NYC’s Mayoral Muddle

NYC’s Mayoral Muddle


In our August 20 issue we endorsed Mark Green, a lifelong liberal who has been running as a liberal centrist, for mayor of New York City. Two weeks before a runoff election against Fernando Ferrer, a lifelong centrist who has been running on behalf of what he calls “the other New York,” Green accepted Mayor Giuliani’s proposition that he be allowed to stay in office an additional three months. If Green’s ill-advised cave-in were all we knew about him, we’d drop him like a cold potato, the mayor’s idea being unwieldy, unwise and possibly–even if the state legislature went along–illegal. But given Green’s long and valuable service as a public interest activist, his anti-Giuliani credentials, his anti-police brutality, pro-public safety stances, we regard this as one bad decision in a career replete with the right ones, and our endorsement stands. –The Editors

As political insiders in New York City got back to talking politics after September 11, people asked one another: How did the World Trade Center attack change the mayoral election? No one had any idea, but everyone agreed that, somehow or another, things just had to be different.

It turned out that they were and they weren’t. On the no-change front, it appears that the greatest calamity in the city’s history proved no match for old-fashioned ethnic politics. Bronx borough president Fernando Ferrer finished first in the Democratic primary, riding the wave of an unprecedented Latino turnout (Latinos represented 23 percent of the Democratic electorate and voted for him against four white opponents by a three-to-one margin). The vast majority of white observers, I among them, assumed that after the attack Ferrer’s campaign mantra about “two New Yorks” would wind up buried under the lower Manhattan rubble. The problem was, as we were dismissing Ferrer, we forgot to ask his voters. That those voters sent the message they did, especially at a time when rhetoric about unity and coming together as one had become the only permissible lingua franca of municipal political life, should remind us–and, one hopes, the next mayor, whoever he may be–that as urgent as the need to rebuild may be, the legions of homeless families and children without adequate healthcare are still out there.

One thing that did change, and disturbingly so, was the ground occupied by Mark Green, the city’s Public Advocate. Green finished second, with 31 percent to Ferrer’s 35, largely because Ferrer’s leftish campaign–ironic for someone who, in a previous mayoral run four years ago, ran as a veritable Democratic Leadership Councillor–struck a chord with the solid third of the city that has consistently opposed incumbent Rudy Giuliani, while Green’s more moderated race–ironic for someone who has been a lifelong liberal crusader and Giuliani’s most consistent high-profile critic–tried so hard to please so many different constituencies that it ignited none.

Now, as the two head for an October 11 runoff, the distinction between them is even more stark. When Giuliani proposed an extortionate “deal” to Green, Ferrer and Republican primary winner Mike Bloomberg under which the mayor would be permitted to stay on for three extra months (extortionate because his implicit threat was that if they didn’t accept, he’d seek ways to run for a third term), Green capitulated, and Ferrer had the gumption to say no. In truth, both decisions were political calculations. Green needs the backing in the runoff of white voters who are looking very sympathetically at Giuliani these days, and he needs to keep Giuliani, who detests him and who could depress white turnout with a few well-chosen words, off his back; Ferrer needs to stoke his Latino and black (and anti-Giuliani) base. But the fundamental fact is that one candidate defended an uninterrupted democratic process and one did not. Green is still, by history and inclination, the more progressive of the two, but many of his voters are sure to note that when he had a chance to show some courage against the bullying incumbent, he took a pass.

Green’s runoff dilemma, and his middling performance in the primary, reflect a larger historical trend that has percolated in New York City politics for nearly a decade now–namely, that many white New York City liberals have become, in the past two mayoral elections, Giuliani voters. While Ferrer’s natural base of politicized, anti-Giuliani blacks and Latinos has grown in the past eight years, Green’s natural base of progressive whites has shrunk. White voters who would never think of voting for a Republican at the national or state level voted for Giuliani by the thousands in 1993 and 1997 (Giuliani beat Ruth Messinger on her own Upper West Side in 1997). Ferrer was able to ignore these Giuliani liberals, more as a matter of strategy than principle, although he was clever enough that, to the naïve, it often came out sounding like the latter. Green could not and cannot, and so he regularly tempered his rhetoric with assurances to this bloc that he “got it” on crime. Thus the major distinction between these two basically liberal candidates reduces to skin color, and the fact that one feels free to embody the grievances of the underclass while the other–whose record on police abuse issues is, if anything, more substantive than Ferrer’s–must bear in mind the anxieties of the overclass.

The challenge to both is to harvest the votes of their respective blocs without resorting to the sort of winks, nudges and euphemisms that can inflame the racial tensions here that always lie about an inch and a half below the surface. And the challenge to the winner will be to bring the blocs together to fight Bloomberg, who has unlimited millions and will, in all likelihood, have Giuliani’s endorsement. Bloomberg is a bad candidate and still a long shot, but given what New York has been through these past few weeks, this election is now taking place inside a funhouse mirror room, or a Magritte painting (images are indeed treason)–Mark Green, the white-backlash candidate?! Ed Koch endorsing Ferrer, whom he pilloried as racially devisive two week before?!–and anything can happen.

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