New York City hauled the 884-pound statue of Thomas Jefferson out of City Hall recently because city leaders said the statue “shouldn’t exist” and that Jefferson should be forgotten. I can understand New York progressives forgetting that Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence but it is surprising that they don’t remember that this Founding Father also brokered the deal that made New York City the financial capital of the nation. Didn’t they see Hamilton?
New York City does dumb things like this routinely and I bet most New Yorkers have just about had enough of it. I lived in New York City in another lifetime and I have seen this movie before. Even the names of some of the characters are the same.
In the 1980’s New York City was overrun with crime—murder, robbery, and drugs. The filthy streets stank, the city was broke—taxes were high and services were non-existent.
I came to New York City as a left-wing liberal, what we would call a progressive today, and the people running the city were people I knew and agreed with.
Mario Cuomo, father to former Gov. Andrew and infamous former CNN Host Chris, was governor. The Democratic majority of voters who elected him were very upset about all the crime. To demonstrate that he wasn’t a bleeding heart, Cuomo imposed mandatory sentences for drug users. His move didn’t solve the drug problem, but it did fill up the prisons, so he built a lot of new prisons all over the state. Most of them were many hours from New York City, making it virtually impossible for families to visit incarcerated family members. Cutting off family connections made rehabilitation almost impossible.
I started working for a liberal prison reform group shortly after I arrived in New York City and I soon got a call from the New York Times asking for a comment on Cuomo’s criminal justice policies. I told the newspaper Cuomo’s mandatory sentencing and prison policies were costing the state and the city millions and not making a dent in the crime problem.
By the time I got back to my office, it was reported to me that then-Gov. Cuomo had called the chairman of the board of the group I worked for and asked him “who the f***” I thought I was.”
My colleagues just shrugged and apologized—to the governor, not to me. I was pulled aside and told bluntly that Gov. Cuomo was a bully and it was not wise to cross him.
Long-time New York City Mayor Ed Koch, was popular but his tirades and narcissism—including his on-going tabloid war with Donald Trump—had gotten old for most New Yorkers. The City’s problems—the crime, the taxes, the waste and the mismanagement—had become chronic. People were exhausted by it.
David Dinkins was a low-energy politician and there was no evidence that he had a plan to change things, but he was somebody new and that was enough to convince people he represented change. At a minimum, he was calm and soft-spoken and I knew he would lower the noise level in City Hall, so I went to work on his campaign. After Dinkins beat Koch, I took a job in his administration.
But a change in tone wasn’t enough. New York City only got worse. In addition to bankruptcy, the City was experiencing four simultaneous epidemics—AIDS, low-birthweight babies, asthma and tuberculosis. Crime and homelessness skyrocketed, hospitals and public schools were both failing, the city bureaucracy was riddled with corruption and New Yorkers were walking the streets every day barraged by homeless people who were living on streets littered with garbage bags.
Finally, it got so bad that the unthinkable happened—New York City elected a Republican mayor. Then as now, there were barely enough registered Republicans in New York City to make a blip on a chart, but Rudy Giuliani, the GOP U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, defeated Dinkins’ re-election bid.
New Yorkers had finally had enough and they were tired of hearing Dinkins and Cuomo say that they only way things could get better would be higher taxes and a massive federal bailout.
Like every New Yorker, I noticed a difference almost immediately after Giuliani took office. The garbage was picked up and street crime dramatically declined. He privatized the hospitals (which had been city owned) and they got the epidemics under control. You could walk down the street without being accosted by panhandlers. Police reforms finally began without creating a union war. Zero-tolerance policies were controversial, but they worked.
Giuliani’s transformation of the city changed a generation of New Yorkers. They were still Democrats but they didn’t elect another Democrat to lead the city until the current mayor, Bill de Blasio, took office.
I am sure it is not lost on older New Yorkers that the same problems they had with Koch and Dinkins returned with de Blasio. That’s undoubtedly why they rejected progressive mayoral candidates this fall and instead elected a retired police officer, Eric Adams.
It wasn’t lost on me either. People often ask me how I became a movement conservative after years working as a progressive Democrat. While there was never a “road to Damascus” moment, seeing the turnaround that occurred in New York City under conservative leadership created some huge cracks in my liberal ideology.
When I see so many great American cities today, like San Francisco and Austin, that are being ruined by liberal policies, I recall what happened in New York and it gives me hope.
When the failure of left-wing progressive policies are in your face everyday—when they’ve wasted your tax dollars, ruined your downtown, mismanaged services, and told you to do stupid things like forget Thomas Jefferson, ultimately voters who will finally say “enough!” We’re beginning to see some changes across the country and I am betting we are going to see more.