In Mayor’s Race, The Melting Pot Hitting the Fan

On April 13, former Comptroller H. Carl McCall stood in his banker’s pinstripes on the steps of City Hall and said something that virtually nobody involved in the contest to be the next Mayor of New York believes.

“Some people want to put a racial color on this,” he said, defending the man standing beside him, Fernando Ferrer, from tough questions about the shooting of Amadou Diallo. “It’s not about race.”

Behind the scenes, this Mayoral race, like every Mayoral race, has already been shaped by the municipal body politic’s deep tribal obsessions-even though none of the candidates has run a racial campaign. The old tension between black and Hispanic leaders, deepened by borough politics, personal grudges and Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s avid pursuit of the black political establishment, had Harlem’s political elite looking for an excuse not to back Mr. Ferrer. He gave it to them when he spoke to a group of police sergeants about Amadou Diallo, and the clubhouses of Harlem, the parishes of black radio and the Reverend Al Sharpton have kept the story alive, turning the gaffe from a one-day embarrassment into a damaging month-long saga.

What had been tepid support for Mr. Ferrer turned quickly into veiled and open opposition, a shift that suddenly buoyed the candidacy of the Manhattan Borough President C. Virginia Fields. Despite a little-known record and vague vision, she is rapidly becoming the woman to beat in the race for Mayor.

At the same time, however, some senior city politicians are worrying that the tensions between Ms. Fields’ backers and Mr. Ferrer’s could provoke a classic Democratic meltdown, and that Harlem’s support for Ms. Fields could finally translate into tacit support for Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who has avidly courted Harlem figures like former Mayor David Dinkins and Representative Charles Rangel.

“What scares me is that this hostility is going to be created from old wars,” said Bill Lynch, Mr. Dinkins’ former campaign manager, who forged, in 1989, the city’s only really successful multiracial coalition and who is backing Mr. Ferrer. “If this thing turns into another racial donnybrook, then I don’t know-I’ll be hurt to no end.”

“It’s going to become a black-Hispanic thing if we don’t turn it around,” warned another Ferrer supporter, Brooklyn Congressman Major Owens.

In much of America, traditional tribal politics seems to be fading. In Los Angeles, a Mexican-American candidate, Antonio Villaraigosa, holds a strong lead over a white incumbent mayor and heads a coalition that includes black and Jewish officials. Nationally, the Republican Party has worked successfully to woo Hispanics and is focusing on conservative black voters as well. But in majority-“minority” New York City, the old patterns die hard, and no stable “minority” coalition has emerged.

Mr. Ferrer’s gaffe revived various versions of the history that’s been quietly percolating through this Mayor’s race. Some in Harlem pointed to the 2002 race for Governor, in which about half of Hispanics voted for George Pataki over the first African-American candidate for the office, Mr. McCall, and in which many prominent Latinos-including a former senior aide to Mr. Ferrer, Jose Ithier-supported Mr. Pataki publicly, though Mr. Ferrer backed the Democrat. Indeed, Mr. McCall’s decision to endorse Mr. Ferrer provoked some anger among his allies in Harlem and former campaign aides. Two black political operatives who had worked on Mr. McCall’s campaign staff turned up quietly at the back of the press conference at which Mr. McCall endorsed Mr. Ferrer, staring daggers at their old boss. Others look further back and point to Mr. Ferrer’s longtime advisor Roberto Ramirez, who presided over the Bronx Democratic Party during heated fights over black representation and who led a push in the State Assembly to create a more distinct Hispanic voice.

But to talk about the tribal quality of this year’s Mayor’s race is to be sent, quickly, back even further-at least 20 years back.

“I’ve seen this drama before,” said Herman Badillo, who is now a Bloomberg supporter and unlikely Republican elder statesman. “It’s really a replay of 1985.”

Back in 1985, Mr. Badillo was the first Puerto Rican in Congress, a charismatic figure seen as the man with the best shot at Mayor Ed Koch. Then the Harlem establishment surprised observers by endorsing a State Assemblyman, Denny Farrell, and Mr. Badillo’s dreams of a minority coalition evaporated, leaving an enduring bitterness.

“It has nothing to do with Ferrer any more than it had to do with me. It has to do with the long-term planning of the same black leaders who would like to get a black Mayor elected,” he said.

The general outline of this plot is that, just as that 1985 defeat set the stage for David Dinkins’ 1989 victory, a Democratic loss this year could launch City Comptroller William Thompson, who is black, into City Hall in 2009.

One of the black leaders accused of scheming, then and now, is Mr. Rangel, who objected vigorously to Mr. Badillo’s suggestion that Harlem was ever out to stop a Puerto Rican from becoming Mayor.

“I cannot believe that Herman Badillo would say something so stupid and so racist,” he said. “That Virginia Fields … is not as qualified as Freddy Ferrer, who has a similar type of public service-it is stupid to say it. It’s racist to say it.”

In conversations with Harlem politicians and political operatives, nobody voiced the notion that supporting Ms. Fields’ candidacy would be a backhanded way to help Mr. Thompson become Mayor.

“It’s ridiculous,” Mr. Thompson told The Observer. “Either everybody is engaged in a conspiracy and hasn’t had a conversation with me, or we’re all connected telepathically.”

But if the support for Ms. Fields wasn’t intended to help Mr. Thompson, some intended it to hurt Mr. Ferrer.

“This isn’t about her-it’s about stopping him,” said one Harlem insider, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

Mr. Ferrer, who has always prided himself on appealing across racial lines to white and black voters as Bronx borough president, has found himself defending his flanks, and Ms. Fields has evidently benefited from this dynamic. Her candidacy, which emerged late-and only after she failed to land a position in a John Kerry administration-was initially dismissed by the city’s political establishment. She had trouble raising money, even from Emily’s List, which raises money for female candidates and is a good indicator of support in the national political establishment.

But in the slow-motion fallout from Mr. Ferrer’s stance that the police officers who shot African immigrant Amadou Diallo hadn’t committed a crime, Ms. Fields’ bid for the city’s top job is being taken seriously.

“We’re very excited about the momentum she’s been developing over the last few weeks,” said a spokeswoman for Emily’s List, Ramona Oliver, who said her organization was still “assessing” the New York contest.

But there are layers within layers in the city’s ethnic politics. Ms. Fields wasn’t really part of the coalition that elected Mayor Dinkins; she was a protégé of Manhattan Borough President Andrew Stein, who would go on to oppose Mr. Dinkins’ re-election in 1993. If she’s a member of Mr. Rangel’s Harlem “family” (as Mr. McCall referred to it), she’s an adopted child. When Mr. Dinkins became the city’s first black Mayor, he was at the head of a movement; nothing like that is available to Ms. Fields this year.

Ms. Fields told The Observer that her independent entrance to politics insulates her from historical feuds.

“I was not a part of that scenario-I was not even in politics at that time-and whatever happened then is not being replayed as it relates to me,” she said of the 1985 conflict. “To continue that battle among themselves-I think it’s unfortunate.”

As other candidates have rolled out ambitious tax plans, Mr. Ferrer most recently with a well-researched and well-packaged pitch for a return to the stock-transfer tax, Ms. Fields has stuck to talking about “inclusion” and smaller-scale initiatives, like naming a “deputy mayor for full employment.”‘

Asked at a Crain’s breakfast forum on April 19, for example, to name a way the city had deteriorated under Mr. Bloomberg, other candidates pointed to big-picture issues like taxation and infrastructure; Ms. Fields criticized the Mayor for shifting a Meals-on-Wheels program in the Bronx to provide frozen meals instead of hot ones. Her stances on some issues are also fluid. In an April 18 interview, asked about Mr. Ferrer’s plan to tax the transfer of stocks on Wall Street, Ms. Fields told The Observer that she had supported a stock-transfer tax in the past. By the next day at the Crain’s breakfast, she was a stalwart opponent of the tax.

Even as Ms. Fields finds differences with Mr. Bloomberg, however, many of her backers get along quite well with the Mayor. Mr. Bloomberg recently appointed Mr. Rangel to head a commission focusing on diversity in the construction trades. He praises Mr. Dinkins every chance he gets- and always gives the former Mayor partial credit for the drop in crime often credited wholly to Mayor Rudolph Giuliani. He’s been a regular at Mr. Sharpton’s annual Martin Luther King Day gatherings, which Mr. Giuliani annually snubbed. And Mr. Thompson stood beside the Mayor at an April 19 press conference announcing an affordable-housing initiative.

“Bloomberg has shown the deference and the respect to black leaders-more than Freddy has ever done, or Roberto,” said one black official. “There’s a positive perception of him that, although they want to defeat him, they can live with him.”

Mr. Rangel disputed the notion that he was leaning toward the Mayor.

“Most of us believe that if Virginia doesn’t win or get involved in the runoff, that we’re going to support Freddy,” he said. “Mike looks good after Giuliani, but I can’t imagine who would not.”

All of this tribal sparring, however, remains confined to the tight circles of the city’s political leadership, and it remains to be seen whether New York’s voters will remain as tribal as their leaders.

“The New York electorate may have gone past race, but the politicians haven’t,” said Hank Sheinkopf, a Democratic political consultant who counts Mr. Thompson among his clients.

The 2005 contest comes during a lull in the city’s running racial tensions and also during a period of flux, as the number of Hispanic New Yorkers overtakes the number of African-Americans, according to census data. The ghosts of 1985 are still visible, and that year’s antagonists-Mr. Rangel, Mr. Farrell and Mr. Badillo among them-are still players on the city’s political scene.

But the two Democrats on the horizon (particularly if Mr. Bloomberg is re-elected), Mr. Thompson and Bronx Borough President Adolfo Carrion, are already trying to sound a different tone. Mr. Thompson, whose political home is Brooklyn, was elected in 2001 with broad support from white voters, and Mr. Carrion has made the multi-ethnic appeal his hallmark.

“Our city is far different today than it was in 1985, and I think the concept of coalitions is and ought to be somewhat different,” said Mr. Carrion. “The political consultants have these cute little formulas for what they expect the public wants to hear: ‘You can get a percentage of the black vote; here are the issues blacks care about. You can get a percent of the Hispanic vote, the Jewish vote, the other white ethnics …. ‘

“People are having difficulty letting go of the old paradigm,” he concluded.