“I got a call a few days ago … from the Mayor .”
Fernando Ferrer, the man who won the most votes in the Sept. 25
Democratic Mayoral primary, swept his gaze across the all-black congregation
that had gathered in the Wayside Baptist Church on the afternoon of Sunday,
Sept. 30. He arched his eyebrows in an expression of mock suspense.
“It was actually the Mayor’s staff
person; the Mayor wanted to see me about a proposal he wanted to make. It
was pretty obvious it had something
to do with term limits.”
There was a smattering of laughter. Everybody in the audience
knew that, several days before, Mr. Ferrer had rejected Mayor Rudolph
Giuliani’s proposal to extend his term by three months in order to ease a
transition between administrations in the wake of the World Trade Center
Mr. Ferrer started mimicking the Mayor’s comments in their
private meeting: “I know something you don’t know … there needs to be a
transition … and I need to stay on 90 more days … “
Mr. Ferrer paused, a little too dramatically, like a bad actor. He rolled his eyes, then said sarcastically: ” Oooooo-kaaaaaay … “
His voice began to rise.
“I promised him a respectful and thoughtful hearing. I said, ‘ Thank you.’” Guffaws from the audience.
“He said, ‘Well, what are you gonna do?’” Louder guffaws. “I said, ‘I’ll get back to you, Mr. Mayor …. ‘”
Confounding the expectations of all the pundits, Mr. Ferrer has
gone from being a parochial Bronx pol to a candidate with a good shot at
winning City Hall. By standing up to Mr. Giuliani’s term-extension proposal, he
has given his candidacy a central cause. He has grabbed the moral high ground
that Public Advocate Mark Green, his opponent in the Oct. 11 runoff, ceded when
he agreed to support the Mayor’s proposal. He suddenly seems to have a shot at
winning over some of the older blacks and white liberals who once seemed firmly
in Mr. Green’s camp.
But Mr. Ferrer’s strategy is risky, because it has locked him
into an anti-Rudy posture that is almost certain to complicate his efforts to
win over white voters. And while his “two cities” message got him into the
runoff, it only won him a scant 7 percent of the white vote-far short of what
he needs to beat Mr. Green in the two-man showdown on Oct. 11.
Dennis Rivera, president of Local 1199 of the hospital-workers’
union and one of Mr. Ferrer’s most important supporters, told The Observer that his candidate “needs,
at a minimum, 20 percent of the white vote” to beat Mr. Green. “He is going
into the runoff with an incredible base. With 20 percent of the white
community-he wants to do a lot better there, and we all want him to do
better-he could win this thing.”
One-third of the voters in the Democratic primary voted for Mr.
Hevesi and Mr. Vallone. They are almost all white, moderate and pro-Giuliani.
And they are all up for grabs. While many pundits confidently predicted that
Mr. Ferrer would ditch his anti-Rudy stance and tack to the center in the
runoff, circumstances have offered him the chance to do the opposite-in
dramatic fashion. The big risk for Mr. Ferrer is that his confrontation with
Mr. Giuliani-as well as his “two cities” theme and the specter of one of his
top supporters, the Reverend Al Sharpton, having access to City Hall-could
drive these outer-borough Giuliani Democrats to the polls for Mr. Green.
But Mr. Ferrer is not without
protection on his right flank. During the primary campaign, he received a lift
from former U.S. Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who taped an effective
commercial for the Bronx borough president. And his credibility among white,
conservative Democrats was bolstered on Oct. 2, when former Mayor Ed Koch
Still, some of Mr. Ferrer’s top supporters seem aware that Mr.
Ferrer is pursuing a risky strategy. “Essentially, what Fernando Ferrer needs
to do is make sure that his campaign is an inclusive one-the gorgeous mosaic of
David Dinkins, the Rainbow Coalition of Jesse Jackson,” Mr. Rivera said.
The question is whether Mr. Ferrer will turn out to be the David
Dinkins of 1989, or the Herman Badillo of 1973. Mr. Dinkins defeated Mr. Koch
in the 1989 Democratic primary by forging a coalition of blacks, unions and
white liberals who wanted to make history by electing the first black Mayor. By
contrast, Mr. Badillo-the last Latino to mount a serious quest for the
Mayoralty-was crushed by Abe Beame, who enjoyed a huge white turnout to become
the city’s first Jewish Mayor, in a racially charged runoff in 1973.
The city, of course, has
dramatically changed since the Beame-Badillo contest. In 1973, rising crime
rates and budget worries dominated the campaign, and frightened white
middle-class voters turned out for Beame, a moderate clubhouse politician from
Brooklyn, in great numbers. This time, white turnout is a wild card-the looming
variable that will decide this close, hard-fought contest.
Moderate whites didn’t turn out on Primary Day. Their lack of
enthusiasm may have stemmed from confusion over whether Mr. Giuliani would be
running for a third term-and their failure to show up was a key reason why Mr.
Ferrer finished ahead of Mr. Green, who had been leading in the polls for more
than a year. But the dynamic is almost certain to shift dramatically in a
straight head-to-head contest. Mr. Green’s supporters are counting on a far
higher turnout among outer-borough white voters-conservative Catholics and
Orthodox Jews-who may come out in greater numbers when they realize that Mr.
Giuliani won’t be running for a third term. Mr. Green has won the support of
the Queens and Brooklyn Democratic machines, and has the backing of more than
two dozen local pols from those two boroughs. And Mr. Green’s supporters hope
to remind them that one of Mr. Ferrer’s top supporters is someone they
“Outer-borough Jews and Catholics were not high performers in the
Sept. 11 primary,” said one Green supporter. “But this time, they’ll understand
that Rudy won’t be there to save them. And there will be a concerted effort to
remind them about Sharpton.”
Mr. Sharpton, characteristically, has been offering no shortage
of assistance in that regard. He has already forced Mr. Ferrer to distance
himself from comments that Mr. Sharpton made about Mr. Giuliani, in which he
said that Bozo would have been as popular as Mr. Giuliani if he’d been Mayor
during this crisis. The episode caused some concern among Mr. Ferrer’s
“Reverend Sharpton is a very eloquent speaker, and I hope and I
pray that he can project the best possible image, not only for the rest of the
campaign but for the future,” Mr. Rivera said.
Mr. Sharpton is hardly laying low, however. In an interview with The Observer , he asserted that Mr. Green
had badly damaged himself by agreeing to Mr. Giuliani’s proposal to extend his
“Major supporters of Mark, including The New York Times , are adamant against it,” Mr. Sharpton said. “I
know that I’ve been around the city, and a lot of people said to me, ‘I was
with Green, but I think I’m gonna vote for Freddie.’ I think that this will
hurt Green, I really do …. I wouldn’t have thought Mark would do this thing.”
There are already signs that Mr. Sharpton’s high-profile support
for Mr. Ferrer is causing consternation among Orthodox Jews, who remember the
reverend’s connections to Louis Farrakhan and his associates. According to
Rabbi David Niederman, the head of the United Jewish Organizations of
Williamsburg, a dozen top Brooklyn rabbis will be meeting within days, during
Sukkot, to consider their endorsement. Some rabbis in Williamsburg are nervous
about a Ferrer Mayoralty, and not just because of Mr. Sharpton. Mr. Ferrer’s
campaign manager, Bronx Democratic county boss Roberto Ramirez, enraged many
Jews by running a Sharpton protégé, Larry Seabrook, against Eliot Engel, a
popular Jewish incumbent Congressman. (It’s unheard of for a county boss to try
to undermine a sitting Congressman from the same party.)
“[Orthodox Jews] will be reminded about Ramirez trying to knock
off Engel,” a Green supporter vowed.
Meanwhile, full-page ads in Der Blatt , a Yiddish-language weekly,
recently assailed Mr. Ferrer for being surrounded by extremists.
If it seems somewhat
counterintuitive for the Ferrer forces to try to demonize a man whose approval
ratings have soared above 90 percent in the aftermath of the attack, Mr.
Ferrer’s advisors have clearly calculated that they are unlikely to draw
support from the Jewish and Catholic Rudy-lovers in the outer boroughs, no
matter what. They also believe that white liberals who were impressed by Mr.
Giuliani’s performance in the days following the Sept. 11 attack now resent the
Mayor’s attempt to overturn election law to get a third term or an extension of
his current term.
“Ferrer is appealing to white voters who don’t like Giuliani, who
think the term extension idea is nothing but a naked power grab, and who are
offended by Green’s decision to go along with it,” said Democratic political
consultant Evan Stavisky.
What’s more, in a runoff with no real road map, it’s uncertain
which constituencies will turn out to vote-a second time. Mr. Ferrer has to
ensure that his core supporters are excited enough about his candidacy to show
up for yet another election, one that traditionally attracts only the most
dedicated of voters. If they do, and if outer-borough whites repeat the poor
showing of Primary Day, Mr. Ferrer probably will win.
Even as Mr. Giuliani’s bid to
stay in office seems to be foundering, Mr. Ferrer continues to ride the issue.
As a result, Mr. Green, a relentless and sometimes effective critic of Mr.
Giuliani, finds himself in the unimaginable position of having to prove his
anti-Rudy bona fides.
He has been going out of his way to temper his praise of Mr.
Giuliani’s post-disaster performance. At a recent press conference, during
which he echoed earlier remarks that he would have done “as well or better than
Rudy Giuliani” at managing the city through the current crisis, he speculated
on a possible role in New York for Mr. Giuliani after his term expires: “My
guess is that he’d be the best at managing the Yankees. That’s what I think
he’d like to do anyway.”
Meanwhile, Mr. Ferrer is
sticking to his game plan. At a recent event in a Washington Heights catering
hall, he mounted a small stage overlooking a dance floor. Grasping a
microphone, and speaking over the sounds of merengue music, Mr. Ferrer thanked “los soldados de alto Manhattan “-the
soldiers of upper Manhattan-for helping him win the most votes on Primary Day.
Buttonholed by a reporter who
asked about his ongoing fight with Mr. Giuliani, Mr. Ferrer said, in a
deliberate tone: “I’m not looking for this. But when you have to take a stand
on something, you can’t put your finger up to the wind. You take a stand from