A Tale of Two Cities

Watching last week’s debate among the nominees for mayor of New York, I finally understood why so many reporters preferred to spend the last few months talking about Anthony Weiner’s penis.

They just wanted to ensure the race did not descend into pettiness and farce.

On the debate stage, there was Christine Quinn, speaker of the City Council, responding to her opponents’ every attack not by addressing the attack, but by attacking the opponent.

(For instance, when Weiner took Quinn to task for changing the city’s term limit law to enable Mayor Bloomberg to run again, Quinn offered nothing in reply except to say that Weiner was in no position to demand other people’s apologies.)

There was Weiner and former city comptroller Bill Thompson, arguing over which of them was their party’s nominee for mayor in 2009—as if the question were a matter of opinion.  (Thompson was the 2009 nominee.  Weiner sought the party’s nomination in 2005 and 2009, but failed on both occasions.)

Certainly there was some substance to be found in the hour-long forum, particularly from Bill de Blasio, the city’s public advocate, who evoked Mario Cuomo’s old narrative about a “tale of two cities,” and from John Liu, the city comptroller, who is faring so dismally in the polls that he can afford a smidgen of dignity and humor now and then.

But on the whole, the contest to succeed Mike Bloomberg has thus far proved an uninspiring and trivial affair—an alarming prospect for America’s largest, greatest and most important urban center.

Meanwhile, in my hometown of Boston, our own mayoral race has been of such comparatively high class and substance that many residents have yet to even notice it.

To be fair, the fact that the campaign to succeed the retiring Thomas Menino currently boasts 12 candidates, none of them particularly well-known, might explain the public’s faint attention and interest.

By the same token, the fairly low-profile standing of the race thus far can be equally attributed to the lack of any notable scandal or silliness on the part of any candidate or the local media.

However, these shallow levels of visibility could soon change.  This week saw the dozen hopefuls debate the issues for the first time, in what will presumably help many voters differentiate among their many options and gravitate in one direction or another.

These debates—there were three, with four participants apiece—were a pleasure to behold.  With only the occasional lapse into inanity—an extended discussion about cage fighting, for instance—they were serious, sober affairs that, at least in my own case, served to enlighten and entertain rather than to depress and annoy.

Included in the three fora, among other things, were extended dialogues about the vices and virtues of charter schools, the practicalities of running public transportation 24 hours a day, how to root out racism in the Boston Police Department, and whether the city has a workable contingency plan in the event that a mishap at Boston University’s new biolab necessitates a large-scale evacuation of the city.

While some candidates were plainly better-prepared than others to tackle such questions, all took them seriously and none strayed too far from the subject at hand, all the while keeping interruptions and petty squabbles to an absolute minimum.

So there you have it.  In Boston, a mayoral race of real weight and maturity.  In New York, a circus.

Of this, I humbly ask:  Why?  Why can’t the most consequential city in America manage a contest for chief executive as grown-up as the one in a municipality one-thirteenth its size?

Is it simply that New York’s nature as an outsized metropolis naturally attracts outsized personalities to lord over it?  That, like the American presidency, the very fact of the office’s bigness and impossible complexity tends to repel the sort of sane, well-rounded individuals who would do the job the highest service?

Or is it rather the case that the challenge of running New York actually turns normal people into caricatures?

Would the New York candidates behave better if they were running in Boston instead?  For that matter, would the Boston candidates behave worse if they campaigned in New York?

Is New York simply having a particularly bad year and Boston a particularly good one?  If the major league baseball standings are any indication, perhaps there is no likelier explanation than that.

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