Autumn in New York
'Don't hold your mail so close to your face," my neighbor warned me sharply in the elevator. I assured her no anonymous anthraxer could have any interest in me. "Well, sure," she agreed, rather readily I must say, "but it could be cross-contaminated." Right. Planes and people are falling out of the sky, the World Trade Center is sixteen acres of smoldering rubble and twisted girders, a hospital worker living quietly in the Bronx dies mysteriously of inhalation anthrax for which every possible origin seems to be ruled out, the air downtown has a smell no one wants to give a name to. This crispest, clearest, most beautiful New York City autumn ever is a paranoid's dream come true.
"Unbelievable" was the entire text of the first e-mail to cross my screen on the morning the city woke to find it had elected the bumptious billionaire Michael Bloomberg Mayor by a narrow 30,000 votes. By midday, the incredible had become the inevitable: In retrospect, it seems, nothing was more obvious than that Mark Green would slide to humiliating defeat from a double-digit lead a mere two weeks before Election Day. Suddenly, it turned out to matter that Bloomberg, who refused to participate in the campaign finance system, spent a rumored $60 million of his own immense fortune on the race, although his free spending on everything from ads and mailings to hats and high-placed academics was widely mocked as a textbook demonstration of what happens to a fool and his money. Suddenly, too, personality turned out to count: Green was arrogant, obnoxious, cold and full of hubris. Against an ordinary opponent his missteps might not have mattered, but Bloomberg's millions bought him an echo chamber in which they could resonate endlessly, while his own considerable vanity--not to mention accusations of sexual harassment--went unexplored by a preoccupied press.
Mostly, though, postelection analyses focused on race. I still don't understand why it was racist for Green supporters to make hay--in fliers the Green campaign denied any connection with--out of the fact that the Rev. Al Sharpton endorsed Freddy Ferrer, Green's chief opponent in the Democratic Party primary, or for Green to produce ads quoting the New York Times calling Ferrer "borderline irresponsible" in his approach to fiscal policy post-9/11, with the tagline "We can't afford to take a chance." Sharpton's an opportunistic if sometimes entertaining scoundrel who has had prominent roles in several notorious episodes--the Tawana Brawley hoax, the picketing of Korean grocers, the lethal violence at Freddy's Fashion Mart in Harlem in 1995. Why was it out of bounds to publicize Ferrer's alliance with Sharpton, any more than it is anti-Christian, or anti-Southern white for progressives to attack George W. Bush for accepting the support of the anti-Semitic lunatic Pat Robertson?
Resentful Green supporters spin their man's defeat as the overwhelming of class politics (good) by identity politics (bad). "The American left has been beating itself up about race since the 1960s," Craig Kaplan, prominent lawyer about town and passionate Green supporter, told me by phone. "To me, that's narrow nationalistic claptrap." Maybe--and maybe it's politically manipulated claptrap, too; interestingly, Ferrer made nothing of Bloomberg's history of membership in all-white clubs. Still, after Green's defeat it's hard to maintain, as the self-styled "economic left" likes to do, that identity politics have a narrow appeal and can be safely ignored in favor of universal issues like campaign finance reform, healthcare, public transportation, schools. We New Yorkers may feel united by the season's tragedies and horrors, but we still live in a largely segregated city, in which those universal issues are bound to be filtered through a racial and ethnic prism. Ferrer was no Harold Washington, and I doubt he would have done much to improve life in the "other New York" he claimed to represent. But at least he acknowledged its existence.
Another problem with the "economic left" analysis is that it assumes Green pitched his candidacy to the economic left of Bloomberg. In fact, both candidates hurled themselves squarely toward the middle, and some of the issues on which they differed--Bloomberg, for example, said kind words about private sector solutions to public school problems--played out in a funny cross-class way: Many poor black and Hispanic parents long to extract their children from the terrible public schools to which they are consigned. From their perspective, it's not so obvious that the teachers' union, which supported Green, is on the side of the angels. Activist liberals who had worked with Green for years knew, or thought they knew, that his politics were progressive, even as he distanced himself from old allies like Ralph Nader, called for the abolition of parole and vowed he'd be "tight as a tick" when it came to social spending. Rightly or wrongly, Green's progressive supporters tended to assume his centrism came with a wink wink, nudge nudge in their direction, but what if you were out of the loop? What if all your information about the race came from television in October? By choosing a moderate campaign, Green couldn't make an argument for the politics progressives thought he had, while opening himself to charges that he was a chameleon.
If you put Green's campaign together with Mark Warner's victory in the Virginia governor's race and Jim McGreevey's in New Jersey--both touted as showing the Democratic Party making a comeback--it's hard to feel there's much room in the electoral field for standard-issue Democratic progressive politics. Warner ran as a moderate Republican with a healthy fear of the National Rifle Association; McGreevey, as a normal suburbanite against a far-right ideologue. Would Green have done better if he had moved left and not right, had he embraced the other New York instead of lecturing it on the need for unity--around him? We'll never know. Meanwhile, since politics seems to be the only line of work for which lack of experience is a qualification, it's not so surprising--in retrospect!--that in the end New Yorkers chose to write a comic-opera ending to the autumn's tragedies and put into Gracie Mansion a bon vivant too rich to want to live there.