"Timing is everything," some sage once said, and the career of former Mayor Abraham Beame, who died last Saturday, bears out the adage. Beame was a product of another time who had the bad luck to become mayor as the era that produced him was ending. Although no one realized it, the one-party system that governed local politics, dispensing city jobs and basic neighborhood services in exchange for continued loyalty at the ballot box, was winding down when Beame was elected in 1973. The bills for the services that "machine politics" had long provided--free tuition at the city university system, mushrooming municipal payrolls--were coming due. Beame, a one-time city Comptroller, found himself at the center of the fiscal hurricane that struck New York City two years after he took office.
Beame courageously cut the budget and the city payroll. In his own words: "During a recession I inherited a budget gap of $1.5 billion on an $11 billion budget. It was resolved by draconian budget cuts (such as cutting the work force by 65,000), by getting give-backs from the unions, (normally unheard of) and getting the pension fund trustees to buy $4 billion of city bonds because the city could not sell its bonds on the open market. The city had sold almost $700 million in bonds over the years to pay for operating expenses. When I became mayor, I shifted some of this money back from the expense (operating) budget to the capital budget to signal the end of this improper financial action. Other than this capital budget deficit, my final budget was in balance."
It was too little too late, according to Beame's detractors, who included then Governor Hugh Carey and a coalition of powerful city forces, including banks and investment houses which had for years looked the other way while they profited from marketing municipal bonds and notes and then castigated Beame for lacking fiscal restraint. A superstructure of monitors was erected, a network of fiscal constraints imposed and with help from the municipal unions and the federal government, New York City was snatched from the brink of bankruptcy. Beame was reduced to being a figurehead while others took control of the city in which he had grown up and of which he was the first Jewish mayor.
Born in London, Beame came to this country as an infant when he and his mother joined his father and brother on the city's Lower East Side. At the High School of Commerce he earned a perfect score on the Regents' bookkeeping examination and graduated cum laude from City College Downtown, now Baruch College, in 1928. That same year he married Mary Ingerman, whom he had met at University Settlement House as a youngster. The next year brought the stock market crash and the economic Great Depression of the 1930s and young Beame supplemented his income as an accountant with teaching jobs at Richmond Hill H.S. and Rutgers University in New Jersey.
He and his wife had two sons and in their new home borough of Brooklyn, Beame became active in the Madison Democratic Club. When the Democratic Party came back in power in 1946 Mayor William O'Dwyer appointed Beame, a district captain, assistant budget director. He became budget director under O'Dwyer's successor, Vincent Impellitteri and city Comptroller when Robert Wagner chose him as his running mate in the 1961 mayoral election. John Lindsay's election in 1965 kept Beame out of City Hall for the next four years, but he again was elected Comptroller when Lindsay ran for a second term. The city's worsening fiscal situation made him a logical candidate, and Beame became the city's 104th mayor in 1973.
The Beame administration was not a totally bleak time for the city. In 1976 he presided over the Bicentennial Celebration and hosted the Democratic National Convention, both of which helped put the city back on the map. That same year he also presided at the opening of the new Yankee Stadium which marked the return of the Yankees to The Bronx. He kept the U.S. Open in New York, negotiating with the U.S. Tennis Association to move the international tennis tournament from Forest Hills to a new facility to be built in Flushing Meadows-Corona Park. He transferred lands on Jamaica Bay to the federal government to create the Gateway National Recreation Area. He presided at the opening of the Starrett City housing development in Brooklyn and inaugurated the Walk 'n' Talk Street Program to encourage greater use of city streets for social activities, creating a climate of safety and community. Ever mindful of his own minority background, he provided opportunities for other minorities, appointing Paul Gibson, Jr. and Lucille Mason Rose as the first African-American and woman deputy mayors in the city's history.
In 1977 Beame came in third in the mayoral primary election. He retired from public life the following year, returning to a business career at Sterling National Bank. He continued to be a fixture on the New York City scene throughout the ensuing years.
Beame refused to default on city debt, which would have put the city into bankruptcy, nor did he blame his predecessor, the banks and capital markets while following political expediency. The public Beame was an honest, unpretentious public servant who made a major contribution to a new understanding of the limits of government and what the term "fiscal responsibility" really means. He also provided the city with an opportunity to demonstrate its capacity for self-renewal.
He died Saturday, Feb. 10th, at the age of 94 from complications subsequent to open heart surgery. He might have outlived his time and endured the thankless task of serving as a bridge between two very different eras, but nearly all who knew Abraham D. Beame said that he was a gracious, courteous gentleman of honesty, honor and integrity. As politics becomes steadily more raucous and rude, as character assassination takes the place of campaigning on issues and a president leaves the White House having committed questionable acts and deplorable lapses in judgment, it becomes increasingly obvious that we could use a few more Abe Beames. Even anachronisms have their uses.