On the same day that Mark Green won a divisive and disputed 51-49 Democratic runoff for mayor of New York, Republican nominee Mike Bloomberg was running an estimated $400,000 worth of television commercials. At one point I saw four Bloomberg ads running at the same time, on four different TV stations, as I switched the dial.
This sets up a Money versus Message confrontation for mayor on November 6, in a city that is 5-to-1 Democratic and was carried overwhelmingly even by George McGovern and Walter Mondale. The general election is now Green’s to lose. And he proved in the Democratic run-off that he is a competitor who will do almost anything not to lose an election.
But large and emotional forces are now in play, like race. And large political actors are on the stage, like Mayor Rudy Giuliani and the Rev. Al Sharpton, and both are masters of media mischief.
Money is in the game too. Bloomberg, a self-made billionaire who founded a financial-news information company, is not participating in New York’s superb system of public financing and spending limits–partially drafted by Mark Green. With a net worth of $4 billion, Bloomberg has already spent more than $29 million, and he will probably invest another $10 million in TV commercials during the final weeks.
One question is, How will Bloomberg’s extravagance play? Voters might recoil from a candidate trying to buy City Hall while the city is still burying its dead. A blitz of campaign commercials makes a jarring counterpoint to the bagpiper’s dirge at the daily funerals of fallen firefighters. Political ambition seems like tawdry small potatoes next to the largest loss of life in one day in the history of New York.
Bloomberg’s candidacy has not yet developed a compelling rationale. Part of the reason may be that Bloomberg is running somewhat in disguise, which is also how Green and Freddy Ferrer ran in the Democratic primary. Green was camouflaged as more centrist than he really is. And he ended up with the endorsements of the police union and the New York Post and got 83 percent of the white vote. Ferrer ran further to the left than he probably is, and ended up with 84 percent of the Latino vote, 71 percent of the black vote and 62 percent of voters with incomes between $15,000 and $30,000 a year.
Bloomberg was a registered Democrat until last year. He is for gay rights, abortion and free expression in the arts. Last May he told me, “There is very little difference between me, Green and Ferrer.” He admits he became a Republican out of opportunism. He says he switched his party registration “to have a clear path to the Republican nomination…. I didn’t think I could win a Democratic primary.”
In the Republican primary Bloomberg outspent Herman Badillo by more than 50 to 1, but won by only 4 to 1. This ratio suggests a certain lack of voter appeal. As a rookie candidate, Bloomberg has revealed a gaffe-prone glibness on the stump.
In June–ten weeks before the World Trade Center atrocity–Bloomberg told a Daily News reporter, “I bet you could find statistics that say being a sanitation worker in this day and age is more dangerous than being a policeman or a fireman.” In most years, more cops and firefighters die than sanitation workers. This year the difference is even more dramatic: More than 340 New York City firefighters, and twenty-three police officers, died in the attack on the World Trade Center. One sanitation worker has perished in the line of duty this year.
In August Bloomberg said at a press conference, “It’s outrageous to think that the police department does have any racial profiling…. I don’t know of any evidence that says there has been [racial profiling] at all. And if that evidence exists, I have never seen it.” In fact, New York State Attorney General Eliot Spitzer released a lengthy study in 1999 documenting the existence of racial profiling by the NYPD.
Also in August, Bloomberg told a reporter that the minimum wage is now $7.50 an hour, when it is only $5.15 an hour. Bloomberg’s own financial news company is nonunion. At a campaign stop in June, a voter asked Bloomberg his opinion on the Second Amendment. Bloomberg didn’t know what it was. The voter had to tell him that it was about the right to bear arms.
A reading of the cycles of New York political history is not encouraging for Bloomberg. Only three Republicans have been elected mayor of New York in the past hundred years–and each of them had a significant second line on the ballot, which Bloomberg does not have.
The three Republicans were elected a generation apart from each other: Fiorello La Guardia in 1933, John Lindsay in 1965, Rudy Giuliani in 1993. New York has never elected two Republican mayors in a row, suggesting the experience needs some time for forgetting before it is repeated.
La Guardia, Lindsay and Giuliani all ran as reformers in years of crisis. They ran as personifications of the remedy to each crisis. La Guardia ran as the antidote to the corruption of the Jimmy Walker years. Lindsay stood as the youthful, good-government solution to the Carmine De Sapio clubhouse scandals. And Giuliani, the former federal prosecutor, promised to crack down on crime in a city that felt crime was spiraling out of control.
This year Bloomberg does not have such a big historical tide to surf upon. He does not personify the remedy to the crisis in public education or the tensions between the police and minority neighborhoods. He is trying to depict himself as the businessman who can lead the rebuilding of New York and perform the budget cutting that he says is required. He has already said he would cut some of the municipal work force and reduce some services other than fire and police, and he has declared that raising taxes “is absolutely not an option.”
But Bloomberg has no experience in government. He lacks the résumé credibility to ride this particular wave of federal-city-state rebuilding, coordination and cheerleading. If Bloomberg had more civic sophistication he might seem more relevant, more imaginable as the man for this hour of history. Instead, he seems one-dimensional, running more as a product than a politician.
Mark Green’s biggest problem now is the bitter disappointment felt by Ferrer’s Latino and black supporters, an emotion that seems to be hardening rather than softening since the close election. Ferrer told me the day after that he would endorse Green as soon as the results are certified, but some of his top supporters could sit out the general election because of their anger at some divisive tactics employed by Green’s supporters. Emotions and confusions have also escalated with the news that the Board of Elections mistakenly gave Green an extra 9,000 votes.
Green is a lifelong liberal with an impeccable Ralph Nader/Ramsey Clark/David Dinkins pedigree. But there can be little doubt that his campaign played some dirty tricks and appealed to racial fears to win the runoff. Ferrer surrogates Al Sharpton and Hazel Dukes also made inflammatory remarks.
In the final days, many recorded-message phone calls were made into white ZIP codes in Queens, Staten Island and Brooklyn asserting that Sharpton would be named the police commissioner if Ferrer won. Another version of this message said, according to the New York Times, “Sharpton cannot be given the keys to the city. Please go to the polls tomorrow and vote against Freddy Ferrer and Al Sharpton.”
Green has denied that his campaign made those calls, but somebody paid a company a lot of money to make them. Several voters have told the Ferrer campaign that they recorded the calls, and their caller ID indicates they originated in Virginia.
Also, thousands of leaflets with an ugly cartoon showing Ferrer kissing Sharpton’s ample rump were distributed in white districts. This demonization of Sharpton was effective; exit polls revealed that 37 percent of whites said they were “less likely” to vote for Ferrer because of Sharpton’s endorsement.
Since the runoff, most of Ferrer’s most visible Latino and black supporters (with the exception of State Comptroller Carl McCall) have attacked the Green campaign tactics and withheld their unity endorsements, including Representative Charles Rangel, Greg Meeks and José Serrano; union leader Dennis Rivera; and Sharpton himself.
The Ferrer camp’s anger at Green is also fueled by other elements. While he was comfortably ahead in the polls, Green vowed to reject negative campaigning. He went negative only at the start of the runoff, when some polls showed him slightly behind. Green’s liberal support dipped on the first day of the runoff, when he and Bloomberg both agreed to Mayor Giuliani’s demand that he be given an extra three months in office because of the rebuilding crisis. Only Ferrer rejected this extension of power.
Green’s campaign–and Green himself in debate–twisted the meaning of Ferrer’s campaign theme of “the other New York” to make it sound like something divisive and irresponsible. But “the other New York” was an honorable reference to the poor and the left-out. It has antecedents going back to Michael Harrington’s 1962 book The Other America: Poverty in the United States and to How the Other Half Lives: Studies Among the Tenements of New York, the classic photojournalistic exposé published by Jacob Riis in 1890.
Dennis Rivera, the president of the potent healthcare workers’ union, Local 1199 SEIU, told me, “I am incredibly hurt and depressed about the tactics Green used. They revealed his character. I have met with Bloomberg, and our union might endorse him.”
Bill Lynch, deputy mayor to David Dinkins, helped run the Ferrer campaign. Lynch told me, “I’m just damned angry. There was an appeal to the white backlash and it hurt Freddy badly. Freddy is a coalition person who deserved more than 17 percent of the white vote.”
New York is still essentially a one-party town, and Green remains the favorite to win. But given Bloomberg’s liquidity, Giuliani’s popularity, Sharpton’s unpredictability and the voters’ volatility, anything is possible. The emotional rift between liberals and the minority community can become an affliction for New York’s Democratic Party coalition–and for Green’s capacity to govern, inspire and unify a wounded and anxious city.
There is already a liberal-black rivalry for the Democratic nomination for governor next year between Carl McCall and former HUD Secretary Andrew Cuomo. Ferrer has endorsed McCall, and former Governor Mario Cuomo endorsed Green three days before the runoff.
The resentment, disappointment and sense of alienation among Latino voters (and some black voters) is exacerbated by the fact that this community voted in record numbers for Ferrer. Latinos provided 24 percent of the total vote, a level of participation no demographic experts had predicted. This demolished the myth that voting participation is a function of higher income and education.
Bloomberg, with his history of generous philanthropy, is moving to exploit this minority disaffection. There is no law against “donations” to churches, charities, programs and foundations affiliated with “community leaders.”
Mark Green is now engaged in a reckoning with the nature of politics itself. He did what he felt he had to do to win. But now the losers want to exact a price. Green needs to hear what is being said on what Ralph Ellison called “the lower frequencies” in the Latino and black communities. He needs to reach out, and reach within himself: He needs to learn from what’s being whispered on these lower frequencies–not to win this election but to be a healing leader, to make a liberal coalition cohere and make the city come together.
Green told me: “The anti-Sharpton phone calls to white voters were despicable, wrong and harmful to the city. They inject an element of fear into the election. Our campaign had nothing to do with them. We don’t know who made them or paid for them.”
The deeper, problematic question, beyond November, is what happens to the hurt in the hearts of Latino voters? They saw their chosen candidate finish first in the Los Angeles primary for mayor, then lose the runoff, partially because of a vicious TV commercial designed to scare white voters. They saw Ferrer finish first in New York and then lose the runoff, partly because of targeted phone calls designed to scare white voters. It will take a new kind of moral, racially sensitive leadership to make sure this new surge of Latino voting and pride leads to something positive and progressive. We all know what happens to a dream deferred.