Exactly two weeks after voting was halted by deadly terrorist strikes that forever altered New York City's physical, emotional and political landscape, voters are returning to the polls today to choose a successor to Mayor Rudolph Giuliani.
New York City residents, many gripped with uncertainty and reeling from the aftermath of the nation's worst terrorist attack, headed to the polls today to choose the candidates who will appear on the ballot in November's general election.
Officials feared today's primary, postponed after terrorists attacked the World Trade Center Sept. 11, will draw an even lighter than usual turnout. Registered voters in each political party will narrow the field for the upcoming city races for mayor, city comptroller, public advocate and the City Council, as well as numerous other borough offices. If no candidate receives at least 40 percent of the vote, a runoff primary between that race's two top vote-getters will take place on Oct. 11.
Two weeks ago, the city's strong Democratic base made it likely that the outcome of November's mayoral election would rest on whichever Democrat was victorious in the primary. But that was before incumbent Giuliani won such high praise for his handling of the World Trade Center disaster.
On the eve of the voting Giuliani, who is required by existing term limit laws to vacate his office at the end of the year, indicated he might consider mounting a challenge to the term limit laws so he could seek a third term.
Giuliani is encouraging people to vote, while deflecting questions about his own political future amid pressure for him to find a way to circumvent a term limits law and stay on the job.
"People decide on their own whether they want to vote or they don't want to vote," Giuliani told reporters Monday at a televised news conference. "If they want to vote, then they should choose between and among the candidates that are there on the different lines."
Though a current term limits law would force Giuliani to leave office next year, his strongest supporters and top aides have been pushing him to stay on the job to help the city recover. He had been prepared to leave office quietly when his second term ends Dec. 31. But that was before a terrorist suicide mission destroyed the World Trade Center towers and forever altered the city skyline.
Since then, even Giuliani's political rivals have praised his response to the crisis. But while leaving the door open to entering the race at some point, Giuliani did nothing to suggest he plans to make a move.
"It is true that I have a future," Giuliani said. "I don't know what it is yet and, therefore, I don't have an announcement about it."
Too Late for Rudy?
The speculation may all be moot. A senior state elections official told ABCNEWS the only way Giuliani could appear on the general election ballot in November would be to win any party's nomination in today's primaries, receiving a plurality of the write-in votes and surviving a runoff.
Over the course of last week, aides to Giuliani and New York Gov. George Pataki — once bitter political rivals — were working behind the scenes to explore whether the city council or state Legislature would repeal the term limits law. Democrats, who control the state Assembly and City Council, were not interested.
On Friday, Pataki tried to quiet speculation the state would act to let Giuliani stay on, though he hinted voters could write-in the mayor's name. A spokesperson later said Pataki wanted Tuesday's election to proceed without interference.
A Marist Institute for Public Opinion poll found 91 percent of New York City residents think Giuliani is doing an excellent or good job handling the aftermath of the terrorist attacks.
But when the same poll asked New York voters whether term limits should be repealed to let Giuliani seek re-election, only 33 percent answered "yes."
Voters in the Democratic primary must choose between Bronx Borough President Fernando Ferrer, City Council Speaker Peter Vallone — who stood with Giuliani at today's news conference — Public Advocate Mark Green, and City Comptroller Alan Hevesi. Republicans choose between entrepreneur Michael Bloomberg and Herman Badillo.
Whether he winds up on the ballot or not in November, voters will have Giuliani's performance in mind.
"In crises, politicians will be leading the way in terms of public opinion," said Richard F. Zimmerman, a scholar of urban politics and government. "So they'll no doubt think of Giuliani."
Candidates Have Not Campaigned Since Terror Attacks
None of Giuliani's prospective successors has campaigned since the Sept. 11 attacks. The city's campaign finance board ordered the campaigns to halt expenditures, and they all did so. Aside from a few appearances at previously scheduled public forums and a few interviews granted to the New York newspapers, the six men who would be mayor have stayed out of the media and public eye.
"The campaigning has stopped," said Green spokesman Joe DePlasco. "We have other things on our mind." But, he said, "The people of New York are interested in hearing what [the candidates] have to say."
Whoever takes office next year faces enormous challenges.
Zimmerman gives only the San Francisco earthquake of 1906 and the great Chicago fire of 1871 as precedents for rebuilding. Though stock brokerages and law firms are living in temporary quarters, the facility of trading and the utility of business won't be up to speed until Verizon repairs its transmission building, until construction companies patch up the thousands of broken windows, until the debris is clear, which could take months.
The city could stand to lose billions in lost revenue from the dearth of tourists, industry job cuts and a slowdown in consumer spending.
Hundreds of killed firefighters and police officers need to be replaced. The city must spend millions and millions of dollars on top of the $1 billion New York Fire Department budget to buy new firetrucks, pay new firefighters, train the others, and treat the injured. The NYPD and several local agencies will likely ask for budget increases. (Crime is down 55 percent since the disasters, which NYPD Commissioner Bernard Kerik attributes to more people staying inside their homes).
On the backburner, for now, are health and education, two areas upon which Giuliani belatedly focused his attention.
Harold Levy, the chancellor of the school system, has more important issues to attend to, and it remains to be seen whether a divided state legislature in Albany will appropriate as much for education as it planned to before, according to one source who has talked with assembly and Senate members. So far, Ferrer has been the only candidate to mention the "urgent" need for increased spending on these areas.
Polls close at 9 p.m.
Marc Ambinder and Stephen J. Yesner contributed to this report.