Introduction: Fiscal Crisis, Regime Change, and Political Legitimacy
Although the assertion that New York City politics is crisis-driven is an exaggerated description of day-to-day life in the nation's largest city, it nevertheless serves as a precise, analytical observation. This chapter presents a contextual approach to urban politics that suggests that periodic fiscal crises have resulted in regime changes in New York's governance. The approach provides a historical perspective to city politics from the machine era through the reform era as well as a method for analyzing New York's current postreform regime within its larger context. That postreform regime is characterized by a large welfare state under extragovernmental fiscal control coupled with the nation's most ambitious attempt at urban decentralization, New York's community board system.
The contextual approach considers periods of both crisis and normal politics in New York. Crisis politics occurs when credit markets close to city debt; normal politics occurs the remainder of the time. Normal politics is characterized by the sometimes structured, sometimes informal, political interactions between government officials and private-sector members of the current governing coalition. It is these interactions that define regime politics. "A regime thus involves not just any informal group that comes together to make a decision but an informal yet relatively stable group with access to institutional resources that enable it to have a sustained role in making governing decisions" (Stone 1989, 239). Historically, political interactions with government officials have been more direct for some members of the coalition than for others. For some, interactions take place on a one-to-one basis; for others, they are channeled through mediating mechanisms such as elections and group activity.
Although periods of normal politics are, by definition, more frequent and long-lasting than periods of crisis, their relevant political interactions are defined by periods of crisis. Fiscal crises and retrenchment politics redefine normal politics by replacing one governing coalition with another and by changing the rules governing political behavior. As a result, both the process of supporting economic growth, necessary for fiscal health, and the process of democratic governance, necessary for political stability, change dramatically in the wake of fiscal crisis. Each new regime is characterized by a new coalition of "political