It’s Steady Freddy: Ferrer Vows He’ll Defeat Bloomberg

As Fernando Ferrer tells it, he’s the guy who rides the subway-“both ways.”

This distinction came up as Mr. Ferrer recalled his dinner last year with Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who also likes to dwell on the fact that he rides the subway. The setting was the Union Square Cafe, duck was on the menu, and when the meal was over, the Mayor hopped into his black sport-utility vehicle and left the former Bronx borough president on the sidewalk.

“I go, ‘Hey, he could have taken me home,'” Mr. Ferrer recounted dryly over bacon and eggs at a Bronx coffee shop one recent morning. “I got on a subway at 14th Street and schlepped all the way up to Bedford Park Boulevard and took the bus.”

Mr. Ferrer, 54, is a number of other things Michael Bloomberg isn’t. He’s a New Yorker by birth. He’s a homebody. He’s a guy with the time to complain about expensive parking tickets, the CortaSlim diet-pill pitch man and inept Dell Computer technicians. He’s the proud holder of a master’s degree in public administration from Baruch College, which he started in the 1970’s and quietly finished last year.

Mr. Ferrer slipped from the public eye in January of 2002, when he left the office of the Bronx borough president, and his return to politics is being watched with interest. But if you’re expecting a New Freddy, he’s sorry to disappoint. From the stubborn mustache to the unreadable, eclectic mind-CortaSlim to Camus in 60 seconds-Mr. Ferrer is returning as himself, only more so.

“I shave the same guy in the mirror every morning. Same guy walks the dog in the morning and late at night. Same guy swipes his MetroCard. Same guy,” he said, before heading out into a rainy Bronx day with a heavy laptop riding uncomfortably over one shoulder.

Mr. Ferrer has been cast as everything from a civil-rights titan to a Reagan Democrat, but it’s his everyman quality, and his regular-guy-from-the-Bronx concerns, that are among his most attractive political traits. He appears rarely at political events these days; at one recent gathering of Latino lawyers in Queens, he spent as much time browsing the food table and chatting with a reporter over vodka as he did glad-handing supporters. When a subway conductor announces, “The next Mayor of the City of New York is riding this train,” Mr. Ferrer blushes.

But ever since he launched his first campaign for Mayor in 1997, Mr. Ferrer has been the subject-some would say the victim-of tortuous public transformations. He’s been polled, managed and examined in the press almost to the point of political death. People who know him well say that Mr. Ferrer, the man, seems to have changed little over the years. But Mr. Ferrer, the politician, has never seemed to find a comfortable spot in the city’s political spectrum. After two failed runs for Mayor, this is almost certainly his last shot.

The first Freddy Ferrer makeover happened in 1997, during his first campaign for Mayor-his first real campaign, in fact, for any major office. He’d been part of Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition of blacks, Hispanics and liberal whites; “he thought that when he ran in 1997, he would inherit that,” recalled his 1997 campaign manager, Gerald Austin, in a telephone interview.

But his campaign strategy cast him to the right of Manhattan Borough President Ruth Messinger on issues ranging from the death penalty-he was for it-to abortion. “Every time a mother hiccups, that’s no reason to abort a child,” he said at the time; later, he gave his unconditional backing to Roe v. Wade.

The public uncertainty over Mr. Ferrer’s identity extends to his name. His pollsters routinely split their samples, with half the questions asking about “Fernando Ferrer” and the other half “Freddy Ferrer.”

Mr. Ferrer’s second big push came in 2001. The candidate himself stuck to the race-neutral language of economic disparity, but in the public eye he was often overshadowed by the Reverend Al Sharpton, whose explicitly racial politics became a central campaign issue. The tension exploded in the last days of the primary, after aides to Public Advocate Mark Green circulated in white areas of Brooklyn copies of a cartoon that pictured Mr. Ferrer kissing the rear end of a grotesquely swollen Mr. Sharpton.

Many of Mr. Ferrer’s allies blamed Mr. Green; others blamed Mr. Sharpton.

“If it wasn’t for Al Sharpton, Freddy would be Mayor,” said John Catsimatidis, the Red Apple Supermarket magnate and longtime Ferrer backer.

The contest was a classic Democratic Party train wreck, and there’s some reason to believe that it won’t repeat itself. Mr. Ferrer left public life for a $150,000-a-year job leading a fledgling liberal think tank, the Drum Major Institute, whose focus has been unambiguously on the struggles of the “middle class”-in place of Mr. Ferrer’s 2001 campaign talk about “the other New York,” which the candidate said was about class, though others saw it as a racial slogan.

“It never came from me; that was from all kinds of reporters,” Mr. Ferrer said of the talk in 2001 of a black-Latino coalition. “Look, I want to win. You need a little of this, a little of that.”

The first test of whether the ghosts of 2001 will return this year emerged last week, when Mr. Bloomberg and his spokesman noted that an old Ferrer ally, Lorraine Cortes-Vazquez, had taken a job with Cablevision, the Mayor’s archrival on the question of a West Side Stadium. Bronx Assemblyman Ruben Diaz Jr. promptly upped the ante, accusing the Mayor of picking on a Hispanic woman unfairly and calling it part of a pattern that began when the Mayor removed two Hispanic women from his Panel for Educational Policy.

“The Mayor has a history of belittling Latina women,” Mr. Diaz told The Observer.

In an interview with The Observer, Mr. Ferrer said he disagreed with Mr. Diaz’s contention and condemned his comment.

“I completely disassociate myself from it. I disagree with it. It has no place in a campaign,” he said. “I never mentioned anything about race or ethnicity, and that had nothing to do with this.”

Mr. Ferrer also said he hadn’t spoken to Mr. Diaz before the Assemblyman went public, or chided him afterward.

The Bronx Machine

Mr. Ferrer has never been one to ride herd on his supporters. He’s a product of machine politics, but he was never a boss. Instead, he was plucked from a City Council seat in 1987 by the largely Jewish leaders of the Bronx County Committee to replace Stanley Simon, who was about to be indicted in a bribery scheme. The man who rebuilt the Bronx machine in the 1990’s, the dapper Roberto Ramirez, has long been one of Mr. Ferrer’s close advisors.

Mr. Ferrer’s embrace in 2001 of Mr. Sharpton seemed more an exception to his usual form than a culmination of it. Machine politics in New York is, among other things, a great melting pot, and Mr. Ferrer has always been entirely comfortable in a multi-ethnic New York. It’s something that began in his childhood on Fox Street, where he likes to say that he could sample all the world’s cuisines in the homes of his friends in the South Bronx. His longest-serving aide is an Orthodox Jew, Kalman Yeger, about whom Mr. Ferrer likes to joke that he works “24/6.” His nascent campaign teams range from Mr. Ramirez to his hip new communications director, Jen Bluestein.

What’s more, Mr. Ferrer has some prominent new backers whose very presence seems to dispel any suggestion that he doesn’t represent the mainstream of the Democratic Party: New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer and former cable executive Leo Hindery, currently a candidate for the chairmanship of the Democratic National Committee.

“Freddy has given voice to an important message about the middle class, and what can be done to maintain the middle class,” Mr. Spitzer said.

Mr. Hindery, who is Mr. Ferrer’s chief fund-raiser, said that the former Bronx borough president is the candidate “who can most ably be Mayor for all five boroughs, as opposed to a concentrated mass in Manhattan. I just don’t have the sense that Mayor Bloomberg has that sense of our city.”

That contrast will be the crux of Mr. Ferrer’s campaign: his closeness to ordinary New Yorkers, as opposed to Mr. Bloomberg’s distance. The question will be whether voters can be convinced that this is a matter of substance, not style.

In 1997 and 2001, Mr. Ferrer ran in a city dominated by Rudy Giuliani, and he remains a critic of Mr. Giuliani’s popular welfare and policing policies: Both welfare-to-work and tough policing, he says, could have been done without leaving a city angrily divided. These days, the climate is less charged, and Mr. Ferrer argues that Mr. Bloomberg’s housing and homelessness initiatives suffer from a central failure to understand the gap between what people earn and what housing costs-a gap the Mayor should’ve been trying to meet, he argues, by agitating for a higher minimum wage in Albany and for more housing vouchers from Washington. He argues that school reforms were crippled by corporate managers who ignore teachers, missing everything from the need for a program for disruptive students to the inflated costs of even some of their early, modest successes.

“Welcome to the Pentagon,” Mr. Ferrer says of the multimillion-dollar cost of summer-school programs to help third graders advance to fourth grade.

Mr. Ferrer has also proudly mastered Google and the Internet, and has another modest proposal: switch the city to free, open-source software like Linux.

“You know how much these [software] packages cost?” he asked, referring to the city’s own computer systems. “It’s like the Bloomberg screens.”

Mr. Ferrer likes to take reporters to the corner of the South Bronx where he grew up, his Catholic-school education paid for by a single mother and grandmother. When he was a child, the neighborhood was poor but functional. In the 1970’s, it burned to the ground. Now, as he walks a reporter down the quiet street, shifting his laptop from one shoulder to another, there are neat multi-family brick houses with satellite dishes. He steered the power of the borough presidency toward creating housing like this, and 66,000 units in all were built in the Bronx during his tenure. His proudest project since leaving office seems to be working on the rescue of a troubled Bronx housing nonprofit, Banana Kelly.

Mr. Ferrer now lives in prosperous Riverdale, but he’s chosen his childhood neighborhood for a reporter’s tour.

“I take the subway out there, I walk along Longwood Avenue and check the construction, and you close your eyes and it’s the same street I grew up on,” he said.

Mr. Ferrer is testier when the subject of the interview is himself. He hates it when reporters presume. A New York Times article on Thanksgiving Day described his voice as “infused with rage,” and a few days later he was still steaming.

“You know, if you want to try to turn me into a cartoon character, O.K.,” he said. “Just don’t call it news.”

So the start has been a little rocky, but it’s early yet. The polls seem to show that, were the election held tomorrow, Mr. Ferrer would win. He’s laying back as his rivals for the Democratic nomination, City Council Speaker Gifford Miller and Representative Anthony Weiner, clamor for attention. The question remains, though, whether he can effectively communicate his ordinary-guy’s-eye view of the city, or whether it will again be lost in the drone of politics. And for those still seeking to understand the man himself, Mr. Ferrer offers a final, characteristically cryptic clue.

“You familiar with Camus?” he asks in the Bronx coffee shop. “Then you’ll get me.”