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
“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
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.
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
“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.