As New York heads into the dog days of a premature summer, there are only three months to go before the Democratic primary, in which voters will pick the probable successor to term-limited Republican Mayor Rudolph Giuliani: Public Advocate Mark Green, Bronx Borough President Fernando “Freddy” Ferrer, City Comptroller Alan Hevesi or City Council Speaker Peter Vallone. The conventional wisdom is that the primary is Mark Green’s to lose–but with none of the four major candidates drawing anywhere near a majority in the polls, the smart money says there’ll be a runoff. And if the Democratic winner is bruised by a nasty primary campaign, newly minted Republican Michael Bloomberg, a fresh “nonpolitical” face with very deep pockets, just might snatch his victory away in November.

Yet the political atmosphere in this once-feisty town can be summed up in one word: indifference. “Only the people already involved in politics are talking about the campaign,” says retiring City Councilwoman Ronnie Eldridge, a veteran progressive. State Senator Tom Duane agrees: “There’s no enthusiasm at all for any of the mayoral candidates–it couldn’t be more unexciting.”

What explains the ennui? For one thing, the four major Democratic candidates all reflect a slightly more liberal version of the galloping centrism that the national Democratic Party came to embody in the Clinton era. Says one influential progressive labor leader, “Issue by issue, the four candidates are virtually indistinguishable. They’re all for tax breaks for corporations and all for a living wage. How do you figure out how they’d govern?”

But the city’s boredom also has another cause: the demise of the reform movement that used to animate New York City politics. When Ed Koch, the Greenwich Village “reformer,” was elected mayor in 1977, he quickly made deals with the principal “regular” machines, much to his later sorrow: His administration was tarnished by corruption scandals that eroded the power of the regulars in the 1980s. Today, three of the Democratic candidates–Hevesi, Vallone and Ferrer–are pure products of the Democratic machines, but distinctions between reform and regular Democrats have lost much of their meaning for the voting public. Racial tensions, not the reform/regular distinction, predominated when Koch’s bid for a fourth term was thwarted by David Dinkins, who in 1989 became the city’s first black mayor. And race was again the issue when Giuliani dethroned Dinkins in 1993.

From then on, Democrats defined themselves primarily in terms of their relationship to Rudy rather than to one another. Using the power of City Hall, Giuliani has been able to make alliances of convenience with some Democrats. For example, when a small group of independent-minded reform Council members like Eldridge opposed adoption of Rudy’s budget in his first term, Speaker Vallone–who had cut a deal with the mayor in exchange for some plum projects–retaliated by evicting them from committee chairs and slashing their expense budgets.

Although the power of the machines has diminished–especially with the drying up of patronage during Rudy’s eight-year tenure–they continue to survive by controlling jobs and legal fees through the politically controlled court system (judges are elected in New York) and the padded payrolls of the borough presidents, the City Council and the Democratic-controlled State Assembly. The most puissant machine is in Queens, bossed by Tom Manton, who gave up a safe seat in Congress to devote himself full time to his county leadership (and, not coincidentally, make a bundle from his influence-peddling law firm). With two mayoral candidates who call Queens home (Hevesi and Vallone), Manton took his time, then went for Hevesi. The Brooklyn machine, whose county leader is the talentless Clarence Norman, an African-American, is a pale shadow of its former self; it, too, is supporting Hevesi. In predominantly Hispanic Bronx County, the regular boss, Roberto Ramirez, is supporting his home-borough protégé Ferrer; but Ramirez’s candidates lost four key legislative elections last year, a sign his machine’s influence is on the wane.

The once-vibrant reform movement used to have dozens of clubs around the city whose well-attended meetings were the scene of passionate debates and whose endorsements often made the difference on primary day. Today, “the reform movement is dead and the Democratic left in this city is ailing badly,” notes Russ Hemenway, director of the National Committee for an Effective Congress, who for years ran the now-defunct Committee for Democratic Voters, the reformers’ citywide umbrella group. “There’s hardly a reform club now that can get a quorum for an executive committee meeting,” Hemenway adds. “The few clubs that are really active are built around ambitious young candidates who want to take the next step up the ladder.”

The sorry state of grassroots Democratic politics can be measured another way. The combination of term limits, which take effect for the first time this year after winning voter approval in a citywide referendum, and the new municipal campaign finance law (which provides public matching funds at a 4-1 ratio) raised hopes that the massive turnover in the moribund City Council (forty of whose fifty-one members cannot run again) would generate a bumper crop of exciting, nontraditional candidacies all over the city. That hasn’t happened, with a few exceptions. Among them: Arthur Cheliotes, head of Communications Workers Local 1180, one of the city’s most independent-minded progressive trade unionists, is running a grassroots campaign in Bayside and Whitestone, Queens; Steve Banks, a Legal Aid attorney who has crusaded for the homeless by filing dozens of lawsuits against the city, is campaigning in Park Slope and Sunset Park, Brooklyn; and Ydanis Rodriguez, a schoolteacher who last year founded a vibrant political youth group called Dominicans 2000, is running in Washington Heights. But even these candidacies are having trouble harvesting progressive support from outside their districts. Cheliotes says he’s getting only paltry support from the labor movement (“The Council’s reputation is so bad,” he says, “that you get tainted just by running for it”).

The labor-dominated Working Families Party (WFP) could have played a role in recruiting Council candidates (as it did last year when one of its enrollees, State Assemblywoman Patricia Eddington, was elected from Long Island after winning the Democratic nomination); but the progressive unions took no initiatives, and ACORN, the WFP’s main nonlabor component in the city, was tied up in the successful fight to get parents in five of the city’s worst schools to defeat a Giuliani-backed plan to privatize them (the so-called Edison schools proposal). The WFP’s early endorsements included Cheliotes and several openly gay candidates–but also comptroller candidate William Thompson, a product of the Brooklyn machine who became president of the Board of Education in a deal with Giuliani, and Staten Island borough president candidate Jerome O’Donovan, a Democratic Council member who has accepted past endorsements from the Conservative Party. (An expected WFP endorsement of the homeless advocate Banks has been blocked by party elements supporting Bill DeBlasio, Hillary Clinton’s campaign manager; he helped raise more than $250,000 for the WFP last year from Hillary supporters who, says WFP director Dan Cantor, “were more interested in helping Hillary than helping the WFP.”) More often than not, the WFP functions as little more than a liberal adjunct of the Democratic Party.

So far the only other significant source of citywide support for progressive Council candidates is a political action committee established by Gifford Miller, an ambitious, mildly liberal, independently wealthy Council member from Manhattan’s East Side who wants to be Speaker (his group has raised nearly $100,000 and has yet to make endorsements). Anyone watching the parade of Council candidates in debates organized by New York 1, the city’s all-local-news cable channel, can only be appalled at their overwhelming mediocrity. WFP co-chair Bob Master, political honcho for the Communications Workers, explains, “There’s virtually no progressive movement in the city, so even with term limits and public campaign finance, leadership doesn’t arise out of thin air.” And, says Brooklyn Assemblyman Roger Green, a smart left-wing black Democrat, “In the absence of a progressive formation, what you see is a second layer of incumbent protection, what I call genetic politics–running the sons and daughters of [term-limited] Council incumbents who are just trying to protect the family fiefdom.” There are seven such family candidacies so far–including Vallone’s unimpressive, oleaginous son.

The most politically important unions, whose phone banks can turn out voters, have yet to make their influence felt in the municipal elections, and none have made a mayoral endorsement (although the potent United Federation of Teachers is expected to back Hevesi, who’s proposed an “education surcharge” tax to raise teacher salaries). In one of this election’s more Machiavellian maneuvers, Council Speaker Vallone–after seven years of making backroom budget deals with Giuliani–is holding up the similarly conservative budget the lame-duck mayor proposed this year (slashing $846 million in services, with a $521 million tax cut), in the hope that he can bargain for labor support in return for narrow-gauge, bread-and-butter breaks for union members.

One of the favorite guessing games in town for political junkies is trying to figure out whom Dennis Rivera, the president of healthcare-based Service Employees Local 1199 (with its large, overwhelmingly black and Hispanic membership), will support for mayor. Once considered a spearhead progressive, Rivera has become a superpragmatist deal-cutter who cozies up to Republicans when it suits him. Republican Governor George Pataki–who’s been moving to the center for his re-election fight in 2002–poured some $4 billion into the state’s healthcare system in a deal with Rivera, who became the Guv’s public ally. A few weeks ago, Rivera stood by Pataki’s side at a press conference in which the governor denounced US weapons tests on the Puerto Rican island of Vieques, and he later joined Pataki on his trip there. (The state AFL-CIO recently held a fundraiser for Pataki.)

Given his membership base, it would be logical to suppose that Rivera would support the Bronx’s Ferrer, who has been running second in the polls for months. Ferrer’s hopes rest on building a viable black/Hispanic coalition that will turn out in droves on primary day. To that end, he has made a pact with Harlem regulars led by US Representative Charles Rangel and traded endorsements with State Comptroller H. Carl McCall, an African-American seeking next year’s Democratic gubernatorial nomination. But the black/Hispanic coalition that Ferrer and McCall are dreaming of “is only a political leadership thing,” says Angelo Falcón, the sassy progressive who is senior policy executive at the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund. “There’s nothing behind it, no organizing going on.” Falcón says that Ferrer has failed to ignite even the city’s Puerto Rican community, let alone the other significant blocs of Spanish-speaking voters from Central and Latin America.

Falcón adds, “I’m rooting for Freddy Ferrer, but his problem is that he’s a traditional insider who doesn’t know how to organize people of color, even though the city’s now majority nonwhite. To get Latinos out there and voting you have to do something different on issues, but Freddy hasn’t been able to articulate a clear vision of what he wants to do.” Moreover, the black/Hispanic coalition won’t become meaningful in the voting booths without the support of both 1199’s Rivera and the most popular figure with the city’s African-Americans, the Rev. Al Sharpton.

Public Advocate Mark Green, always an inventive camera-hog, has been scoring higher among blacks in the polls than Ferrer, but Assemblyman Green says, “That’s only a reflection of name recognition and has nothing to do with his stand on issues”–even though the Public Advocate issued a steady stream of criticism of police abuses during the law-and-order Giuliani years. While Vallone has been throwing verbal brickbats at Green as “ultraliberal,” the former Nader’s Raider has tap-danced to the center, winning the endorsement of Rudy’s first police commissioner, Bill Bratton (with whom he campaigns), opposing parole and declaring he’d get $250 million for new classrooms by scaling back funds for jail beds in the city’s ever-crowded prisons.

In the single televised debate so far–aired at 9 am on a Sunday, it was seen by few–the only real difference of opinion came when Green, to the dismay of many liberals, refused to say that the four trigger-happy cops who riddled an unarmed black man, Amadou Diallo, with forty-one bullets in his own vestibule should be kept from gun-toting street duty (both Hevesi and Vallone did).

Sharpton, in a political Dance of the Seven Veils designed to maximize press attention, had been dropping hints he’d support Ferrer (“I’m praying about it–and the other guys better hope God isn’t speaking to me in Spanish,” he remarked). But when the New York Times erroneously reported that Sharpton had demanded Ferrer endorse a list of candidates who were black only (Rev. Al had also included Norman Siegel, director of the New York Civil Liberties Union and a Public Advocate candidate), Ferrer was forced to declare he’d never endorse on race alone. This episode could have hurt Ferrer–if the electorate had been paying attention.

Councilwoman Eldridge says she’s “really worried that this election could become a race thing.” There are shards of evidence that may be happening. Hevesi supporter Bruce Teitelbaum (Rudy’s former campaign chairman) was recently quoted in the conservative Jewish Week saying that Ferrer’s victory should worry Jews because it would mean a replay of the Dinkins administration. A week later, Harlem’s Amsterdam News editorialized that the election of either Jewish candidate (Hevesi or Green) should worry black folk, and it called for support for Ferrer. Hevesi recently referred to the 1991 Crown Heights riots (which pitted blacks against Hasidic Jews) as a “pogrom,” the same word Giuliani used in his race-baiting 1993 campaign against Dinkins (who has endorsed Mark Green). And what happens if, during what meteorologists are predicting will be a long, hot summer–with probable brownouts and blackouts in a city on the cusp of an energy crisis–yet another dark-skinned citizen is murdered by a cop, and New York experiences a riot like the recent one in Cincinnati?

If the election does become “a race thing” and any of these not unlikely events occurs, or if mud thrown during the primary sticks to the winner, media billionaire Michael Bloomberg is waiting to pick up the pieces. In his quest for the GOP nomination he’s already ladled out cash for pricey campaign talent, including media man David Garth (architect of the mayoral campaigns of John Lindsay, Ed Koch and Giuliani). But the gaffe-prone Bloomberg has so far given few interviews, and his positions on most issues are unknown. As a former Dem who supported Dinkins over Giuliani, Bloomberg can’t count on Rudy’s enthusiastic backing, and the tabloids will have a field day with his juicy social life.

With so little interest in the issue-less race, it’s likely the candidates’ numbers will be more or less frozen from Memorial Day through Labor Day, with the real and inevitably down and dirty battle for undecided voters taking place in the remaining week before the primary. And in media-intensive city politics, absent a grassroots movement, a week is an eon.