With the 2013 New York City mayoral primaries in the history books—and no Democratic run-off required—I’d like to return to the political contests that I remember most of all. The year was 1977. I was fifteen-years-old at the time and, admittedly, not especially interested in the hot-button issues of the day. For some reason, though, I was mesmerized by the game of politics—the theater of it all. As a youth, I collected political buttons, literature, and posters. I watched candidate debates on local TV, which were a whole lot more enlightening and entertaining than today’s overly scripted, canned answer snore-fests.
In 1977, New York City was in the throes of a fiscal crisis. The city was crime-laden, dirtier than ever, and conspicuously in decline. The scuttlebutt was that its best days had come and gone. In my neighborhood, Kingsbridge in the Bronx, I nevertheless considered the 1970s a golden era—a heyday that included playing stickball games at John F. Kennedy High School, sipping tasty egg creams at Bill’s Friendly Spot after a grueling day at Cardinal Spellman High School on the other side of the Bronx (the flat, colorless side), and chowing down on Sam’s Pizza, a greasy delight that mere words cannot do justice. But even if I was blissfully unaware of it, change was most definitely in the offing—some of it good but most of it not so good. The city’s best days were behind it.
The diminutive Abe Beame, a well meaning but hapless clubhouse politician who inherited a train wreck from his predecessor, John Lindsay, was the sitting mayor and something of a eunuch vis-à-vis governing. Smelling blood in the water, he was challenged in his bid for a second term by a diverse lot of some notable and some not so notable politicians: Bella Abzug, Mario Cuomo, Ed Koch, Herman Badillo, Percy Sutton, and a businessman named Joel Harnett. The Republicans even had a primary that year featuring liberal Manhattan Congressman Roy Goodman versus conservative radio talk show host Barry Farber. Both races were highly contested and entertaining spectacles. I loved the drama of it so much that I taped several of the debates with a Panasonic recorder I had received as a gift the previous Christmas. Audiotapes were made back then by setting the recorder nearest the television set’s sound speaker and demanding complete silence in the room, which was usually impossible.
As I recall, venerable local newsman Gabe Pressman hosted one of the more feisty primary debates. The candidates were seated side by side and interacted with one another. I remember Bella Abzug badgering Mario Cuomo for being on the Liberal Party line in November come what may, while insisting he was never a member of the party. She wanted to know why he was awarded that ballot line. (Cuomo was Governor Hugh Carey’s anointed candidate to defeat what he considered the clueless, counterproductive Beame.) “I’d like to have an answer,” Bella repeated over and over as Mario tried to get a word in edgewise. Finally, he exasperatingly interjected, “Well, when you close your mouth I’ll answer!” The audience at this debate let out a big “Oooh” or some such thing. And, really, this was the tenor of the contest—combative and genuine. In this age of political correctness, Cuomo would very likely have to apologize for implying a female opponent of his had a big mouth. But Bella Abzug did have a big mouth—that was her stock-in-trade.
Mario Cuomo visited Kingsbridge in his Cuo-mobile in the summer of 1977 during the primary campaign. Ed Koch, too, passed out fliers on W231st Street, the neighborhood’s commercial hub. I picked up some campaign literature and buttons for my collection on the local streets, which pleased me to no end. I didn’t quite exclaim, “Life is good,” because that New Age bromide hadn’t yet been invented, but I was feeling something along those lines. Before the September primary day, I had in my possession posters of the candidates from both parties, with the exceptions of Roy Goodman and Joel Harnett, who may not have produced any. I snatched them off telephone and traffic light poles and they were covered in staples. Fiscal crisis notwithstanding—the politicians of the day blitzkrieged area neighborhoods with their posters. They don’t do that today. Campaign buttons are even hard to come by.
For what it’s worth the fifteen-year-old me supported Mario Cuomo for mayor, even though I couldn’t vote. He came in second, and since the winner, Ed Koch, didn’t achieve the requisite 40%—part of the New York City election law—there was a run-off election several weeks later. Koch edged out Cuomo once again. In the general election, Cuomo, running on the Liberal Party line, gave him a run for his money but came up short.
Thirty-six years have passed since the summer of 1977 and that contentious and always interesting campaign for mayor. I’m a lot older—thirty-six years as a matter of fact—and more attuned to issues, but the youthful exuberance of that time and place has long expired. I’ll vote in November—I always do—but it doesn’t seem to matter as much as it did in 1977, when I couldn’t vote and didn’t really care about the issues. At some point in time, my mother threw away the posters I had collected that year. They had been stashed under my bed for far too long, I suppose. It was many years later that I rued that act as akin to throwing away a prized baseball card collection. There will be no more Cuo-mobiles passing through my life—ever—and no more chumming for campaign posters to add to my collection, which is sort of deflating to me. But vote early and often in November anyway.