NEW YORK--Queens Boulevard has nine or more lanes, and even though there are little concrete islands where stranded pedestrians, darting in stages from one side of the boulevard to the other, can huddle in midstream of the roaring traffic flood, crossing the boulevard is an adventure for pedestrians who are not Olympic sprinters. Sometimes it is lethal. At various points ominous yellow signs warn: "A pedestrian was killed crossing here." Have a nice day.
At a Jewish senior citizens center near the boulevard, Herman Badillo, 72, one of the youngest people in the room, is explaining to some voters that if they make him mayor, he will do something for Queens pedestrians. But there probably is not a registered Republican in the room--there are only 463,040 in the whole city--so perhaps no one listening to him can vote for him in the Sept. 11 primary.
Badillo has little money but hopes hard-core Republicans will give him the nomination because he is the only Republican running. His opponent, tycoon Michael Bloomberg (net worth: $4 billion), will spend at least $20 million before 100,000 or so Republicans vote--$200 a voter.
Until last autumn, when Bloomberg changed his registration so he could duck a congested Democratic primary, he was a liberal Democrat. Still is, actually. He also is God's gift to political consultants, of whom he has hired a slew. They have not figured out how to present a billionaire's whim as God's gift to the city.
They probably do not need to. Bloomberg almost certainly will smother Badillo with television advertising. Bloomberg also has purchased the affection of many state Republicans whose actual market price may be considerably less than what he is willing to bid. Come November, whichever of the four familiar faces (never mind who they are; they are fungible liberals) wins the Democratic nomination should be able to use the 5-1 Democratic registration advantage to force Bloomberg to seek a hobby other than politics. But let the record show that Badillo deserves better.
Born in Puerto Rico, by age 5 he was an orphan, tuberculosis having taken both parents. By age 11 he was living in East Harlem with relatives. He was equipped for upward mobility by the city's public schools, which then educated, and especially by City College, which then merited the accolade "the Harvard of the poor." He graduated magna cum laude from City College and was valedictorian of his Brooklyn Law School class.
Upward he went as a Democrat on the political ladder. He has been on it a long time. In 1965 he became the first Hispanic president of a borough, the Bronx. In 1970 he became the first native Puerto Rican elected to Congress. In 1978 he became deputy mayor under Edward Koch. But his finest years, which made him a Republican, were those as vice chairman and then, as he was until June, chairman of the board of trustees of City University.
In 1969 Mayor John Lindsay's amazingly comprehensive program for ruining everything in the city reached CUNY with the policy of open admissions. Badillo had made it to college only after escaping from his high school's vocational education track (repairing aircraft engines), a track he was shunted into simply because he was Puerto Rican. In 1969, he opposed open admissions. The policy destroyed CUNY for a generation.
His lonely opposition caused criticism from Democrats. Badillo says he responded, ``If having standards is a Republican idea, I'm joining the Republican Party." Which he did in 1998.
Today, although he pulls out the usual stops on the political organ (opposing crime, praising housing for the elderly, etc.) his most heartfelt mantra is, ``We've lost standards." This loss results from a ``philosophy of pandering." No one else running talks like this.
Only Badillo has a sense of urgency, of ground lost and potential wasted because of bad ideas. But he is pushing against the heavy fudge of complacency that is the result of the remarkable improvement of conditions during Mayor Rudy Giuliani's eight years.
Successful leaders often succeed in making the political landscape safe for their adversaries. Margaret Thatcher energized Britain's economy by cutting taxes and regulations and tamed the trade unions, thereby leaving her Conservative Party without its energizing complaints, and making the Labor Party seem less menacing. Ronald Reagan presided over the deflation of government's domestic ambitions and the dissolution of the Cold War, thereby making Democrats more plausible as presidents.
Giuliani's successes in taming crime and shrinking the welfare caseload have made the city appear safe for liberalism. Appearances can be deceiving.