Campaign Journal: Nixon for Mayor

On one of the many summer days on which the press shuffled into John Street's campaign headquarters to try to get the Mayor to fess up to something, one reporter jokingly referred to the operation as CREEM, the “Committee to Re-Elect the Mayor.” The comparison to creep, Richard Nixon's campaign operation, was not that far-fetched. Street's campaign had indeed offered an imperial tone, and dirty tricks to match: pseudonymous attack letters to the editor, an alleged conspiracy to put a patsy right-winger on the ballot. Then came the real dirt: word that creem maintained a secret fund for off-the-books activity. The Mayor has since largely disappeared from view. Most days, it seems the only tactical decision he makes is whether to run against the world or from it.

In 1999, the candidate was so politely outgoing that the New York Times reported on “a campaign debate almost eerie for its flauntings of mutual admiration.” (Time-capsule quote: “The nice thing,” said Sam Katz, “is that we love and respect each other.”) Today, Street's scorn for Katz is transparent, and it seems to inform much of what his campaign does.

Street has never been much of a people person-a trait he successfully overcame to reach City Hall. In victory, he appears to have found little encouragement for his new personality, but plenty of vindication for his worst nature. Much has been made of the insularity and combativeness of his administration, but that self-destructive streak seems not to have changed in an electioneering mode. It's starting to look like a campaign being run by someone who wants to lose.

More likely, the Mayor has become convinced that he can win on his own terms: using a strong field operation to energize his base, courting big donors, and refusing to engage a media the campaign sees as unfriendly. His public schedule is typically empty, and he spent months rejecting invitations to debate-all while trailing in the polls. It didn't help that one rare appearance, at a pro-Safe Streets event in August, featured a mayoral endorsement of a drug dealer. Street seemed to acknowledge image problems when he hired press secretary Dan Fee in late July, but the campaign's problem was lacking a message, not a spokesman to deliver it. “I love John,” says an adviser, “but he's not even adopting a Rose Garden strategy, because a Rose Garden strategy would be getting lots of publicity for the things that you're doing as mayor.”

The closest Street has come to a campaign environment was an August appearance before some 3,000 people at a Howard Dean rally. Street took on a be-in of young white liberals, a group he has largely alienated, and evinced a sincere enthusiasm for the most rah-rah Democrat in the race. “Party matters!” Street proclaimed. Then he crossed the street to a Presidential primary debate hosted by the Sheet Metal Workers, whom he hasn't alienated. He delivered welcoming remarks, and then disappeared. “Mayor, where are you?” moderator Bill Press asked at one point. After Dick Gephardt thanked Street, Carol Moseley Braun leaned over to Al Sharpton and whispered, “Is he here?” Sharpton nodded. “Where is he?” Braun asked. “He left,” Sharpton said stoically.