Re-Greening of Mark: Perennial Cocky Kid Tries to Tone It Down

As he prepared for the crucible of a New York Mayoral

campaign, Public Advocate Mark Green gathered his top advisers in his downtown

office to watch videotapes of a speaker whose eloquence and lively wit have

delighted Mr. Green for decades. The speaker was Public Advocate Mark Green.

As the tapes played, 

Hank Sheinkopf, Mr. Green’s media adviser, as well as Joe DePlasco, his

chief spokesman, Richard Schrader, his campaign manager, several other

associates and Mr. Green himself studied the screen. They offered their

thoughts as the tape showed Mr. Green’s trademark stump style: the dense clouds

of policy-speak; his Talmudic parsing of language; his head-tilting and

finger-raising; and his penchant for spraying infuriatingly clever one-liners

in all directions like a garden sprinkler.

Mr. Green had good reason to convene this self-examination

with his top aides, none of whom would comment about the session. Some of Mr.

Green’s closest supporters are worried that his abundant verbal skills-and his

all-too-evident awareness of them-make him sound flippant, self-involved and

even arrogant on the stump and in one-on-one meetings with the city’s top power

brokers. His backers have been asking political and media insiders for help in

persuading Mr. Green that he needs to be more direct and empathetic-”less of a

smarty-pants,” in the words of one supporter.

“I’ve done so much of my own writing and speaking and

debating over the years, I have probably an excess of confidence in my own

voice and instinct to think on my feet,” Mr. Green allowed wryly in an

interview with The Observer . “So you

bet I’ll sit down with smart family and colleagues for them to sandpaper me.

The consensus is that I should speak slower and try to compact fewer facts,

references and arguments into a talk.”

Mr. Green paused a beat. Then he added: “Because their view

is right, someday I may even listen to it.”

“I think Mark is really trying to get better at talking with instead of talking at ,” added Ken Lerer, a friend and top

supporter of Mr. Green for more than 20 years and an executive vice president

at AOL Time Warner. “There isn’t any question that he’s the most substantive

and assertive candidate running for Mayor. But sometimes when you advertise the

breadth of your knowledge, it can come across as a little bit arrogant.”

In the small world of political consultants and press

pundits, these adjustments are seen as nothing more than the standard retooling

of a candidate. In reality, however, these proddings from supporters-and Mr.

Green’s occasional efforts to heed them-speak to a strange moment in his

political and personal evolution. For the first time in his life, he has a real

shot at making the transition from a voluble, but undeniably effective, critic

of those in power to someone who actually has

power-an immense amount of it. You might say he’s applying for his first real

insider’s job; he ran for the U.S. Senate in 1986 and 1998, but both bids were

so quixotic that they came across as a kind of political performance art. On

the verge of what could prove to be an immense life change at age 56, Mr. Green

sometimes seems reluctant to move beyond the comfortable public role of

precocious gadfly and harpoon-throwing outsider that he has played for decades.

As a Nader’s Raider, consumer advocate, political reformer,

television pundit and all-around professional noodge (he has been known to hold

press conferences railing about the high cost of gefilte fish at Passover), Mr.

Green has always been able to win attention for his causes-and, by extension,

for himself-with his hard work, talent for camera-gathering stunts and

carefully wrought quips. But now, some of the qualities that made him an

effective tormentor of greedy corporations, H.M.O.’s, tobacco peddlers and

shady dry cleaners may be working against him as he runs for Mayor. His

sardonic wit and oft-advertised verbal skills have made him an extremely

effective advocate, but they sometimes compromise his efforts to project the

weighty image of a chief executive. “I’m sure that on the personality front,

I’m certainly no Jay Leno or Katie Couric,” Mr. Green said.

“For many years of his life, Mark was a Wunderkind ,” said political consultant Norman Adler. “He was the

youngest, prettiest and quickest guy around. But now he’s too old to be

precocious. Mark still comes across as the kind of kid other kids want to hit

because he always has his hand up in class. People want some dimension of

gravitas in their executives.”

Mr. Green’s friends don’t dispute that he is a man who is well

aware of his verbal talents. At his 50th birthday bash in 1995, he treated 600

guests to a videotaped performance of his greatest hits on Crossfire , when he matched wits with William F. Buckley Jr., Ed

Koch and then–U.S. Attorney Rudolph Giuliani. Whether on the stump or in

private, Mr. Green lives and breathes one-liners. At a recent gathering in the

Pierre hotel, for instance, he worked his way through the crowd, shaking hands

and posing for pictures. At one point, City Council Speaker Peter Vallone-one

of Mr. Green’s three major challengers for the Democratic Mayoral

nomination-grabbed Mr. Green by the shoulder.

“You heard?” Mr. Vallone whispered. “You got the Sharpton

endorsement!”

“I was predicting that from Day 1!” Mr. Green responded.

At another point, somebody in the crowd asked Mr. Green to

pose for a picture. The Public Advocate jerked a thumb in the direction of his

photo-mate and said: “Someday this guy will be Mayor, and I’ll be able to use

his picture!”

The problem for Mr. Green’s supporters is this: The barrage

of verbiage makes it easier for opponents to dismiss him as a grandstander,

thus ignoring his genuine accomplishments, his capacity for extremely hard work

and the long list of policy battles he’s managed to win, even though the Public

Advocate’s office has little institutional power. Mr. Green, for example, has

written a stack of books on public policy. He exposed the use of toxic

chemicals by neighborhood dry cleaners, leading to new state regulations over

the industry. He was instrumental in passing a groundbreaking campaign-finance

law in 1998. He helped Mr. Giuliani bust the mob-dominated cartels in the

carting industry. At a time when most white politicians in the city were

silent, he constantly squared off against Mr. Giuliani over police brutality,

successfully suing City Hall twice over police misconduct.

Despite these achievements, Mr. Green is constantly

pigeonholed in the press as little more than a camera-loving critic of Mr.

Giuliani. Stereotyping him this way would be a lot tougher if Mr. Green didn’t

seem to take such pleasure in playing that very role.

 

Forging Alliances

Mr. Green’s style could imperil his efforts to build the

delicate back-room alliance necessary to win a citywide race. This isn’t just a

matter of one-on-one style; it’s a natural outgrowth of his career as a

professional outsider. Mr. Green didn’t have to work his way up through the

local Democratic machine, and so he isn’t indebted to clubhouse politicians and

back-room power brokers. That independence from the city’s Democratic

establishment and special-interest groups may help him in a general election,

but must be regarded as a possible liability in a Democratic primary in which

he faces three better-connected opponents: Mr. Vallone, Comptroller Alan Hevesi

and Bronx Borough President Fernando Ferrer. Labor leaders, interest groups,

arts organizations and other power bases dependent on local government may be

less than enthusiastic about a candidate who can’t be counted on to deliver

payback at budget time.

“Mark feels that if he’s

good and honorable and right, that the local political players should be

satisfied,” said Mr. Adler. “That’s all well and good. The problem is a lot of

the interest groups feel that he doesn’t play the game. They believe that working

to get Mark elected won’t get them anything in return.”

Mr. Green is the grandchild of Jewish immigrants whose

family moved from Brooklyn to the Long Island enclave of Great Neck. Mr.

Green’s father, a lawyer, and his mother, a teacher, were good-government

Rockefeller Republicans. Mr. Green, however, came of age during the strife and

protests of  the 1960′s. “I’m in large

part a product of the 60′s and the Vietnam War,” he said. “I came from a

generation that wanted to change the world.”

A bright and gregarious student, Mr. Green went to Cornell

University and then to Harvard Law School, where he founded the Harvard Civil Rights–Civil Liberties Law

Review (it’s still being published), played a lot of squash and tennis, and

rode a motorcycle.

“This was a biker from Great Neck-not exactly a Hell’s

Angel,” joked Sandy Berger, Bill Clinton’s National Security Advisor and Mr.

Green’s Harvard roommate.

Mr. Green’s Harvard experiences have crept into his stump

speech: He frequently jokes that he decided to go into public service upon

graduation because he “wanted to make sure that [he] would be the lowest-paid

member of his class.”

He learned early on the pleasure of making waves and making

noise. As an intern working for Senator Jacob Javits, the quintessential New

York liberal Republican, he took it upon himself to organize a letter,

eventually signed by 179 Capitol Hill interns, to President Lyndon Johnson

protesting the Vietnam War. The resulting furor led President Johnson to cancel

the House of Representatives’ intern program for three years.

“One of the Republican Congressmen sent a mole into our

group,” recalled Mr. Berger, a fellow intern. “The Congressman got up on the

floor and roundly denounced Mark.”

Mr. Green was thrilled. He spent the next 10 years, from

1970 to 1980, in Washington as a consumer advocate under the tutelage of Ralph

Nader.

“I worked for the man whose name is now only whispered,”

said Mr. Green, referring to Mr. Nader’s fallen status among Democrats since

his failed Green Party Presidential bid in 2000. “And no, he didn’t name his

party after me. It’s an unfortunate coincidence that I’m sure a rival will

exploit to no consequence.”

Mr. Green met his wife, Deni Frand, in 1976 when they both

volunteered for the Congressional campaign of Allard Lowenstein. “We had a

political inspiration to start, and here we are,” Mr. Green said.

Mr. Green and Ms. Frand got married and moved to Manhattan

in 1980, where they lived in a building on East 86th Street, one floor above an

ambitious young prosecutor named Rudolph Giuliani. Two years later, they moved

to an apartment overlooking the East River on 90th Street, where they still

live, a block from Gracie Mansion. (“Trust me, it’s a coincidence,” Mr. Green

said.) They have two children, Jenya and Jonah.

Mr. Green spent the early 1980′s making his voice known in

New York at the head of a nonprofit public-policy group called the Democracy

Project. He also wrote articles for liberal publications like The Nation and speeches for Colorado

Senator Gary Hart, who unsuccessfully challenged Walter Mondale for the 1984

Democratic Presidential nomination.

He ran for the U.S. Senate in 1986, shocking the Democratic

establishment by beating millionaire John Dyson in the party’s primary. There

were no such upsets in the general election; as expected, Mr. Green lost badly

to incumbent Alfonse D’Amato. (He tried for a Senate rematch in 1998, but lost

the Democratic primary to Charles Schumer.)

Mr. Green got a peek of

life on the inside in 1990, after he supported David Dinkins’ successful

Mayoral campaign. Mr. Dinkins named him commissioner of the Department of

Consumer Affairs. Thanks to the ensuing public attention and his natural

inclination as a critic, Mr. Green won his first election to the newly created

office of Public Advocate in 1993. Mr. Green could not have created a post

better suited to his talents and interests: As Public Advocate, he has been a

civic watchdog on matters as seemingly mundane as consumer complaints all the

way to the highest levels of city policy-making.

As a candidate for Mayor, however, Mr. Green will have to be

more than an in-house critic of municipal government. Closer to 60 than he is

to 50, he has outgrown the role of ombudsman and agitator; now he wants to be

chief executive officer of the City of New York.

Turning that wish into reality, as Mr. Green knows, will

require a good deal more than a mouthful of snappy one-liners.