Giuliani's Ties to Black New York Troubled

Republican presidential hopeful Rudy Giuliani ran afoul of blacks in New York City over what some describe as heavy-handed political tactics and police stop-and-frisk procedures when he was mayor.
Republican presidential hopeful Rudy Giuliani ran afoul of blacks in New York City over what some describe as heavy-handed political tactics and police stop-and-frisk procedures when he was mayor. (By Chris Greenberg -- Associated Press)
By Perry Bacon Jr.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 10, 2007

NEW YORK -- Once the cultural capital of black America, Harlem had reached the bottom of decades of decline by the late 1980s, with streets full of abandoned houses, virtually an open-air crack cocaine market and thousands of violent crimes each year. It took the collaboration of people including Rudolph W. Giuliani, the mayor of New York from 1994 to 2001, and Karen Phillips, who ran the development arm of a historic black church, to turn it around.

Under policies advanced by the Giuliani administration and carried out by Phillips and other activists dedicated to saving the neighborhood, real estate and retail boomed and crime plunged. It was dubbed the second Harlem Renaissance, and Giuliani seemed quite proud of his achievements there, telling the New York Daily News in December 2000 that "the reality is that my administration has done more for Harlem than any administration in the last 50 years."

Phillips, however, now finds nothing positive to say about Giuliani. Besides being "vindictive," his approach was "you're either with me or you're my enemy," Phillips, a member of New York's city planning commission, said in a recent interview. "I can't see him as president. I would not like to see his hand on the red phone."

As Giuliani seeks the 2008 Republican presidential nomination, he cites his achievements in turning around New York as one of the main reasons he should be elected, specifically highlighting a dramatic reduction in crime.

But Giuliani's mayoral tenure was also marked by an almost toxic relationship with African Americans in the city, a relationship that shows no sign of healing 5 1/2 years after Giuliani left Gracie Mansion. When he won a second term in 1997 with more than 55 percent of the vote, he received just 20 percent of the black vote.

That disaffection was often a source of frustration for Giuliani. Asked about the strains in 1997, he replied: "They are alive -- how 'bout we start with that. You can't help people more directly than to save lives."

More recently, at a presidential debate last month, he said "I tried very, very hard to treat everyone in New York City the same," and again cited the city's reduction in crime when he was mayor.

Few GOP primary voters are African American, so any lingering tension is unlikely to have any direct effect on his campaign for the Republican presidential nomination. But Giuliani's reputation as a polarizing force in his home town could undermine his image as a unifying figure in American politics -- an image that came from his role in calming New Yorkers after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

"The mayor deserves credit and recognition for many of the positive developments of this community," said Lloyd Williams, who runs the Greater Harlem Chamber of Commerce. But "he had a terrible reputation with black elected officials. It's a unique set of circumstances."

Phillips noted that "we had a very good working relationship" with then-New York Gov. George E. Pataki, a Republican, and she served on the transition team of Giuliani's successor, Michael R. Bloomberg, another Republican, in 2001.

Her dissatisfaction with Giuliani, she said, was almost entirely based on instances in which she was actually pursuing goals that were in line with his priorities, and in which his aggressive approach prompted a backlash.

Early in his first term as mayor, Giuliani wanted to spur commercial development in low-income areas such as Harlem, where the city owned many abandoned buildings. Phillips had been recruited by the Rev. Calvin Butts, pastor of Abyssinian Baptist Church, one of Harlem's most venerable congregations, to work on community development issues, and she was interested in obtaining land from the city to build a Pathmark grocery store in East Harlem.

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