Green’s Machine Glides In

The Democratic Mayoral primary of 2001 has devolved into a

scramble for second place, with Fernando Ferrer, Peter Vallone and Alan Hevesi

locked in a mortal struggle to get into the all-but-inevitable runoff against

the front runner, Mark Green.

The central dynamic of this race hasn’t changed in a

year-the political standings are almost exactly where they were in August 2000.

The already well-known Mr. Green continues to enjoy a lead built largely on

name recognition, even as the other candidates struggle to climb out of the

same holes they were in when the race began.

Why the startling lack of movement? Voter exhaustion after

last year’s political dramas, the lack of a public crisis, Mayor Rudolph

Giuliani’s flame-out and voter disinterest in a field of ideologically

identical candidates are all factors-as is the candidacy of Michael Bloomberg,

the billionaire media mogul, which has sopped up all the media attention that

normally would be going to Mr. Green’s rivals.

“Green was in front from the start, and Bloomberg froze it,”

said Fred Siegel, a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute.

“Bloomberg has sucked all the air out of the other campaigns. He has made it

impossible for the other three Democrats to gain any ground.”

Thanks to all the interest in Mr. Bloomberg’s taste in

private aircraft and his noble penchant for dating women his own age, the other

candidates have been gasping for the attention they need to move their numbers.

Mr. Ferrer can’t get out of the Bronx, and Mr. Hevesi’s

I’m-the-class-of-the-field strategy won’t take hold because no one is looking

at the horses. (Mr. Vallone’s stealth campaign, which is less dependent on

outside attention, hasn’t been as hurt by the lack of it.)

The strict cap on spending enforced by city campaign-finance

law-the real wild card of this strange race-has only reinforced this dynamic.

The law, it turns out, benefits front runners by limiting advertising. As it

happens, the law was largely written by … the front runner, Mark Green.

With all the campaigns

husbanding their limited resources for the race’s endgame, it has been that

much harder for the other Democrats to get their names and their messages

out-even as Mr. Green quietly devises new ways to protect his lead. (Most polls

show Mr. Green at close to 30 percent of the vote among Democrats, with the

others each in the high teens-and as many as 18 percent of likely Democratic

voters still undecided.)

“Mark’s so far out front,” said political consultant Norman

Adler, “that it’s become a scramble for second place or oblivion.”

Can Mr. Green create the impression of momentum to the point

where he picks up the 40 percent he needs to avoid a runoff? If there is a

runoff, will an anybody-but-Mark movement of Democratic power brokers-many of

whom remain undecided, like Harlem Congressman Charles Rangel and teachers’

union president Randi Weingarten-coalesce around his rival? Which of the other

three Democrats is best suited to build an outer-borough coalition that can

edge out Mr. Green’s base of African-Americans, Jews and liberals? Will Mr.

Green’s lead collapse when the electorate starts paying attention and the idea

of Mayor Mark Green, a liberal version of Mr. Giuliani, finally starts sinking

in?

Here is a quick read on the candidates’ strengths and

weaknesses as they head into the final stretch of the 2001 Mayoral race.

City Comptroller Alan Hevesi

Mr. Hevesi’s main strength is his chief strategist, Hank

Morris. Mr. Morris, as it happens, is also Mr. Hevesi’s main weakness. Mr.

Morris’ mystique as a consultant who can sprinkle pixie dust on the electorate

and work miracles for his clients is, at bottom, the reason so many political

pros still think Mr. Hevesi is in the game. Whenever you ask an insider why Mr.

Hevesi still has a shot-even though he’s spent $1.4 million on ads and hasn’t

budged in the polls-he will invariably reply, with cult-like devotion: “Oh,

Morris has a game plan.”

This is both good and bad for Mr. Hevesi. It’s good because

it means that the city’s power brokers aren’t yet willing to write him off.

It’s bad because people shouldn’t cite Mr. Morris when asked about Mr. Hevesi’s

prospects; Mr. Morris isn’t the one running for Mayor. It’s Mr. Hevesi who

happens to be qualified for the job of running City Hall. He was a member of

the State Assembly for nearly two decades, where he had a reputation as an

eloquent speaker on controversial issues. He also wrote scores of laws.

Strangely, Mr. Hevesi has shown little apparent desire to replace Mr. Morris as

the central character of his own candidacy.

And the

catch-me-if-you-can gamble that Mr. Morris has been playing with city

campaign-finance laws seems unduly risky. Mr. Hevesi, early on the

establishment’s favorite, is still the leading contender for the support of the

New York Times editorial board. (Some

political pros think The Times ‘

support can deliver 10 percent of the Democratic primary electorate.) But The Times cares deeply about

campaign-finance reform-and any day now, city auditors will decide if the

Hevesi campaign has broken campaign-finance rules by under-reporting its

expenses, which could cost him The Times ‘ support.

Mr. Hevesi has many powerful institutional players behind

him: Queens Democratic Party leader Tom Manton betrayed his longtime ally, Mr.

Vallone, to go with him. The state’s most powerful Democrat, Assembly Speaker

Sheldon Silver, has been doing everything possible to wound Mr. Vallone behind

the scenes, thus benefiting Mr. Hevesi. He has many supporters in the Assembly

and in New York’s Congressional delegation. Also in his corner is Ray Harding,

the chairman of the Liberal Party (which would be useful in a possible general

election against Mr. Bloomberg).

Although Abner Louima is

hardly an institutional player, his surprise endorsement of Mr. Hevesi could be

important symbolically-but it remains to be seen if Mr. Louima’s support will

do anything to offset the Comptroller’s lack of traction with black voters.

Still, many of the big endorsements that Mr. Hevesi was

expected to roll out just haven’t materialized. Mr. Rangel is watching and

waiting, and Mr. Hevesi’s most important ally, United Federation of Teachers

president Randi Weingarten, is still noncommittal. These failures are particularly

damaging to Mr. Hevesi, because he had early on adopted an “inevitability”

strategy premised on big-name support. When he stopped looking so inevitable,

the big backers got nervous and took a second look at his rivals.

How would he fare in a runoff against Mr. Green? He might be

the best match-up. Mr. Hevesi, an insider’s insider, would have the easiest

time rallying the establishment against Mr. Green. And Mr. Morris, a pretty

negative guy by any standard, might thrive in the compressed, one-on-one conditions

of a runoff that will inevitably turn nasty.

City Council Speaker

Peter Vallone

The candidacy of Mr. Vallone has proven to be unexpectedly

resilient.

The last time he ran for higher office-his quixotic bid to

unseat Governor George Pataki in 1998-he frustrated some backers with his

relaxed attitude toward campaigning, prompting early prognosticators to expect

much the same for his Mayoral bid. “He won’t be running for Mayor,” predicted

one insider. “He’s going to walk.”

In the early stages of campaign 2001, that sort of pessimism

seemed justified. Mr. Manton endorsed Mr. Vallone’s fellow son of Queens, Mr.

Hevesi. After serving as head of the City Council for a decade, Mr. Vallone

managed only a handful of endorsements from his members.

And Mr. Vallone, who often seems hopelessly parochial, has

also been battling the snobbery of the Manhattan-centric media. In a New York Times profile not long ago, a

senior reporter saw fit to ask him a hard-hitting question about the

authenticity of his hair, an issue that was settled (not in his favor) a long

time ago.

Now Mr. Vallone has picked up the surprise endorsement of

the city’s second-most-powerful union, D.C. 37, and former Mayor Ed Koch is

hawking his candidacy in TV ads, giving the Vallone campaign much-needed

momentum heading into the home stretch. Mr. Koch is arguably the

second-most-important endorsement in the race, because Mr. Vallone is

positioning himself as the heir to the Koch coalition: an amalgam of

conservative outer-borough Catholics, Jewish and elderly voters. (Mr. Hevesi,

who began the campaign as a Giuliani ally, has recently moved to the left on a

number of fronts, complicating his bid for these conservative Democrats.) Mr.

Vallone also has more money left than his rivals for ads, many of which will

continue to feature Mr. Koch.

Mr. Vallone has also

managed to wrest the Giuliani mantle from the Comptroller by hammering home the

notion that he governed with Mr. Giuliani, and that he shares responsibility

for the Giuliani-era reductions in crime and deficits. (At a recent endorsement

press conference, the head of the Lieutenants’ Benevolent Association called

him “the main architect of ‘Safe Cities, Safe Streets.’”)

Mr. Vallone’s biggest asset may prove to be the backing of

D.C. 37. With its massive political operation, the union’s support will more

than outweigh whatever organizational help he might have gotten from Mr.

Manton’s Queens machine.

How would Mr. Vallone fare in a runoff against Mr. Green?

For one thing, he is, geographically and ethnically, a clear alternative to Mr.

Green, a Manhattan liberal Jew. Mr. Vallone, a Catholic centrist who represents

the moderate wing of the party, could stitch together an outer-borough

coalition to challenge Mr. Green’s base of blacks and liberals. And many of the

city’s most powerful interests-the real estate industry, Wall Street, the

cultural institutions-might feel more comfortable with an institutional player

like Mr. Vallone.

Public Advocate Mark

Green

Other than the fact that

Mark Green is highly recognizable-an attribute that his opponents chalk up to

“Green” being an easy name to remember-he is also enjoying a grace period. New

York Democratic primaries are notoriously vicious, yet Mr. Green-the clear

front runner from the very beginning of this contest-hasn’t had so much as a

glove laid on him. It won’t stay that way.

There’s no question that Mr. Green has run a near-flawless

front-runner’s campaign. Former Police Commissioner Bill Bratton’s support for

Mr. Green is, quite simply, the most important endorsement of this election. It

not only protects Mr. Green’s vulnerable left flank, it dovetails with the

Public Advocate’s efforts to present himself as a kind of liberal hard-ass, a

left-wing Rudy. Mr. Bratton’s big task in the coming weeks: to reassure Wall

Street types and conservative Jewish voters that Mr. Green, a former

commissioner under Mr. Dinkins, has very little in common with his former boss.

Mr. Green’s emissaries did a good job in the early

behind-the-scenes battles for union and Democratic Party support, helping

persuade would-be Ferrer supporters like Local 1199 head Dennis Rivera to

remain neutral. The Green campaign has also managed to do what the Hevesi

campaign was supposed to do-that is, roll out a steady stream of diverse endorsements.

He’s got former Mayor David Dinkins, Fernando Mateo, the head of the livery

drivers’ union, and paralyzed hero cop Steven McDonald.

Mr. Green does have one

big problem: himself. His obvious fondness for his own voice and ability to

turn a phrase-his listening skills are notably less impressive-has riled so

many people over the years that there’s a discernible “Anyone But Mark”

coalition within the media and the political establishment. Many members of the

business and real-estate communities remain suspicious of him because he served

under Mr. Dinkins, although he has worked hard to make inroads. Many big unions

are wary of him because he is an outsider candidate and can’t be trusted to

play the game at budget time.

The gravest danger for Mr. Green is that all these powerful

elements will coalesce around whichever opponent makes it into the runoff to

face him.

Bronx Borough President Fernando Ferrer

Fernando Ferrer’s main

advantage is that he’s the only Democratic candidate with an easily definable

ethnic base. He is of Puerto Rican descent, and he has a captive

constituency-New York’s Latino voters as well as those black voters who might

want to support the only non-white candidate in the primary.

In the past-Ferrer for Mayor in 1997, for example-Mr.

Ferrer’s supporters touted him as a “Freddie,” the conservative Catholic who

could endear himself to white ethnic voters as well as his Spanish-speaking

core supporters.

This time, however, Freddie has become Fernando again. Mr.

Ferrer’s notion of a Latino-black coalition has permeated every element of his

campaign strategy, from his early anti-Rudy posturing to his frequent talk

about “that other New York,” the minority-heavy areas that have not shared in

the prosperity of the recent boom years.

Barring some sort of disaster, Mr. Ferrer will dominate his

opponents in the Bronx and among Latinos across the city. His top adviser,

Roberto Ramirez, controls the Bronx organization. He’s got the endorsement of

Comptroller Carl McCall, the state’s highest-ranking black official. The

Harlem-based veteran of political organizing, Bill Lynch, is also working for

Mr. Ferrer.

And he may have one more boost coming: While Reverend Al

Sharpton is still pretending that he might not support Mr. Ferrer, he will

probably come through for Mr. Ferrer in the end.

Yet one of his longtime allies-Mr. Rivera-has quietly made

it known that he won’t back Mr. Ferrer unless he’s certain that he’s got a

chance at winning. Mr. Rivera has yet to be convinced, and Mr. Ferrer’s odds

are long indeed without Mr. Rivera’s 1199 support.

Meanwhile, blacks outside of the Bronx have thus far

indicated to pollsters in substantial numbers that they are just as inclined to

support Mr. Green and, to a lesser extent, Mr. Hevesi and Mr. Vallone.

The single biggest problem with Mr. Ferrer’s strategy, of

course, is that he could very well alienate vast swaths of white New York

voters whose support he will need if he is ever to expand his coalition beyond

its current confines. And a narrow, race-based strategy is likely to doom him

in the runoff, where the winner will be the candidate with the broadest

coalition.

Mr. Ferrer, meanwhile,

seems to be having of trouble emerging from the friendly confines of the Bronx.

On a recent afternoon, he introduced himself to voters by the stairs of the

subway station at 96th Street and Broadway. Some ignored him; a few pledged

their support. One bespectacled and graying Latino man shook Mr. Ferrer’s hand

warmly, smiled and wished him well in Spanish.

Several moments later, the man stepped out of the way and

shook his head.

“This man,” he said ruefully, “this man just ain’t gonna

win.”

-with Alexander

Pasternack, Beth Satkin, Anna Jane Grossman, Joey Cohen and Lauren

Stephens-Davidowitz