Candidate Ferrer Gained Big Ground By Denying Mayor

“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

attack.

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

endorsed him.

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

loathe-Al Sharpton.

“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

supporters.

“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

term.

“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.

Ferrer’s Calculations

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

the heart.”