Requiem for a Liberal

Requiem for a Liberal

Mark Green was a worthy candidate for mayor, but for a variety of reasons he could not prevail.


The New York mayor's race was weird and depressing in virtually every imaginable way. Yes, Mark Green ran a lackluster, quasi-incumbent's campaign for much of it and yes, I wish the usually pugnacious liberal had not wimped out at the crucial moment when Rudy Giuliani requested a post-9/11 extension of his term. These, however, are minor points. The major ones are as follows:

§ Campaign finance reform is dead. How ironic that Michael Bloomberg bought his victory with the support of John McCain, whose crusade he has now buried. New York had one of the toughest campaign finance laws on the books. As longtime honest-elections advocate Michael Waldman now admits, "Any candidate who agrees to spending limits with even the possibility of a wealthy, self-financed opponent needs to have his glasses checked." Nobody knows exactly how much it cost Bloomberg to become mayor of New York, but it was probably more than presidential candidates are allotted to win the entire country. His millions allowed him to spend more, individually, on direct mail and negative advertising than Green used on his entire campaign. He also purchased the services of putative Democratic loyalists like Al Gore's adman, Bill Knapp, and Bill Clinton's pollster, Doug Schoen. And he did all this with nary a peep from alleged good-government champions like the New York Times editorial board. Columnist Bill Keller, the man who lost an internal contest to become the paper's executive editor, actually championed this financial hijacking of our democracy in an influential column published days before the election.

§ (Some) leftists like losing. A fighter for progressive causes since 1967, when he convinced 179 other Congressional interns to denounce the Vietnam War, Green worked closely with Ralph Nader before choosing a more pragmatic path. His contributions to The Nation over the years, and his work as Public Advocate, reveal a thoughtful dedication to democratic principles. And he put together a multiethnic coalition that was a microcosm of the one cut short by the Bobby Kennedy assassination in 1968, back when we believed we might still one day "overcome." He had a chance to prove–on a national stage–that liberalism can work: that it can govern responsibly and address the concerns of middle-class voters while still reaching out to those who need help the most.

But whereas Rupert Murdoch's newspaper complained, "It is impossible to forget that, for all his recent re-invention, Green has been the personification of the Upper West Side liberal–lefty to the core," many lefties managed to do just that. During the primary, Green was forced into a runoff with Bronx borough president Fernando Ferrer, a party hack who ran for mayor as a DLC, pro-death penalty, antichoice Democrat four years ago. This time around he ran a straight identity politics campaign, cashing in on his Puerto Rican background and Al Sharpton's support. As amazing as it sounds, Ferrer barely even seemed to notice September 11, consistently refusing to reconsider his pledge to raise teaching salaries 30 percent. When the close Sharpton connection inevitably cost Ferrer's candidacy any hope of white support, his supporters cried "racism." Sore losers, Ferrer and Sharpton both pouted their way through the general election. Meanwhile, DNC chairman Terry McAuliffe, appointed for his ability to raise money rather than his strategic smarts or–God forbid–his principles, made everything worse when he failed to defend Green against false charges that his campaign was involved in exploiting the Sharpton/Ferrer connection. McAuliffe then seemed to want to outlaw all legitimate criticism of Sharpton as a close Ferrer adviser. Hello? Sharpton is planning to run for President, where he will test his spoiler credentials on a national stage. Are genuine liberals–say a Paul Wellstone or a Russ Feingold–forbidden from criticizing him there as well?

§ Investigative Reporting Is History. Obsessed by September 11, Democratic infighting and a seven-game World Series, local media gave Bloomberg a virtual pass until the campaign's final days, when his paid commercials succeeded in overwhelming the real stuff. The candidate's shocking statements about abortion and sexual harassment, made in response to charges against his company, went all but unreported until Wayne Barrett finally publicized them in the Village Voice less than a week before the vote. While the day-to-day coverage of the campaign was unobjectionable, no newspaper conducted a serious investigation into Bloomberg's history. As a lifelong public official, Green's career was an open book. But since Bloomberg remained little more than a cipher throughout, he was able to define himself to voters exclusively through contentless commercials and Rudy's endorsement.

Mark Green also suffered from the widespread impression, given voice in a New York Post editorial, that he is "a lifelong opportunist who has spent his career casting about for an office–any office–that measured up to his extraordinarily high opinion of himself." New York Times editors admitted to being "worried about his reputation for abrasiveness, for failing to listen to people he regarded as less well-informed or intelligent than himself." Ed Koch termed him "obnoxious." That's right, Ed Koch called somebody "obnoxious," and at least a few journalists risked eternal damnation by reporting this with a straight face.

The spectacle of journalists calling someone ambitious is a bit like Koch calling someone obnoxious. Reporters and editors looked at Mark Green and saw someone very much like themselves. He is an Ivy-educated Jewish liberal who eschewed the big bucks in order to "make a difference." But instead of writing whiny Op-Ed columns about presidential penises, he gets his fingernails dirty deep inside the messy and (inevitably) compromising reality of governance. Sure Green is ambitious. So too, is just about every journalist who complains about him. And obnoxious? In this city? Post-Koch? Post-Rudy? Gedafugouddaheah…

It turns out that good-government liberalism had precious few supporters when cornered between megabucks Republicanism and bankrupt identity-politics leftism. And as we saw in the 2000 election, a significant segment of the left reaffirms its righteousness by losing. They won again, and we are all the poorer for it.

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