Call off the race war! Maybe, just maybe, New York Democrats won’t tear each other to shreds in next year’s Mayoral primary.
If the party skips this quadrennial ritual, give some of the credit to a breakfast meeting that took place on May 6 in the Sky Club atop the MetLife building. There Fernando Ferrer, the leading contender for the 2005 Democratic Mayoral nomination, and Mark Green, who lost the 2001 Mayoral election to Republican Michael Bloomberg, closed the books on their racially charged primary battle three years ago.
The détente “is vital for Freddy, it’s vital for Mark, and it’s vital to the party,” said Brian O’Dwyer, a Democratic lawyer who brokered the truce and invited the two onetime rivals to breakfast. Mr. O’Dwyer’s white-maned father Paul was City Council president from 1974 to 1977, his uncle William was Mayor from 1946 to 1950, and he takes a proprietary interest in the Democratic Party’s internal politics. “The perception that there was bad blood between them-it certainly was not helpful to the town,” he said. Mr. Green defeated Mr. Ferrer in the bitterly contested 2001 Democratic Mayoral primary, which was decided in a runoff.
Mr. Ferrer and Mr. Green may never be friends, but it has become increasingly clear that the two men need each other. Mr. Ferrer, running ahead in early polls for the Mayoral nomination, must soothe Mr. Green’s base of Manhattan reformers and answer lingering charges that his campaign was divisive. Mr. Green, who is considering a run for state attorney general in 2006, must deal with racially tinged criticisms of his primary campaign against Mr. Ferrer. And the eventual Democratic Mayoral nominee will need the support of each man’s advisers, retainers and supporters, who remain divided and embittered over the 2001 campaign.
Now, people close to both men are holding out the possibility that Mr. Green could endorse Mr. Ferrer next year. Democrats said they saw the meeting as a step in the right direction.
“It would mean that a great schism in city politics is coming to a conclusion,” said Hank Sheinkopf, a consultant who worked for Mr. Green in 2001. One person close to Mr. Ferrer called the breakfast “a very, very important step and a big sign that they are putting their perceived grievances behind them.” The meeting, the person said, “is a prelude for 2005. Freddy and Mark represented, unfortunately, a vision of disunity among Democrats.”
But Republicans continue to anticipate a victory over the wounded survivor of a 2005 Democratic primary.
“The Democrats in this city have a long and proud tradition of attacking each other and trashing each other until the winner is a bloody stump,” said Michael McKeon, a Republican strategist. “There doesn’t seem to be any question that another battle royale is looming.”
Based on past performance, that’s not a bad prediction. The 2001 contest was a particular classic of self-destruction, a stew of accusations stirred by the Reverend Al Sharpton. Democratic leaders headed into the Oct. 11 runoff behind two men with long histories as racial moderates, and who emerged as two symbols of racial division. Mr. Ferrer, with a Catholic-school education and a slightly neurotic Jewish sense of humor, had close ties to communities like the Irish, represented by Mr. O’Dwyer, a longtime ally. Mr. Green, a down-the-line liberal, had good relations with African-American leaders and voters.
But their records on race didn’t prevent the runoff from ending in division: Mr. Ferrer’s supporters, led by the Reverend Sharpton, accused Mr. Green of racist tactics after his campaign apparently distributed flyers in white Brooklyn featuring a copy of a New York Post cartoon that depicted Mr. Ferrer kissing the reverend’s hind quarters. Mr. Green’s partisans continue to see Mr. Ferrer’s campaign as divisive, arguing that his appeal to the “other New York” was implicitly based on ethnicity, although Mr. Ferrer has always denied that.
After Mr. Green went on to lose to Mr. Bloomberg in the general election, Mr. Ferrer and Mr. Green have remained linked in the minds of many voters-an odd, unwilling couple. Each left public life to run private think tanks; Mr. Ferrer’s is the Drum Major Institute, Mr. Green’s is the New Democracy Project. Both seem a bit pained when asked about the 2001 campaign, which-whatever the candidates’ motives-left the party badly divided.
Exit polls conducted after the runoff by Edison Media Research bore out the picture of a polarized electorate. Mr. Ferrer received 84 percent of the vote among Hispanics and 71 percent among black voters, but Mr. Green squeaked ahead with the support of 84 percent of the city’s white voters.
And while charges of personal bias ring false to those who know either man, the divisions linger, at least among the city’s political class.
“A perception has been developed that Freddy has moved from [being] a racial moderate … to even being a racial arsonist,” said Bill Lynch, an adviser to Mr. Ferrer. “That’s bullshit.”
Mr. Ferrer himself seemed pained even addressing the question.
“My entire career in public life, I never was that way,” he said. “I’ve never done that-just not ever. I don’t think I have anything legitimate to put behind myself.”
Over eggs and pancakes, he and Mr. Green discussed the rawest of the wounds, the controversial flyers, whose financing remains the subject of an endless investigation by the Brooklyn district attorney.
Mr. Green told The Observer that he was “sickened” by the campaign tactic; at the breakfast, Mr. Ferrer said he didn’t hold Mr. Green personally responsible for it.
“There’s obviously, on my part, a readiness a long time ago to move on with all of our lives, and that’s what I told Mark,” he said. “The upshot of this is that we’re two progressives and we ought to be working together.”
Getting past race has never been easy for New York Democrats. A year after the 2001 Mayoral contest, tensions surfaced when a candidate for Governor, Andrew Cuomo, was caught on tape alleging that his opponent, Carl McCall, was the beneficiary of a “racial contract.” And next year’s primary seems likely to involve a diverse field of candidates. But post-Giuliani New York is a less polarized place. Mr. Sharpton has consigned himself to the entertaining fringes of the Mayoral contest by endorsing a black nationalist City Council member, Charles Barron, whose blunt promises to win with virtually no white votes should make his rivals look like full-time racial healers.
These days, Mr. Ferrer has been seeking the center, taking on the pocketbook issues of middle-class homeowners, like high water rates, and even addressing a monthly meeting of influential conservatives. Early polls show him with more support among white voters than other, lesser-known Democrats. The test will be whether he can assemble a coalition just a hair broader than the one that nearly beat Mr. Green last time around. For his allies, that will be a simple matter of setting the record straight.
“Both of them are being portrayed unfairly-Mark is not a racist, and Freddy is not divisive. It’s as simple as that,” Mr. O’Dwyer said.
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