It’s hard to tell exactly what Fernando Ferrer and his prominent supporters think they’re doing right now. Assuming that the final vote counts in the Democratic primary runoff eventually show that Mark Green won, the post-primary media crusade that the Ferrer camp is mounting against him right now can only depress Democratic turnout in November and perhaps elect a Republican Mayor. Much worse, it could exacerbate racial and ethnic tension.
This is a very curious activity for activists and officeholders who profess to be progressive Democrats. Among them are several Democratic members of Congress, most notably Charles Rangel of Harlem; the chairman of the Democratic organization in the Bronx, Roberto Ramirez; former Deputy Mayor Bill Lynch, who holds the rank of vice chairman on the Democratic National Committee; and Dennis Rivera, the president of the hospital-workers’ union, Local 1199.
They’re angry about the negative tactics used by the Green campaign in the final hours before the runoff on Oct. 11. They point not only to a Green television commercial whose tagline-”Can we afford to take a chance?”-struck them as an appeal to white fear, but to anonymous telephone calls and fliers that warned about the Reverend Al Sharpton’s influence over Mr. Ferrer.
Conversations with several of the furious Ferrer backers suggest that their anger is genuine, however exaggerated and tinged by previous personal animosities toward Mr. Green. They have produced no proof whatsoever that the Green campaign was responsible for those racially charged fliers and phone calls, which he has disowned and denounced. And their complaint about the TV ad sounds pretty silly, since that sort of tagline is a cliché of negative political advertising, used by all kinds of candidates against one another regardless of race, creed or color.
As this dispute grows nastier, there are several facts that voters of all ethnic groups should remember.
The Ferrer campaign depended heavily on Mr. Sharpton-a lifelong, enthusiastic and unapologetic exploiter of racial tensions-to mobilize its vote. The Ferrer campaign launched the first negative assault during the runoff, when its candidate stood chortling alongside Ed Koch while the former Mayor brayed so loudly about the “obnoxious” personality of Mr. Green-a theme Ferrer supporters continued to emphasize. The Ferrer campaign attempted to smear William Bratton as an enemy of minority communities, even though Mr. Ferrer had eagerly praised the former police commissioner years earlier, when that seemed more opportune.
Embittered critics of Mr. Green now portray the Ferrer candidacy as a historic bid for Latino empowerment, and grumble that his defeat represents a betrayal by the Democratic Party of loyal constituencies long awaiting their turn in City Hall. There is a false note in this woeful song, however. If the Ferrer campaign represented a crusade for political equity, then why did Mr. Rivera, for example, dawdle so long before endorsing him at the last minute? Why did Mr. Rivera’s union almost choose Mr. Green instead, just after Labor Day? Why did Mr. Sharpton flirt so ostentatiously with a Green endorsement?
Presumably they were just playing the games that power brokers play, hedging and bargaining in the traditional style that often lurks behind progressive rhetoric. Both Mr. Rivera and Mr. Sharpton have found reasons to cozy up to Republican candidates in years past when that best served their institutional interests.
Just four years ago, Mr. Rivera unceremoniously dumped the Democratic challenger to Rudolph Giuliani, despite all of the Mayor’s many offenses to minority voters and union workers, and stood beside him for a smiling photo op just before Election Day. In 1986, Mr. Sharpton essentially sold his support to Senator Alfonse D’Amato, in exchange for a $550,000 federal grant to a drug-rehab center run by a Sharpton ally. (That episode became one of many counts in Mr. Green’s ethics complaint against the former Senator.) Indeed, Mr. Sharpton regularly threatens to bolt to the Republicans, whenever he isn’t seeking a Democratic nomination for himself.
Power brokers like winners, and cynics might think that Mr. Sharpton and Mr. Rivera were initially attracted to Mr. Green because he appeared so likely to win the Democratic nomination all year. Yet there was another factor that permitted the Public Advocate to come as close as he did to winning the support of the hospital workers and even the Sharpton faction.
Before their memories were clouded by the pain of defeat last week, people like Mr. Sharpton and Mr. Rivera surely recalled that Mr. Green was among the few white politicians in New York who was unafraid to stand by David Dinkins during the worst days of his Mayoralty.
Both Mr. Green and his angry critics face an important test. He has to set aside his pride to reassure them that he really seeks to unify the city across racial lines, regardless of past conflicts. And they must abandon the impulse for retribution at a moment when New Yorkers need unity more than ever.
Follow Joe Conason via RSS.