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When a Mayor Plays Just Another Straphanger

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When a Mayor Plays Just Another Straphanger

By MICHAEL M. GRYNBAUM

NEW YORK TIMES

Published: August 2, 2007

 

[float=right] koch190.jpg[/float] “I’m in Sheridan Square, I’m about to go down the stairs, and there’s Koch, larger than life, as if you’d never know he was mayor,” Mr. Siegel recalled in a telephone interview yesterday. “He’s coming up the stairs and looks around at people, and he catches my eye and says, ‘How’m I doing? How’m I doing?’ As natural as day.”

 

Mr. Siegel, a historian at Cooper Union who was an aide to Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, paused a moment. Speaking of Mr.

 

Koch, he said, “People responded with him and there was a certain pleasant sense — the mayor coming up out of the subway,” he said. “What was interesting about it, there was nothing extraordinary, but it was special.”

 

The subway — the subterranean grid that unites city dwellers rich and poor, uptown and down — is fundamental to the experience of regular New Yorkers, and that is a truth city politicians rarely forget.

 

“More than a mover of the mayor, it has been a symbol of the city that mayors have had to deal with,” said Hank Sheinkopf, a New York political consultant. “If you want to get close to New Yorkers, you get close to the subway.”

 

For most mayors, mass transit has been as much a place to meet voters as a means to get to the office. Mr. Koch said he used the subway a couple of times a month to listen to the concerns of riders. John V. Lindsay regularly took City Hall reporters along for rides (“it was a real crush,” grumbled one former newsman), though he rarely rode it to the office. Neither did David N. Dinkins or Mr. Giuliani. But using mass transit, with its populist overtones, can be a double-edged sword for mayors, political analysts say: It may provide face time with the citizenry, but it also carries the risk of appearing calculated.

 

[float=right]bloomberg190.jpg

 

 

[/float] “From Mayor McClellan, when the subway opened, to the current mayor, every mayor has used a subway for political purposes,” said George Arzt, a former press secretary to Mayor Koch. (George B. McClellan took office in 1904.)

 

During his first campaign, in 2001, Michael R. Bloomberg pledged to travel by public transportation nearly every day. He seemed to relish being cast in news reports as a mogul squeezed onto a crowded No. 6 train.

 

But a report in The New York Times yesterday showed that nowadays, Mr. Bloomberg’s commute typically consists of a sport utility vehicle ride to a Midtown express subway stop 22 blocks from his Upper East Side home.

 

Mr. Koch, New York’s mayor for 12 years, said in an interview yesterday that he was never a regular straphanger, but that he descended under the streets on occasion “for the specific purpose of talking to people on the subway and finding out what the problems were.”

 

But Mr. Arzt, his former aide, yesterday offered a less idyllic view of Mr. Koch’s transit use: “He rode the bus to his inaugural and that was the last time he went on a bus.”

 

Mr. Arzt recalled his days as a cub reporter in City Hall, covering Mayor Lindsay’s weekly rides on the subway. Mr. Lindsay, he said, saw the trips as a way to show that “he was just a regular guy, that he was no blue blood.”

 

One spring night in 1965, Mayor Robert F. Wagner took riders by surprise when he made an unannounced tour of the subway system between midnight and 2 in the morning. (He said it was his first trip beneath the streets in a year.)

 

[float=right]giuliani190.jpg

 

[/float]Mr. Wagner claimed he made the trip to check up on his campaign against subway crime. But at the time, some politicians suggested a more calculated motivation, noting that a potential political contender had lately been taking credit away from Mr. Wagner for the subway safety campaign.

 

Some mayors, however, never felt the need to make a statement out of taking the subway.

 

“I don’t think Dinkins needed to because Dinkins was a guy who came up from the bottom and everybody knew him as Dave,” Mr. Arzt said. In a brief telephone interview yesterday, Mr. Dinkins said that as mayor he rode the subway “on occasion, but not often.”

 

And Rudolph Giuliani was rarely on the train. “Giuliani came from lower middle-income roots, so it was not necessary for him to cast a more blue-collar posture,” Mr. Sheinkopf said.

 

Compared with Mr. Bloomberg, known for his private jet and elaborate town house, these mayors “weren’t as cut off from the ordinary life of the city,” Mr. Siegel said.

 

Yesterday, Mr. Bloomberg brushed off questions about the report on his commuting.

 

“You know, the story is what it is,” he said at a press conference in Brooklyn. “Some people focus on important things, some people don’t. There’s not a lot to say.”

 

The mayor then refused to acknowledge the journalists who swarmed around him as he left the news conference. Stu Loeser, the mayor’s chief spokesman, insisted to reporters that “the question was asked and answered.”

 

Later, Mr. Loeser added: “No matter where the mayor goes, his security detail follows him. That’s a fact. He takes the subway because it’s the fastest way to get around, but no matter where he is, in case of an emergency, in case of a disaster, manmade or otherwise, there are security vehicles with him.”

 

One reporter asked Mr. Loeser afterward if the mayor was taking the subway “for show.”

 

“No, he takes the subway virtually every day,” the spokesman replied, “because it’s the fastest way to get from Point A to Point B.”

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