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
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.
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
The candidacy of Mr. Vallone has proven to be unexpectedly
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
Pasternack, Beth Satkin, Anna Jane Grossman, Joey Cohen and Lauren