It’s Mean Mark Green: A Liberal Candidate Gets Tough on Crime

In a city that has come to expect victories in the war on

crime, Mark Green finds himself battling an image that could scuttle his

efforts to succeed crime-busting Rudolph Giuliani as the city’s next Mayor. As

a liberal Democrat and onetime commissioner in David Dinkins’ City Hall, Mr. Green

is often portrayed as a soft-headed civil libertarian who can’t wait to lead a

parade of panhandlers on a liberation march up Broadway. Mr. Giuliani, no fan

of Mr. Green, is more than happy to amplify the charge, labeling the Public

Advocate as “the anti-police, anti-law-enforcement candidate.”

Mr. Green is well aware that if this image sticks, he will

be hard-pressed to broaden his appeal beyond his natural base of blacks and

Manhattan liberals. So he has launched a new political offensive designed to reassure

New Yorkers that he, too, can be tough on crime-tougher, even, than Mr.

Giuliani. That was part of the message he delivered during a wide-ranging

speech at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice on Feb. 5, and it’s a

message that political insiders expect to hear repeatedly in the coming months.

“Green is acutely aware that his opponents and

detractors-Giuliani among them-are going to portray him as a knee-jerk liberal

on crime,” said one prominent Democratic strategist, who recently discussed the

problem with Mr. Green at length. “He said to me, ‘Listen, these caricaturists

who try to paint me as soft on crime had better know that the first squeegee

men who show up at an exit to the West Side Highway and intimidate

motorists-I’ll chop their heads off!’” (A Green aide declined comment.)

Mr. Green, a former Nader’s Raider, is working overtime to

prove he’ll be every bit as tough a commander in chief as Mr. Giuliani ever

was. He recently met with Patrick Lynch, the president of the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association. And he had a

private bull session with 20 Brooklyn beat cops. A press release described the

meeting in hard-boiled prose: “No cameras. No press. No brass.” Mr. Green has

even taken to calling criminals “thugs.” In public.

Mr. Green’s tough talk was on full display during the speech

at John Jay College. For Mr. Green, who successfully sued City Hall twice over

police misconduct, it was a surprising gesture-one squarely in the tradition of

politicians venturing into potentially hostile territory to refashion their

political personas. It was a bit like John F. Kennedy journeying to Houston to

reassure Baptist ministers in 1960; Hillary Clinton venturing out to Borough

Park, Brooklyn, to meet with Hasidic leaders; or, more recently, City Comptroller

Alan Hevesi going to Harlem on Martin Luther King Day to atone for past

insensitivity to police brutality.

Standing at a podium in a small auditorium in the school’s

basement, Mr. Green spoke, at times forcefully, to a crowd of several hundred.

Seated in the first row was Patrick V. Murphy, who was Police Commissioner in

the early 1970′s. Mr. Murphy’s presence offered a further irony: As it happens,

he invented the Street Crime Unit, which under Mr. Giuliani was greatly

enlarged and became the primary enforcer of City Hall’s aggressive policing

policies. The unit also has been the target of police critics, who note that

the four officers who fired 41 shots at Amadou Diallo were members of the

S.C.U.

Although Mr. Green promised to place his own policy stamp on

the department-”tough enough to enforce the law and … smart enough to invest to

prevent crime”-the Giuliani-esque accents in Mr. Green’s speech were

unmistakable. “Ten years ago, so many New Yorkers were afraid,” Mr. Green

began. “Afraid to go buy groceries, afraid to go on the subway. Today, New York

is inarguably a safer place than it has been in decades …. A decade ago, if you

had told New Yorkers that we would cut crime by half, they would never have

believed it.” Those lines could have been lifted from one of Mr. Giuliani’s

State of the City speeches. Close observers will note the use of the

first-person plural in assigning credit for crime reduction.

A Personal Touch

At another point, Mr. Green shared a personal brush with

crime:

“I remember the call I got some 30 years ago, when I heard

that my mother, who’d been in her 60′s, and my grandmother, who was then in her

80′s, had been tied up by burglars who had pushed into our home. And I remember

the fear and the anger at the thugs”-he paused-”who had done that to the women

who gave me life.”

Mr. Green went out of his way to demonstrate that he would

not be a soft touch. At one point, he said he wanted New York to be “the safest

city in America, if not the world.” During a question-and-answer session,

somebody complained of “paramilitary” riot police who deploy helicopters and

tanks at demonstrations. His answer, in part: “In a serious riot situation,

helicopters and tanks arguably could be appropriate.”

Mr. Green detailed several proposals that went beyond strict

enforcement. He called for more funding for neighborhood policing, raises for

cops to boost morale and an increase in the number of officers working to

intercept illegal guns. And he reiterated his calls for independent civilian

oversight of the police.

Mr. Green’s advisers argue that his tough-on-crime rhetoric

is consistent with his past record. “Mark Green has always had a strong record

on public safety,” said Richard Schrader, Mr. Green’s campaign manager. “He

battled and helped dismantle the mobbed-up carting industry. He exposed child

abuse. He blew the whistle on dozens of corrupt contractors. He’s been tough on

police misconduct, but that doesn’t mean he’s not tough on public safety.”

It’s true that the cliché of Mr. Green as an unrepentant

cop-basher is an election-year distortion. As a consumer advocate, he comes

from a different tradition of liberalism than, say, Ruth Messinger, a former

social worker who is the archetypal pre-Giuliani Manhattan liberal. Mr. Green

has carefully broadened his appeal over the years, favoring both an end to

parole and the placement of police cameras in public parks. In some ways, Mr.

Green-a persistent and relentless public official-is a liberal version of Mr.

Giuliani, a good-government Republican.

Nor is it clear whether there’s a basis for Mr. Giuliani’s

charge that Mr. Green is anti-cop. More likely the charge is rooted not in

policy or past actions, but in the Mayor’s dislike for Mr. Green. For example,

when the Public Advocate suggested in 1994 that repairs to police cars be

contracted out to private shops, Mr. Giuliani reacted as though Mr. Green had

asked for the prisons to be emptied. Several years later, Mr. Green demanded

the resignation of then–Police Commissioner Howard Safir in the aftermath of

the police shooting of Amadou Diallo, leading Staten Island Borough President

Guy Molinari, a Giuliani ally, to slam Mr. Green as an “avowed cop basher.” But

Mr. Green had said nothing about the rank and file.

Of course, Mr. Green is not the only candidate who will have

to contend with Mr. Giuliani’s record on crime. “Since Giuliani demonstrated

that there can be unheard-of reductions in crime,” said Tom Reppetto, the

president of the Citizens’ Crime Commission of New York City, “the question

will hang over the race: ‘Will the next Mayor keep me safe?’”

Still, it is the Public Advocate who may have to worry most

about the “anti-cop” charge. For one thing, Mr. Green is already viewed with

suspicion by much of the city’s establishment-the real estate community, the

editorial boards and Wall Street-many of whose members associate Mr. Green with

the Dinkins administration.

For another thing, Mr. Giuliani will single out Mr. Green as

a threat to public safety time and time again over the next few months. Mr. Green’s

aides say that such attacks will only play into his hands, because Democratic

primary voters have grown weary of the Mayor, and because Mr. Green’s

supporters will be energized by Mayoral attacks on their man.

In a crowded primary field, however, the winning candidate

will be the one who manages to reach beyond his core support. That task could

get complicated for Mr. Green. Picture this scenario: A slight uptick in crime,

or a spate of sensational murders over the summer, sends the tabloids into a frenzy

of “Dinkins redux” predictions. The establishment starts to get nervous; Mr.

Giuliani launches a new broadside at Mr. Green; and Mr. Green’s opponents

simply sit back and enjoy. Mr. Green will argue that his longtime criticism of

the Mayor in no way means he’ll be soft on crime. The voters, though, may not

want to hear complex and rational arguments; they will want simple assurances

of safety.

“Green’s rhetoric has to be simple and direct. It has to be,

‘Punish the bad guys’-period,” said Edward Wallace, a partner at Greenberg,

Traurig, a law firm whose members have raised a great deal of money for Mr.

Green. “He can’t get into debates; he can’t talk about programs. He just has to

be tough on crime-period.”