New York State Attorney General Eliot Spitzer is set to put his national reputation to work on the city’s political scene by endorsing Fernando Ferrer for Mayor of New York, aides to both politicians told The Observer.
Mr. Spitzer’s public announcement of his support for Mr. Ferrer is planned for this spring, though no date has been set. But whatever the day, time and place, the Attorney General’s embrace of the former Bronx Borough President will likely be the single most important endorsement of the Mayor’s race and a centerpiece of Mr. Ferrer’s campaign. The move will put one of the most popular Democrats in the nation behind Mr. Ferrer, who already holds a solid lead in early polls over his three rivals for the Democratic nomination.
The Attorney General’s decision is unusual for an official of his stature. While Mr. Ferrer and City Council Speaker Gifford Miller have already begun to announce a steady stream of mini-endorsements from local politicians, neither of New York’s Senators is expected to play favorites in the Sept. 13 Democratic primary, and no other national figures have shown any inclination to get involved in the race. Even the Reverend Al Sharpton is standing on the sidelines, at least for the moment. Mr. Spitzer’s status as an icon of reform could prove particularly helpful to Mr. Ferrer, who has long battled the perception that he’s been tarnished by the years spent rising through the ranks of the Bronx Democratic machine.
Though Mr. Spitzer’s open endorsement may come as a surprise, he has long been a quiet supporter of Mr. Ferrer. Mr. Spitzer spoke at two fund-raisers for the Bronx Democrat last year. And last fall, an Observer reporter working on a profile of Mr. Ferrer received a call from Mr. Spitzer’s Columbia County weekend home.
“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 at the time.
This week Mr. Spitzer, through a spokeswoman, declined to comment on his plans for an endorsement.
But aides to Mr. Spitzer and Mr. Ferrer said the endorsement was agreed on before the Democratic National Convention, at a meeting between the Attorney General and the Bronx politician, then the president of a small Manhattan think tank, the Drum Major Institute. And their political relationship goes back well before that. For one thing, they share pollsters and advisors, and Mr. Spitzer’s campaign office rents space in the Broadway office of the Global Strategy Group, where Mr. Ferrer has spent many recent days making fund-raising calls and plotting strategy.
Mr. Spitzer’s political relationship with Mr. Ferrer goes back to the Attorney General’s last campaign. While Mr. Spitzer made no endorsement in the 2001 Democratic primary, Mr. Ferrer’s endorsement was the centerpiece of Mr. Spitzer’s (nominal) re-election campaign against Judge Dora Irizarry in 2002. Mr. Ferrer also starred in the Spanish-language commercials that comprised much of Mr. Spitzer’s downstate campaign.
But while Mr. Ferrer could be helpful to Mr. Spitzer in 2006-particularly if he speaks as Mayor Ferrer-the impact of Mr. Spitzer’s move this year is hard to exaggerate. To date, both Mr. Ferrer and Mr. Miller have followed the political textbook by announcing early endorsements that run counter to their stereotypes. Mr. Miller opened his official candidacy surrounded by black Brooklyn Democrats on the steps of Brooklyn’s Borough Hall, and Mr. Ferrer came out with early backing from a white Brooklyn politician, Carl Kruger, who was deeply involved in the campaign against him four years ago.
Mr. Spitzer’s fame is of a different order of magnitude, but his Jewish origins, his Manhattan base and his out-of-nowhere political career nicely complement the biography of Mr. Ferrer, a Puerto Rican favorite son who has spent his whole life in the Bronx and his whole career working in Democratic politics.
“At this stage of the race, [the endorsement] gives Ferrer a tremendous amount of gravitas going into the primary season,” said Scott Levenson, a Democratic political consultant. Mr. Spitzer, he added, “is man who appeals to many of the demographics that the Borough President wants to be able to appeal to in order to broaden his base, particularly The New York Times’ readers.”
In the 2001 run-off, Mr. Ferrer-driven by intense Hispanic support and backed by a firm majority of African-American voters-picked up less than 20 percent of the white vote, according to exit polls, making him the narrow loser to Mark Green. Mr. Ferrer’s advisors are hoping that Mr. Spitzer’s stamp of approval will tip that balance in their candidate’s direction far enough to make him the Democratic nominee and then Mayor.
None of Mr. Ferrer’s rivals, meanwhile, appear to have comparably big guns in waiting, in part because early endorsements seem to carry more risks than rewards for many high-ranking politicians.
“It’s her policy not to endorse in a primary,” said Howard Wolfson, a spokesman for Senator Hillary Clinton.
Senator Charles Schumer, meanwhile, is the former boss and political mentor of one of Mr. Ferrer’s prospective opponents in the Democratic primary, Congressman Anthony Weiner; but Anson Kaye, a spokesman for Mr. Weiner, said that the Congressman hadn’t even sought Mr. Schumer’s endorsement thus far.
“I’ll support the Democrat,” Mr. Schumer told The Observer, referring to the general-election contest against Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
City Council Speaker Gifford Miller’s marquee national ally is Howard Dean, who recently became chairman of the Democratic National Committee, which prevents him from taking sides in the primary. Mr. Miller, mocked in these pages and elsewhere for his trek to New Hampshire to campaign for a rapidly fading Dr. Dean in the Presidential race, could still stand to benefit from his loyalty.
“Anytime the chairman of the national Democratic Party knows you and is saying positive things about your campaign, it’s a good thing,” said Brian Hardwick, Mr. Miller’s campaign manager, who noted that the Speaker has worked to cultivate Dr. Dean’s local supporters. “It’s clear that Gifford and Governor Dean have a longstanding close friendship and relationship that goes back to Gifford’s support of the Governor, and the work he went up and did in New Hampshire.”
C. Virginia Fields, the Manhattan Borough President, is the candidate most closely associated with Senator John Kerry, last year’s Democratic Presidential nominee. An advisor to Mrs. Fields said that the Senator hadn’t been approached about this year’s Mayor’s race.
That leaves Mr. Spitzer as the most important Democrat likely to get directly involved in the Mayoral primary. And it raises the question: What’s in it for Eliot?
Aides to both men cite a personal relationship and personal respect as the factors underlying Mr. Spitzer’s decision, as well as the simple fact that he made a promise early and intends to keep it. But his quiet, assiduous courting of Hispanic power brokers has also been a little-noticed feature of Mr. Spitzer’s meticulous preparations for the 2006 contest.
Hispanic voters, increasing in numbers and political independence, have become a crucial swing vote in New York State contests. Governor George Pataki won re-election in 2002 with the help of high-profile “Amigos de Pataki” and the endorsement of the largely Hispanic powerhouse Service Employees International Union Local 1199. The Governor, down in the polls and with an eye on the Presidency, hasn’t ruled out running for a fourth term.
So Mr. Spitzer hasn’t just supported Mr. Ferrer. Mr. Ferrer’s closest advisor and longtime friend, former Bronx County Democratic Leader Roberto Ramirez, was a consultant to Mr. Spitzer’s last campaign.
“For the Latino community, Ferrer remains a cause célèbre, and his race to become Mayor of New York has taken on something that’s supra-political,” said Mr. Levenson, the political consultant. “An early and counterintuitive endorsement from Eliot will garner [the Attorney General] some allegiance as a result.”
None of this entirely explains why Mr. Spitzer is planning to announce his endorsement so early, however, or why he made similarly early moves to support H. Carl McCall for Governor in 2002 and to announce his own candidacy in 2006. An advisor to Mr. Spitzer explained it as the Attorney General’s unwillingness to compromise his reputation as a straight shooter.
“Eliot has a real sense that if something is obvious and is known and he’s going to do it, he doesn’t play coy,” the Spitzer advisor said.