It’s not every day that City Council members win a victory against Mayor Rudolph Giuliani. So Ronnie Eldridge can be forgiven for gloating a bit last week when the mayor reversed his policy of banning press conferences by Council members on the steps of City Hall.
“It was impossible for him not to let us do it,” said the Upper West Side Democrat, who led a group of Council members in a defiant City Hall photo op two weeks ago, declaring that the mayor has overreacted to the threat against City Hall following recent U.S. action against terrorism.
Giuliani has ordered the building cordoned off to the general public and surrounded by concrete barriers.“I’m amazed that he thinks we’re that important that if you wanted to bring terrorism to New York, you would bomb City Hall,” said Eldridge, 67, in an interview at her Broadway district office.
Eldridge’s history with City Hall predates her election to the Council in 1989. She was a special assistant to Mayor John Lindsay during the politically turbulent early 1970s. “We evacuated the office on a regular basis because of bomb threats,” she recalls. But such stringent measures as those now in place were never imposed, she says.
This is far from the first time Eldridge has locked horns with the mayor, whom she accuses of operating more as a prosecutor than an administrator.
“They differ on almost anything you can think of,” says Gifford Miller, a fellow Democrat from an adjacent East Side Council district. “[Eldridge] has been since Day 1 an ardent foe of the mayor’s on a range of issues, such as the budget and child care issues.
“They are two strong personalities with different views on politics, and Ronnie is not one to back down easily.”
Eldridge admits that her conflict with Giuliani has transcended party politics and become personal, although she’s only met the mayor a handful of times.
“I don’t like him,” she says. “He is a bully. He’s always belittling or trying to be nasty or categorize you unfavorably in the public eye.”
So intense is her antipathy that Eldridge is determined to help thwart Giuliani’s political ambitions. The mayor is considering runs for the Senate, vice president or governor. When he traveled last month to Iowa, which is the first state to hold a presidential caucus, Eldridge wrote to an Iowa State University newspaper that Giuliani “is the most uncivil mayor New York has ever had.”
She has no preference thus far, however, among prospective Democratic candidates for Senate or for Giuliani’s current job, which term limits will require him to leave in 2001.
A lifelong resident of the Upper West Side, Eldridge served as an adviser on women’s issues to former Gov. Mario Cuomo and now chairs the Council’s Women’s Issues Committee. She and her husband, Newsday columnist Jimmy Breslin, have nine children between them from previous marriages, and eight grandchildren.
One of the Council’s egalitarian “minyan” of Jewish members, Eldridge says she is “eclectic as a Jew. I come from the Reform Jewish community and I’m married to a Catholic. [But] my sense of concern for people in need and great respect for freedom and justice is a good part of why I’m in this.”
Eldridge downplays Giuliani’s popularity in the Jewish community, noting the low turnout in the last election, in which more than 70 percent of Jews voted for the Republican mayor.
“Some people were more motivated to vote for him than others” who stayed home, she says.
In reply, Giuliani’s chief of staff, Bruce Teitelbaum, noted that Giuliani carried Eldridge’s district despite running against a Jewish Democrat from the West Side, Ruth Messinger. “[Eldridge] is out of touch with her own district,” said Teitelbaum, “and perhaps jealous that the mayor is more popular than she is in her own district.”
Teitelbaum called Eldridge’s personal characterizations of the mayor “unseemly.”
While most of the public, who never have occasion to visit City Hall, may view the security issue as a political tempest in a teapot, Eldridge insists it boils down to markedly different views about liberty and freedom and the role of government.
“[Giuliani] was quoted as saying: ‘Freedom is about the willingness of every human being to cede to lawful authority a great deal of discretion about what you do and how you do it,’ ” he says.“My definition would be: ‘Your ability to do what you want, within a limited structure of set rules and laws.’ But he keeps changing the rules, ruling unilaterally."
The 1998 congressional elections may be over, but you wouldn’t know it from watching Democrat Paul Feiner, supervisor of the Westchester town of Greenburgh, who won about 40 percent of the vote against Republican incumbent Ben Gilman in November.
Feiner was to travel to Washington Thursday to call on Gilman to vote no in the historic House vote for impeachment of President Bill Clinton.
Gilman, whose district straddles Westchester and Rockland counties, says he’s not sure how he’ll vote. He chairs the House Foreign Relations Committee and is reportedly concerned about the impact of impeachment on foreign affairs.
Feiner, who makes no secret of his desire to run again in 2000 (when Gilman may not choose to run again) considers the proceedings in Washington “an attempted coup” by Republicans and says he “hasn’t felt this strongly about any national issue since Vietnam. I’ve been getting as many as 50 calls a day to my office about this issue, and I don’t even have a vote.”