Who’s Running Green? His Man Is Schrader, Back From the Brink

Managing a Mayoral campaign in New York City has to be one of the most stressful jobs in the world and not, under any circumstance, a recommended activity for recovering heart patients. But no one seems to have told that to Richard Schrader, a bearded agitator turned policy wonk who’s running Mark Green’s campaign to succeed Rudolph Giuliani.

Last August Mr. Schrader was in Wellfleet, Mass., with his wife and two young sons, toweling off after a swim. That’s when his chest exploded. “All of a sudden, I had an elephant on my chest,” Mr. Schrader said. The heart attack was massive; Mr. Schrader collapsed on the sand. His wife, Diane Berg, frantically called for help. An ambulance arrived minutes later, and Mr. Schrader was loaded on board. Two paramedics hovered over him, trying to keep him conscious. He had a vision of himself struggling in the water and finally sinking. And then he passed out.

When emergency-room doctors revived him, the paramedics high-fived each other. “They’re just excited,” one of the doctors told Mr. Schrader. “You’re one of three heart attacks they brought in this week. The other two died on the way, and they were thinking that you were going to be the third.”

Some political insiders concluded that Mr. Schrader was finished as a major player in the red-meat world of local politics. But now, after logging countless miles on a treadmill, losing 30 pounds thanks to a miserable no-fat diet and limiting himself to a couple of beers a day, the 49-year-old Mr. Schrader says he is fit enough for a political marathon.

“I’m really up for this race,” he told The Observer . “I’m ready.”

For his colleagues and rivals in city politics, Mr. Schrader’s comeback tale is far more than a mere human-interest story. It is hardly an overstatement to say that Mr. Schrader’s continued recovery–and his ability to run a campaign without collapsing–is vital, even critical, to Mr. Green’s chances of making the leap from Public Advocate to Mayor. “Schrader is clearly the key to Mark’s campaign,” said Kevin McCabe, former chief of staff to City Council Speaker and Mayoral candidate Peter Vallone. “He’s one of the only people who can single-handedly make a difference in this race. He’s money in the bank.”

Mr. Schrader’s value to Mr. Green is manifold: He is the Jeeves to Mr. Green’s Bertie Wooster, offering polite guidance where appropriate, quietly straightening out messes when necessary. For example, Mr. Green, a champion performer on television and before large crowds, can seem self-absorbed and detached in private, leaving it to Mr. Schrader to act as his behind-the-scenes diplomat. Mr. Green has trouble connecting with white ethnics, who regard him as an Ivy League fancy-pants, while Mr. Schrader–a blue-collar Yankee fan who looks miserable in a suit–is well-liked by those constituents and will serve as a bridge to them. And perhaps most significantly, Mr. Green lacks institutional support in the Democratic Party, whereas Mr. Schrader excels at cobbling together the kind of grassroots, extra-party organization–a shadow coalition of civic activists, union members and young volunteers–that will function as Mr. Green’s turnout machine.

Mr. Schrader’s organizing ability is one of the common threads on his otherwise wildly varied political résumé, which includes the back-to-back campaigns he orchestrated to win passage of increased public campaign financing in 1998 and to defeat City Charter revisions in a citywide referendum in 1999. Those wins were masterpieces of electoral engineering, with Mr. Schrader prevailing in the face of strong institutional opposition from Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and others. In both cases, Mr. Schrader’s ability to assemble and motivate volunteers, who in turn assembled and motivated specific electoral blocs, proved decisive.

Of course, all of this raises a question: Will Mr. Schrader’s grassroots style of coalition-building be enough to deliver a New York City Mayoral contest?

“A citywide race with a large turnout for a major office is obviously a more complex campaign than an off-year-election ballot referendum where you try and energize a fringe base,” said former Deputy Mayor Randy Mastro, who led the pro-charter-reform forces into battle against Mr. Schrader two years ago. “Richard Schrader is very talented, very personable and very experienced, and I wouldn’t underestimate him, but in any Mayoral race you’re going to be going toe-to-toe with the best in the business.”

Running a Mayoral campaign may be unfamiliar turf for Mr. Schrader–he played a limited role in David Dinkins’ successful 1989 campaign–but at least he will be sticking to what he knows best. He has been reaching out to many of the same people who worked with him on the charter-revision referendum. “We had a coalition of 3,000 volunteers for the charter-reform vote, which we’ll have in the Mayor’s race,” he explained. “I’ve kept it, I’ve nurtured it and I’ve even spent the last six months learning computer technology that will make it even more sophisticated and better refined than last time around. We’ll know exactly where voters are, and we’ll have the operation to bring them out. We also have some political clubs and a tremendous amount of volunteers from civic groups, and leaders and activists from the campaign-finance stuff. All these people will be Mark Green’s people in the Mayor’s race.”

Slapping Backs in Brooklyn

So it was that on a recent Sunday afternoon at the Prospect Park YMCA, an introductory get-together of about 150 Green volunteers had the air of a reunion. As Mr. Green explained to the volunteers why they should help him become the next Mayor, Mr. Schrader stood about five feet to his right with a big grin and messy hair, greeting latecomers as they filed into the already crowded room. “I am not seeking [and] I would not get the support of the big political interests around town,” said Mr. Green. “I need you. You are my Green machine!” Mr. Schrader nodded approvingly.

After his speech, Mr. Green took a number of questions. “What do we, as Democrats, need to do to prepare for [likely Republican candidate] Michael Bloomberg?” asked City Council candidate Bill de Blasio, who managed Hillary Clinton’s Senate campaign last year and worked with Mr. Schrader for Mr. Dinkins. Mr. Green, as usual, had a line prepared. “Michael Bloomberg is a billionaire Republican,” he said. “That’s not a slander, it’s factual. He cannot and will not become Mayor of New York City. It’s not gonna happen.” When a woman asked a technical question about H.M.O.’s, Mr. Green took some whispered advice from Mr. Schrader before delivering an answer about the need for national health insurance.

After Mr. Green left, with apologies, for another event, Mr. Schrader worked the room until it was entirely empty, shaking hands, grabbing arms and whispering in ears.

“You look great,” said one woman, who hadn’t seen Mr. Schrader since his heart attack. “No, you look great,” answered Mr. Schrader, with mock cheesiness.

“Great turnout, Richie,” said someone else, clapping Mr. Schrader’s back.

“Hey, we need all the help we can get,” he replied.

“Congratulations,” said another woman, just before bussing him on the cheek.

Anyone who didn’t know better might have figured that Mr. Schrader was the candidate. Yet his glad-handing was in the service of a vital function–volunteer retention. Getting people to show up for meetings is always far easier than actually persuading them to stick around and help. The people who lingered to chat with Mr. Schrader may or may not have been motivated to go to the Prospect Park Y that day out of a deep-rooted commitment to the Mark Green agenda. But they were, without a doubt, Mr. Schrader’s people, and he wanted to make sure that they’d be back. “Many of these volunteers may come out for Mark,” said political consultant Norman Adler, “but my inclination is that they’ll stay for Rich.”

Mr. Schrader’s path to this critical career moment has been neither straight nor narrow. Although he became interested in politics at age 12, when he and his grandfather, a former Brooklyn ward heeler, walked the streets of West Hempstead, Long Island, to hand out leaflets for Robert F. Kennedy’s Senate campaign in 1964, Mr. Schrader originally wanted to be a reporter. He studied journalism at Fordham University and Boston University. But after taking time out from his studies to volunteer for George McGovern in the 1972 New Hampshire primary, he decided to abandon his newspaper dreams. “I could never have been objective enough,” he said. “I had too many opinions and too big a mouth.”

In the 1970’s, Mr. Schrader got married, moved into a brownstone in Brooklyn and settled into a life of pick-up basketball, beer and righteous poverty. He worked or volunteered for a string of nonprofit organizations, involving himself deeply in the anti-nuclear and environmental movements. But like Mr. Green, Mr. Schrader was as much a consumer-advocacy liberal as he was a hippie idealist. He gained a name for himself as an advocate for senior citizens and a crusader for affordable electricity rates. He had a call-in radio show on WBAI, the not-for-profit leftist radio station, that mixed talk about renewable energy with music by the likes of Bob Dylan. “Rich was always juggling jobs to survive,” recalled Assemblyman James Brennan, a Brooklyn Democrat and longtime friend of Mr. Schrader. “Different nonprofit groups in those days popped up and went under all the time. Rich always managed to entrench himself in something or another while pursuing his creative ideas for getting things done. He always had an angle.”

Mr. Schrader’s relationship with Mr. Green, then a young acolyte of consumer advocate Ralph Nader, began in 1978, when they teamed up to push for a federal Consumer Affairs Department. (It never happened.) By the time Mr. Green attempted his first ill-fated run for the U.S. Senate in 1986, Mr. Schrader had grown some political muscle, doing organizational work and speechwriting for a number of campaigns and acting as public-affairs director of the influential New York Trial Lawyers Association. Mr. Schrader worked on Mr. Green’s campaign, and they came together again in 1989 to help elect Mr. Dinkins Mayor; Mr. Schrader still describes that period as “the most exciting time in my life.” When Mr. Dinkins took office, Mr. Schrader got a job as Deputy Consumer Affairs Commissioner under his old friend, Mr. Green.

Outsider Comes In

When Mr. Green resigned to prepare a campaign for Public Advocate, Mr. Schrader took over Consumer Affairs. The eternal outsider suddenly was running a major city department, but that did little to temper Mr. Schrader’s propensity for making waves. He sued baseball legend Johnny Bench for hawking overvalued baseball memorabilia on the Home Shopping Network and exposed “Barneygate,” a scam by ticket brokers to extort the parents of kids who wanted to see the cuddly purple dinosaur in concert. To far less fanfare, Mr. Schrader also continued the work, begun by Mr. Green, of breaking up the mob-run carting industry. He talked to witnesses and persuaded them to testify about extortion plots, and he pleaded with law-enforcement authorities to order wiretaps of suspected mobsters. The wiretaps helped lead to several convictions.

“The undercover cop who wore the wire that opened up that whole case credited Rich for getting him in there,” said Tom Robbins, a veteran reporter for The Village Voice and a close friend of Mr. Schrader. “I wrote about this stuff, and I only found out years later what Rich did. The guy was one of my best buddies, and he never said a word to me about it.”

When, in 1998, Mr. Green ran for the Senate again, Mr. Schrader was out of politics, sort of: He had landed a gig as a political commentator for WCBS-TV. (It was a Democrat-versus-Republican format, so his obvious bias wasn’t a problem.) He had settled down in his personal life as well, spending time at home with his wife, who is a midwife, and coaching his sons in Little League. Mr. Schrader was busy practicing his sound bites and demonstrating the art of the bunt while Mr. Green was traveling the state in another vain effort to win the Democratic Senate nomination, which eventually went to Charles Schumer.

Now, however, the relationship between Mr. Green and Mr. Schrader has come full circle, with Mr. Schrader returning to Mr. Green’s service for what they must surely both regard as the most important race of their lives.

Over dinner recently at a midtown steakhouse, Mr. Schrader was asked bluntly whether he was healthy enough for what promises to be a grueling summer and fall. Looking up from his plate of plain chicken breast and steamed vegetables, he said with a smile: “What’s this race? It’s nothing to me. I can laugh about it after what I’ve been through.”