Ferrer Campaign Opens Its Office To Cinema Verite

Until now, the race for Mayor hasn’t exactly seized the public’s imagination, but at least two acute political observers expect high drama by November. D. A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus, whose documentary The War Room changed the way Americans view politics, have begun filming Fernando Ferrer’s campaign for Mayor.

“The filmmakers made their way to Mr. Ferrer through his longtime advisor, Roberto Ramirez, and since February, the documentarians and their digital cameras have been occasional, discreet presences at Mr. Ferrer’s public events and staff meetings.”

The obvious question to political film buffs is: Who gets to be George Stephanopoulos? (Mr. Ramirez has probably landed the starring role occupied in The War Room by Bill Clinton’s charismatic campaign manager, James Carville.)

But the filmmakers told The Observer that while they spent the 1992 Clinton campaign with the future President’s colorful staffers, they hope this time to focus more closely on the candidate himself.

“My smell is that it’s a David and Goliath story, and Freddy is the one to watch,” said Mr. Pennebaker, 79, who may be best known for his 1967 Bob Dylan film Don’t Look Back. “He has a kind of depth, and you smell it and see it right away. He’s such a fundamentally decent guy, you wonder why he’s getting involved in this whole mess.”

The planned documentary is the latest indication of the high expectations that are hanging over, and perhaps weighing down, the 54-year-old former Bronx borough president, who is making his third bid for Mayor. The possibility that, if Mr. Ferrer makes it past the September primary, he’ll take on the richest man in American politics is only part of that story. Among his large circle of aides and advisors, some are focused on the fact that he is aiming to be the first Hispanic Mayor of New York at a time when Hispanic political power is turning into a crucial force in American elections. Others are partisan Democrats eager to take a Republican scalp wherever they can find one, even the moderate head of Mayor Michael Bloomberg. Mr. Ferrer’s bid is already a regular subject of discussion on the popular liberal blog DailyKos, and an aide said that he’s launching a national fund-raising push that will include stops in Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., Chicago and Miami in coming months.

“This is probably the Democrat-on-Republican race nationwide. I’m a Democrat, and I believe in Democratic values,” Mr. Ferrer said. “What makes it nationally important is that this is the proving ground for those values.”

Mr. Ferrer has begun to lay out a campaign based on four issues, mostly drawn from the traditions of Democratic politics: affordable housing, jobs, education and safety-straightforward budget items like “more cops,” as he told The Observer over a cup of coffee and a muffin near his midtown headquarters.

The candidate, however, sounded a bit ambivalent about the Pennebaker film, which is still in its infancy and which he agreed to speak about only after The Observer learned about it elsewhere.

“I’m not interested in being the subject of a biopic,” he said, adding that he has The War Room on DVD at home but hasn’t yet had a chance to watch it. “I’d have Armand Assante play me or something.”

In the view of the people close to Mr. Ferrer, however, the candidate symbolizes much more than a veteran Democrat from the Bronx.

“It has the potential of being historic because of the Latino flavor that’s laid over it,” said Bill Lynch, a deputy mayor to David Dinkins and advisor to Mr. Ferrer. To Mr. Ramirez, a former Bronx County Democratic Party chairman and longtime student and booster of Hispanic politics, Mr. Ferrer’s victory could be a kind of breakthrough.

The campaign “has the possibility to redefine national Democratic politics,” he told The Observer.

Mr. Ramirez has long argued that Hispanics’ full political maturity will end the traditional black-and-white pattern of American politics and deeply change the national political landscape. In that context, 2005 is a banner year, because the two highest-profile contests in the country feature strong Hispanic challengers: Mr. Ferrer in New York and Antonio Villaraigosa in Los Angeles, who is also recovering from a failed 2001 Mayoral bid.

Mr. Ramirez first called Mr. Pennebaker to pitch a documentary about Al Sharpton’s run for President in 2004. That film was never made, but Mr. Ramirez managed to interest the filmmakers, who live on the Upper West Side, in Mr. Ferrer, whose personality and potential status as a Hispanic pioneer piqued the filmmakers’ interest, they said.

But while an ethnic path breaker makes a good story, the role doesn’t necessarily confer political advantage. It can also turn off members of other ethnic groups, something Mr. Ferrer’s advisors were reluctant to even talk about.

Mr. Ferrer himself-who was rather unconvincingly cast as a racial firebrand by supporters and detractors alike in the 2001 Democratic primary-has little interest in talking about race. “I’m a New Yorker, and that’s my first level of identity,” he said.

Other Ferrer staffers see the significance of his run not in ethnic terms, but in terms of his role in a defeated Democratic Party casting around for a new vision. Early hires on the staff-heavy campaign include his communications director Chad Clanton, who had a senior press job on Senator John Kerry’s campaign for President, and a consultant, Jen Bluestein, who has a starring role in another campaign documentary, Street Fight, a chronicle of Cory Booker’s high-profile (and unsuccessful) 2002 bid to become the mayor of Newark, N.J., which makes its New York debut at the Tribeca Film Festival later this month.

“This is a hugely important fight to be a part of,” Ms. Bluestein said.

These visions of universal Democratic values have already run up against the particular and treacherous realities of city politics. Mr. Ferrer committed the first gaffe of the Mayor’s race in March, when he told a police group that the officers who shot Amadou Diallo had been “overindicted.” And while he had never called for the officers themselves to be prosecuted (a position the jury validated by acquitting them), he came under quick fire from African-American officials who saw the statement as a betrayal on an emotional issue.

So last Friday afternoon, Mr. Clanton, Ms. Bluestein and Juli-Anne Whitney, Mr. Ferrer’s press secretary, all found themselves on the steps of City Hall shepherding Mr. Ferrer through a kind of contrition tour as he restated his regret that he had caused the Diallo family pain with his remarks, while stopping just short of an apology for his position. That evening, the campaign sent out an e-mail that Harlem Congressman Charles Rangel had “exonerated” Mr. Ferrer.

Mr. Ferrer’s media consultant, David Axelrod, helped craft a message of “two Americas” for Senator John Edwards that conjured the same concern about a widening economic gap between rich and poor as Mr. Ferrer’s “two New Yorks” message. He told The Observer that the race is getting national attention, but he said that the campaign wouldn’t focus on partisan conflict.

“That may work outside of New York,” Mr. Axelrod said in an interview from Chicago, where he is based. “In New York, most people are concerned about the quality of life in the city, about their economic opportunities, about the quality of the schools. They’re going to vote on those issues more readily than they are on the letter printed after the candidate’s name.”

Mr. Axelrod is also a skeptic of allowing documentarians like Mr. Pennebaker and Ms. Hegedus into campaign meetings. When they began shooting one Friday in early February at the campaign’s weekly meeting, Mr. Axelrod refused to participate, according to the filmmakers’ partner, Nick Doob.

“I don’t like to participate in those things, because I think it sometimes can have a chilling effect on discussion within the campaign,” Mr. Axelrod said. “You’ll have to ask others how it helps us win.”

In any case, there’s a long way to go before Mr. Ferrer can take on Mr. Bloomberg directly. He may be David in the long run, but in the Democratic primary he’s the Goliath, and three other candidates are wielding the slingshots. And while Mr. Ferrer continues to lead in the polls, his victory is far from guaranteed.

The degree of attention that the Democratic National Committee pays to this race is also an open question. The party’s former chairman, Terry McAuliffe, once listed Mr. Bloomberg among the nation’s Democratic mayors. Some Democrats remain irritated at some of Mr. Ferrer’s supporters, including Mr. Ramirez, for refusing to campaign for Mr. Bloomberg’s Democratic opponent, Mark Green, in the 2001 election, though Mr. Ferrer said that he spent the days before the election campaigning for Mr. Green on Spanish-language radio.

The new Democratic National Committee chairman, Howard Dean, has yet to signal where he’ll send money and volunteers in 2005.

“We’ll work hard to get the Democrat elected,” said a party spokeswoman, Laura Gross. “But we need to figure out who the candidate is first.”

The filmmakers, too, said that Mr. Ferrer’s defeat is a risk they have to run.

“It’s for him to win or lose, and it’s for us to watch him win or lose it,” concluded Mr. Pennebaker.