Was Freddy Fingered? Or Was Ferrer Caught in Own Sharpton Trap?

When several of the city’s top black and Latino power brokers gathered in downtown Manhattan for a private discussion of the Mayoral campaign on May 11, it quickly became clear that very little had changed over the past few months for the troubled candidacy of Bronx Borough President Fernando Ferrer.

Less than three months earlier, U.S. Representative Charles Rangel of Harlem – a figure crucial to the fragile black and Latino alliance Mr. Ferrer hopes to put together to become the city’s first Puerto Rican Mayor–had publicly made sport of the borough president’s strategy. “Where’s the coalition?” Mr. Rangel asked an amused audience of labor leaders. “It looks like I’m the coalition!”

At around the same time, Mr. Ferrer’s longtime friend, hospital-workers’ union president Dennis Rivera, sent a quiet message to the borough president: In an interview, he said he was thinking about remaining neutral in the Mayoral race.

Nothing had changed when Mr. Rangel and Mr. Rivera gathered with several African-American leaders, including the Reverend Al Sharpton, during the May 11 meeting. There still was no consensus candidate, and the option of not endorsing anyone was looking more and more attractive.

“They just looked at it in all kinds of ways, turned it upside down and inside out,” Mr. Rangel told The Observer . “They looked at all the candidates, every scenario. We decided that we weren’t going to do anything until something happens. It was agreed that no one was prepared to [endorse a candidate] individually. We were not prepared to collectively endorse a candidate, either.”

“The Ferrer candidacy has been struggling,” added Minister Jacques De Graff, a top adviser to Mr. Sharpton. “And there are many in the black community, myself included, who have very serious questions about black participation in a Ferrer administration. So a course of action has not emerged.”

In the days after Mr. Sharpton made his explosive May 8 demand that Mr. Ferrer back several black candidates in exchange for his endorsement, political insiders claimed that Mr. Sharpton–wittingly or not–had severely wounded Mr. Ferrer’s candidacy. Mr. Sharpton had, depending on the speaker’s taste in military hardware and tolerance for mangled metaphors, either “torpedoed” Mr. Ferrer, nailed him in a “drive-by shooting” or lobbed a “race-based grenade” into the Ferrer camp. This version, as it happens, transformed Mr. Ferrer into the innocent victim of a wily, race-mongering politician.

But the simple truth is this: Mr. Ferrer’s travails have far less to do with Mr. Sharpton than they do with the larger problems confronting his candidacy. While he and Mr. Sharpton play out their conflict-reconciliation narrative in the press–they met for a patch-it-up breakfast on May 14–the Ferrer campaign is left dealing with problems unrelated to Mr. Sharpton.

It is Mr. Ferrer, after all, who is running a campaign with an undeniable racial subtext, a strategy that has left him languishing with white voters. (A recent Quinnipiac College poll showed Mr. Ferrer winning just 6 percent of white voters, down from 9 percent in January.) Few believe such a narrow alliance will serve Mr. Ferrer well, and Mr. Ferrer has yet to convince longtime allies like Mr. Rivera that his strategy can work.

Making matters worse, the borough president startled his supporters by flubbing the most important on-air moment of his candidacy to date. Asked at the first Mayoral debate on May 6 whom he would support in a hypothetical three-way contest among Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and former mayors Ed Koch and David Dinkins, Mr. Ferrer seemed so flustered and noncommittal that the moderator finally cut him off: “Right, O.K., we get it, you want to dodge it.”

Mr. Ferrer has said he was cut off before he could answer. Still, the fact remains that Mr. Ferrer did not forcefully voice his support for the city’s first African-American Mayor, Mr. Dinkins, who forged the very same coalition Mr. Ferrer hopes to resurrect for himself. “David Dinkins could not understand it,” Mr. Sharpton, who spoke to Mr. Dinkins the next day, told The Observer . “He said, ‘I don’t understand why this is a hard call for Freddy.’ If one can’t handle simple [questions] like this, it makes one wonder whether he can handle the city.” Certainly the response did nothing to help Mr. Ferrer’s outreach to African-Americans.

Mr. Sharpton is known to change the conditions for his support hourly. (“I heard Reverend Sharpton also asked for four suits from Sak’s,” joked one City Hall reporter.) Still, in the alternate universe of New York ethnic politics, Mr. Sharpton’s apparent sandbagging of Mr. Ferrer managed to arouse the attention of every pundit in town, send an audible smattering of high-fives through the campaigns of Mr. Ferrer’s rivals, enliven the Mayoral race and even ignite a fight between two veteran political reporters and onetime colleagues, New York Post columnist Jack Newfield and New York Times reporter Adam Nagourney.

Lost in all the noisy drama, however, was the simple fact that the problems underlying Mr. Ferrer’s candidacy predate Mr. Sharpton’s demands, and they are likely to persist even if Mr. Sharpton, as expected, finds a way out of the impasse and supports Mr. Ferrer.

Mr. Ferrer’s campaign is the mirror image of the candidacy of City Comptroller Alan Hevesi. Mr. Hevesi’s cautious centrism has left him languishing with black voters, just as Mr. Ferrer’s emphasis on a black-Latino alliance has similarly left him with little backing from white voters. By running a candidacy with a racial subtext–Mr. Ferrer’s argument that he is the only truly anti-Giuliani candidate seems directly aimed at black and Latino voters–he has left himself unable to move up in the polls with whites. While this strategy may succeed in getting him into a runoff, it could make it impossible to win over the white voters he’ll inevitably need to win the nomination. (If no candidate in the Democratic primary wins 40 percent of the vote, the top two finishers will face each other two weeks later to decide the nomination.)

“Freddy’s argument always was, ‘If there’s a big turnout of Latino voters, and you add on African-Americans and a teeny percentage of some other group, I’m in the runoff,’” said political consultant Norman Adler. “Well, in the runoff, the majority of voters are not black and Latino. They’re white. Many of them are Jews. And those voters are not going to swallow Freddy’s message.”

John Del Cecato, a spokesman for Mr. Ferrer, dismissed the notion that there was a racial subtext to his message. “When Borough President Ferrer talks about ‘the other New York,’ he’s referring to a broad-based group–millions of New Yorkers, from Throgs Neck to Staten Island to southeast Queens to Washington Heights to Red Hook, who have watched our public schools fail, the divide between the community and their Police Department grow wider, and health care and affordable housing come in short supply for too many families.”

A Momentum Killer

It’s true that the dust-up with Mr. Sharpton slowed the signs of momentum that Mr. Ferrer had shown in recent weeks. The insider chatter had shifted slightly in his direction; he was suddenly the candidate to watch, and supporters of Public Advocate Mark Green, Mr. Ferrer’s main competitor for the black vote, were getting a bit nervous about the Bronx borough president’s movement among black voters.

And there is, of course, a stirring historical argument to be made in favor of the black and brown coalition Mr. Ferrer hopes to forge. That alliance joined labor unions and white progressives to elect Mr. Dinkins, the city’s first black Mayor, in 1989; why not rebuild the alliance to elect the city’s first Puerto Rican Mayor? Mr. Ferrer, after all, would seem to be an easy choice for many black and Hispanic leaders. He was the only candidate to get arrested in protests over the police shooting of Amadou Diallo, and his top adviser, Bronx Democratic County Chair Roberto Ramirez, has helped elect a raft of blacks and Hispanics to State Supreme Court judgeships.

But this time around, the very power brokers you’d expect to embrace that possibility–Mr. Rivera, Mr. Rangel, Mr. Dinkins and others–seem less interested in making history than in winning. In an interview with The Observer in February, Mr. Rivera gently let it be known that he wouldn’t get behind Mr. Ferrer unless he saw signs that he had a good shot at victory.

“From a very personal point of view, the whole idea of having Fernando Ferrer as Mayor would make me incredibly proud as a Puerto Rican,” Mr. Rivera said at the time. But he added: “If we see consensus around a candidate, then we will endorse. If not, then we won’t.”

Mr. Rangel was even more blunt. “I’m leaning towards a candidate that I think can win,” he said in a recent interview. “At this point in time, I haven’t selected that candidate.”

Another problem for Mr. Ferrer is that his mishandling of the Dinkins question at the debate have left some Democrats wondering whether he is ready for the intensity of an extremely competitive campaign.

Unlike the other candidates–Mr. Green, Mr. Hevesi and City Council Speaker Peter Vallone–Mr. Ferrer has never run a citywide or statewide race. A former City Council member from the Bronx, he was elevated to the post of borough president the old-fashioned way: He was appointed to it when the previous occupant, Stanley Simon, resigned during the municipal scandals of the mid-1980′s. Mr. Ferrer hinted that he might run for Mayor in 1997, but decided against taking on Mr. Giuliani in what would have been an unwinnable campaign.

Mr. Ferrer’s handling of the Dinkins question certainly contrasts with Mr. Green’s subtle psychological wooing of the former Mayor. Mr. Green is well aware that Mr. Dinkins is seething over the way his single term has been portrayed by Mr. Giuliani and in the press. So Mr. Green, who served as Mr. Dinkins’ Consumer Affairs Commissioner, has carefully sought to praise Mr. Dinkins’ successes whenever possible, going out of his way to suggest that the city’s historic drop in crime is due in part to the former Mayor’s “Safe Streets, Safe City” program, launched in the early 1990′s.

In the end, Mr. Ferrer’s travails may reflect the fact that the conditions which gave rise to the Dinkins coalition may no longer exist. It’s easy to forget that in 1989, dissatisfaction with Mr. Koch made it easier to unite the city’s politically divided black population with an amalgam of labor unions. Meanwhile, many white liberals had come to believe that a black Mayor would go a long way toward easing the racial tensions of the Koch years. And unlike Mr. Ferrer, Mr. Dinkins had a large following among Manhattan whites, who had helped elect him Manhattan borough president in 1985.

Mr. Ferrer, for his part, is preparing for a bruising battle. “Look, I’m running for Mayor, and the stakes are very large,” he told The Observer before a candidates’ forum in lower Manhattan. “I expect to be playing with live grenades.”

–Additional reporting by Petra Bartosiewicz.