Fernando Ferrer: Out of Nowhere

Nothing, not even prosaic

municipal politics, is as it was before Sept. 11. In the weeks just before

terrorists struck our city, we were adjusting ourselves to a world in which

Public Advocate Mark Green, the perpetual outsider, would become New York’s 108th

Mayor on Jan. 1. Throughout the spring and summer, Mr. Green built on his

inevitability by adopting the traditional front-runner’s tactics: He praised

the praiseworthy, excoriated the execrable and otherwise

assumed the sit-tight position, awaiting his moment of glory.

Labor

Day came and went without causing Mr. Green a moment’s anxiety as the scheduled

Democratic primary approached. By then it was clear that Mr. Green had left

Alan Hevesi bobbing in his wake, rudderless. The political establishment had

considered Mr. Hevesi the odds-on favorite in the four-candidate field. His

résumé was golden, his financing sound, his consultant legendary. He was

comfortable in the clubhouse and in corporate suites; he was a Queens kid with

a Ph.D. and an enviable Rolodex. As City Comptroller for the last eight years,

he projected gray sobriety, dependable accountancy and centrist politics.

And he went nowhere. The man who was to take him

to the heights of city politics, consultant Hank Morris, wound up breaking his

profession’s First Commandment-thou shalt not overshadow thine candidate-and

got into a loud and boorish argument with, of all things, a Jesuit priest. Mr.

Hevesi quickly faded away, eventually winning a paltry 12 percent of the

primary vote. In his concession speech, he graciously thanked a long list of

supporters and friends. Mr. Morris’ name, curiously, did not come up.

Into

the breach stepped City Council Speaker Peter Vallone, a genial, soft-spoken

man who sometimes made Mr. Hevesi seem as antic as Fiorello La Guardia. Mr.

Vallone enjoyed a couple of days in the sunshine of conventional

wisdom. He would, it was said, finish second to Mr. Green and would garner

enough support to win a place in the runoff, when anything can happen.

The

Vallone boomlet lasted as long as a Dixie cup at a 3-year-old’s birthday. He

eventually would finish just ahead of Mr. Hevesi.

For a moment, it seemed as though nothing would

stop Mr. Green. An outright victory on Primary Day, Sept. 11, seemed likely. If

he won 40 percent or more-

a pretty good feat in a crowded field-there would be no runoff. Mr. Green would

then finish off the Republican candidate and begin redecorating Gracie Mansion.

And

then, out of nowhere, came Bronx Borough President Fernando Ferrer.

His

campaign, when it was acknowledged at all, had been derided as divisive, or

worse. He spoke bluntly of “two New Yorks” and suggested that he would stand

with one against the other-the New York of African-Americans and Latinos

against white New York. For most of the spring and summer, Mr. Ferrer labored

in the shadows, dismissed as a certain loser, stuck forever in fourth place.

Not for

the first time and surely not for the last, the political classes misjudged the dynamics of this intriguing campaign season.

In the days leading to the primary, Mr. Ferrer leaped ahead of Mr. Hevesi and

Mr. Vallone in the polls. Some suggested that he was within a few points of Mr.

Green. Those polls were dismissed as obviously flawed, no doubt taken while Mr.

Green’s supporters were out of the city on vacation.

The atrocity of Sept. 11 postponed the primary,

but did nothing to halt Mr. Ferrer’s momentum. As the city mourned and the

politicians canceled their appearances, the city’s Democratic voters were

preparing to further defy expectations. When the postponed primary took place

on Sept. 25, Fernando Ferrer finished first, with 35

percent of the vote. Mr. Green, the year-long front-runner, had 31 percent.

The

pundits and political professionals were stunned, but once they studied the

results, they concluded that Mr. Ferrer had no chance against Mr. Green

one-on-one. Exit polls confirmed that bit of wisdom, showing that most Hevesi

and Vallone voters would move to Mr. Green’s column in the runoff. But then Mr.

Green handed Mr. Ferrer an issue: He said he’d allow Mayor Rudolph Giuliani to

remain in office an extra three months to permit a longer transition between

administrations. Mr. Ferrer said no.

Suddenly, unbelievably, the campaign was

transformed. Mark Green, who allowed no anti-Giuliani one-liner to go unspoken

during the last eight years, suddenly was seen as an appeaser, a political

weakling. Mr. Ferrer, who had run left this year after running right during a

brief Mayoral fling in 1997, now looked like a man of rock-solid principle, a

man willing to stand up for what he thought was right, a candidate undaunted by

the polls showing tremendous support for Mr. Giuliani.

He

became the front-runner, the favorite. In the days leading to the runoff on

Oct. 11, he exuded confidence and intelligence. Suddenly, he was no longer a

man who threatened to take us back to the days of David Dinkins. Instead, he

was a man who understood the task ahead of the next Mayor, who defied a year’s

worth of expectations, who understands who he is and where he wants to take the

city-the city, not the “two cities”

of pre–Sept. 11 rhetoric.

In

battling his way back from the dismal polls of summer, Mr. Ferrer has shown

political smarts and no inconsiderable amount of guts. These days, such

qualities are in high demand.