms. Messinger in the spotlight. She quickly sought to take advantage of the unusual, if welcome, sight of microphone-wielding reporters and camera operators trailing her through the streets of lower Manhattan to a news conference. With the trim and gleaming backdrop of Public School 234 behind her -- and clearly enjoying what one adviser described as the biggest soapbox of her life -- Ms. Messinger engaged in the time-honored political tactic of challenging an incumbent to a debate, while laying out some of the themes that she will bring to the contest.

"My mom and dad used to tell me that you can't solve a problem you don't see," Ms. Messinger said, as an aide cleared out people behind her to ensure cameras a clear shot of the school. Listing difficulties with public schools, rent protections and street police patrols, she concluded: "If Rudy doesn't see the problems New Yorkers face, he can't fix them. And if he can't fix them, he should no longer be the mayor."

Notwithstanding Ms. Messinger's sudden dominance in the Democratic primary, her two remaining opponents, Councilman Sal Albanese and the Rev. Al Sharpton, both signaled that they were not prepared to give up. Albanese and Sharpton trail Ms. Messinger in endorsements, money and early opinion polls. But they have reputations as articulate and innovative mavericks, willing to take risks to advance their candidacies, and that spirit was on display Tuesday.

"There's no way in the world we're going to have a campaign coronation for Ruth Messinger," Albanese said. "I'm a much stronger candidate." He described her as the mayor's "dream candidate," and predicted she would be demolished by Giuliani because she was too liberal on too many issues.

Sharpton disputed the idea of a two-person race. "The pundits say what they want," Sharpton said. "We have grown even in their polls. We have grown in fund-raising. We believe that we can be successful. The people that I speak for must be heard. The people that I've tried to represent must be at the table."

Sharpton also said that, the way the race was shaping up, every major party candidate for citywide office -- mayor, public advocate and comptroller -- was white. "We cannot end this century with an all-white Republican slate facing an all-white Democratic slate in a city that's majority people of color," he said.

Indeed, there were signs Tuesday that if Ms. Messinger was now being seen as the inevitable Democratic nominee, which she was, it was creating as much of a sense of resignation as of celebration. Many New York professional political leaders had endorsed Ferrer precisely because they were wary that Ms. Messinger, with her Manhattan base and longtime affiliation with liberal causes, would present the mayor with an easy political target.

And the mayor and his political aides happily fed those anxieties Tuesday. Fran Reiter, the mayor's campaign manager, did not even wait for Ferrer to finish his withdrawal news conference before launching the artillery at Ms. Messinger. As Ferrer spoke at the bottom of the steps of City Hall, Ms. Reiter assembled a news contingent at the top, where she called Ms. Messinger a renegade from 1960s.

Even Ferrer, in endorsing Ms. Messinger, could not bring himself to rebut the notion that she was too liberal to win a race against Giuliani. "That's a knock that I have never made," said Ferrer, who would like to run again for mayor in 2001. "Apparently some others have, and they'll have to answer for it."

For her part, Ms. Messinger shrugged off such questions as she made the best of her sudden political celebrity. Her decision to challenge Giuliani to a debate on the rent regulations was a last-minute addition to her speech, reflecting what asides said would be a new aggressiveness to a campaign that many Democrats believe has been, until now, listless.

Messinger campaign aides said they did not expect Giuliani to ever agree to a debate so early. But her aides calculated that such a gambit would bring attention both to her and her proposal that city residents in a referendum, rather than the state Legislature in a public vote, be allowed to decide the future the rent regulation system.

"I've made it clear where I stand," Ms. Messinger said. "I'm for a referendum in New York City by New Yorkers on the issue of rent regulation. It's time for Rudy to come out and tell New Yorkers where he stands on this issue. I challenge him to a debate immediately on rent regulation and rent protection for New Yorkers."

Giuliani supports the continuation of rent regulations and has called in the past for control of the system to be given to New York City. Ms. Messinger has refused to say what changes she wants in the system, other than having it extended for two years and studied further.

At the same time, Ms. Messinger, in her position as Manhattan Borough president, began airing radio advertising Tuesday promoting the rent regulation proposal. Her aides said she would broadcast 54 such as advertisements, at a cost of $10,560, paid for out of her Manhattan Borough president budget.

Beyond that, Ms. Messinger offered other themes that she planned to develop during the campaign. She charged that Giuliani had imposed 'devastating" budget cuts on city schools. She also said that the number of police officers on the beat was declining.

By any measure, this was the most significant day in Ms. Messinger's political life, though there was not much public indication of that. After her news conference, Ms. Messinger walked back to her office. In one indication of the political hurdles Ms. Messinger faces in the months ahead, she was barely recognized as she made her way up the street through the lunch-time crowd.

She spent most of her day calling fund-raisers and political leaders, trying to nail down support. She ended her day in what was for her a routine stop at a dedication of an exhibit at Temple Emanu-el on Fifth Avenue. And her advisers argued that Ferrer's exit would ultimately prove liberating to Ms. Messinger, who has seemed stifled on the campaign trail so far.

"Ruth will have a bigger soapbox to say a lot of things we held in abeyance," one of her advisers said. "This race is now between Ruth and Rudy. That is just a fact. That's just the way it is."

Copyright 1997 The New York Times Company