Freddy’s Back! Ex-Bronx Chief Ferrer Revs Up

‘I’M WALKING REALLY FAST’

But Giff Miller Is Sprinting, As Is Comptroller Thompson

A day before Fernando Ferrer leaped back into Mayoral politics with a well-publicized fund-raising event, he was kibitzing with old pals inside Casa Amadeo, a landmark music store in the South Bronx. He grew up just a blockaway.

And, as often happens when the former Bronx borough president returns to his old haunts, the meeting quickly turned into a neighborhood reunion-and a chance to speculate about a political comeback.

“Hey, what’s cooking, man?” asked Albert Quiñones, The brother of a childhood friend, as he blew into the store. “Are you on sabbatical now or what?”

“Ah, you know-just hanging around,” said Mr. Ferrer. “Fortunately I’m not in government right now, so I can do all this.”

“Yeah, but that’s only a temporary setback!” Mr. Quiñones teased. “Only a temporary setback, right?”

That remains to be seen.

Two years after losing to Mark Green in a bitter runoff for the Democratic Mayoral nomination, Mr. Ferrer has remained largely on the margins of City Hall life, far from the buzz and hype of the political treadmill. A couple of relative newcomers-City Council Speaker Gifford Miller and City Comptroller William Thompson-dominate speculation about which Democrat will emerge to challenge Mr. Bloomberg in 2005.

That conversation, however, may broaden a bit in the months to come as Mr. Ferrer makes his presence felt, if only unofficially. After forming an exploratory committee in November, Mr. Ferrer surprised insiders by raising $700,000 for his still-undeclared candidacy. Some of that money was collected on Jan. 8, when about 300 friends and supporters gathered in the Manhattan offices of Global Strategy Group and The Mirram Group, political consultants who helped run Mr. Ferrer’s 2001 campaign.

By all accounts, the success of Mr. Ferrer’s initial fund-raising efforts have exceeded expectations. One Democratic consultant had suggested that Mr. Ferrer would be lucky to raise $500,000 before the first filing deadline on Jan. 15. The figures also give new credibility to a recent Quinnipiac University poll that showed Mr. Ferrer beating Mayor Bloomberg by 51 percent to 33 percent. Mr. Miller, the only other potential Democratic candidate mentioned in the poll, beat Mr. Bloomberg by 41 percent to 33 percent.

“[Mr. Ferrer] obviously would make a formidable candidate in a Democratic field,” said Doug Muzzio, a professor of public opinion and policy at Baruch College. “He’s got a sizable demographic and geographic base. I think it’s fair to say he is the presumptive Democratic front-runner at this stage.”

But Mr. Ferrer insists that he hasn’t yet decided to run again. And some Democratic insiders wonder if he already had-and lost-his best shot at capturing City Hall. They note that unlike most of his rivals, he is out of government, which makes it harder to make news. (Mr. Ferrer heads a Manhattan-based think tank called the Drum Major Institute.) Being out of office also could hurt his fund-raising ability. Mr. Miller, for example, already has raised more than $2.5 million, and Mr. Thompson has raised $1.5 million. Above all, political insiders wonder if a Ferrer candidacy will revive bitter memories of the divisive 2001 Democratic primary.

Two years ago, Mr. Ferrer was one of four candidates vying for the Democratic Mayoral nomination-a nomination, it was assumed, that would lead directly to Gracie Mansion. Claiming to speak for the “other New York,” Mr. Ferrer surprised most observers by finishing first in a primary that was delayed two weeks because of 9/11. (The primary was actually underway when the attack took place, and was immediately postponed.) Because Mr. Ferrer didn’t win more than 40 percent of the vote, he was thrown into a runoff with the second-place finisher, Mr. Green. The two men and their allies then engaged in a brutal, racially charged two-week campaign, which Mr. Green won. Mr. Green eventually lost to Mr. Bloomberg in a shocking upset; some of Mr. Green’s allies bitterly accused Mr. Ferrer of not helping their candidate in the general election.

Mr. Ferrer balks at the accusation, pointing out that Mr. Green carried the Bronx in the general election. Nonetheless, old resentments die hard, and at least one political consultant hinted that some Democratic players might not have forgotten the raw emotions of two years ago. They also haven’t forgotten that Mr. Bloomberg met with Mr. Ferrer the morning after Election Day.

Other insiders, however, believe that the Democrats will come together in 2005. After all, they’ve been shut out of the Mayor’s office since 1993. “I think that there’s a feeling among Democratic leaders that they want to get City Hall back, that Republicans will have had it for 12 years and that Bloomberg does seem to ignore them,” said Richard Schrader, Mr. Green’s 2001 campaign manager who was at the center of the Green-Ferrer feud. “There’s a feeling that this time around Democrats really need to stick together and get behind the stronger candidate.” That candidate, he added, could be Mr. Ferrer.

Regardless of how the intra-party squabbling plays out, Mr. Ferrer’s ’01 campaign does raise questions about what his possible ’05 bid might look like. Will he, for example, again run as the champion of what he called the “other New York,” or will he reshape his message to reach a broader base? Will he be able to rebuild a coalition of Latinos and blacks, particularly if a strong African-American contender like Mr. Thompson joins the race?

The biggest question, however, is whether there will be another Ferrer campaign at all.

“Look, I’ve been in public service a long time, and I enjoyed every moment, but I’m enjoying this moment, too,” said Mr. Ferrer. “Have I ruled out a campaign? Of course not. But I like doing what I’m doing.”

A New Theme?

Among other things, what he’s doing now is running the Drum Major Institute. Founded in 1961 by Harry Wachtel, a lawyer and adviser to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the institute was resurrected in 1999 by Martin Luther King III along with Mr. Wachtel’s son, William Wachtel, and the former Congressman and U.N. ambassador Andrew Young. The institute’s name comes from a quotation from King: “If you want to say that I was a drum major, say that I was a drum major for justice, say that I was a drum major for peace, say that I was a drum major for righteousness.” The institute’s Web site is plastered with articles on affordable housing, immigrants’ rights, injustices of the criminal-justice system and similar issues.

But during the last two years, the institute has also begun exploring new themes, which suggest a new direction for Mr. Ferrer. Last September, for example, the Drum Major Institute issued a report on the plight of New York’s middle class. Perhaps not coincidentally, Mr. Ferrer also has been sounding that theme. “I think the middle class is getting pounded by federal, state and some city policies,” he said.

Mr. Ferrer’s focus on the middle class suggests that he will broaden his message should he run again for Mayor. Some observers believe that’s a smart course. “I think Mr. Ferrer’s major challenge will be to craft a campaign message that at least appears to be more inclusionary than the message the last time around,” said Mr. Muzzio. “He’s got to appeal to middle-class, home-owning New Yorkers. He’s got to be able to go to Staten Island, and he’s got to be able to convince them that he not only understands them but, in fact, is one of them.”

But first, Mr. Ferrer has to decide what he’s going to do. He hasn’t announced his intentions, but as he spoke to supporters at his recent fund-raiser, he certainly dropped a few hints.

“We may not be running just yet,” he said, “but right now, you’re helping me walk really fast.”