Ferrer’s Sharpton Problem: The Reverend May Walk

It’s easy to overestimate Fernando Ferrer’s problems in the Democratic Mayoral primary. Despite his slip in the polls and his frustrating inability to untangle his views about the 1999 shooting of Amadou Diallo, he remains popular with his Hispanic base, well known and experienced. In the ebb and flow of a campaign, it’s better to bottom out in May than in September.

But if his current Diallo problem is overstated, there are huge, unexamined challenges lurking for Mr. Ferrer should he win the primary. Just around the corner stands an unappeased Reverend Al Sharpton. The word from Sharpton Land is that the reverend is still waiting for Mr. Ferrer to give him credit for the role he played in the 2001 Ferrer Mayoral campaign and to apologize for his comments on the Diallo shooting. (Mr. Ferrer recently said the police shooting of Diallo was not a crime, which seemed to contradict his statements at the time of the killing.)

For the last month, Mr. Sharpton has been all but invisible as the Democratic primary has heated up. Some observers appear to believe that he’ll sit this one out, but that seems unlikely.

“I’m going to revisit it in August,” Mr. Sharpton told The Observer in a recent interview in the cramped midtown office he’s borrowing from health-care workers’ union leader Dennis Rivera. “I may not endorse until after the primary. I may not endorse at all.”

Translation: Mr. Sharpton will not be a player this year. Unless he is. And given his record, who’s ready to count him out?

Mr. Sharpton played a crucial role in Mr. Ferrer’s ’01 campaign. People who saw Mr. Ferrer’s internal polls at the time say that Mr. Sharpton was a vital part of Mr. Ferrer’s surprising first-place finish in that year’s Democratic primary. (Mr. Ferrer went on to lose a runoff with Mark Green several weeks later.)

Now, Mr. Sharpton’s alienation from Mr. Ferrer is a central-and partly untold-story of the 2005 campaign.

Mr. Sharpton’s anger with the Ferrer campaign didn’t begin with the Diallo remark. It began with a profile of Mr. Ferrer in The Observer last December, in which a longtime Ferrer backer spoke out in unflattering terms about Mr. Sharpton’s role.

“If it wasn’t for Al Sharpton, Freddy would be Mayor,” said John Catsimatidis, the Red Apple supermarket magnate who supported Mr. Ferrer in 2001 but has not given him any money this year.

Mr. Sharpton, associates say, was furious. He waited for an apology for the Ferrer camp. It was not forthcoming.

According to a source close to the reverend, the quote offended Mr. Sharpton because public credit is the currency in which he is compensated for his political service. Unlike other political bosses, he doesn’t seek massive patronage or government money. Instead, he occupies a position in which the perception of his power is identical to his actual power, and what he demands is public credit for his work.

Already, Mr. Sharpton felt he had gone out on a limb for Mr. Ferrer. After all, Mr. Ferrer hadn’t supported the reverend in his quixotic runs for Senate and for Mayor in the 1990’s, and he didn’t support him in the 2004 Presidential campaign. They didn’t have a particularly close personal relationship, though Mr. Sharpton had grown close to Ferrer advisor Roberto Ramirez during a jail stint for protesting the military’s practice bombing runs on the island of Vieques.

“You can’t do anything as an officeholder but thank [Sharpton] for giving you help,” said the person close to Mr. Sharpton.

When the reverend didn’t hear an apology from the Ferrer campaign after the December story, he was ready to defect. The Diallo flap just pushed him further in a direction he was already going.

Should Mr. Ferrer survive the primary and a possible runoff in September, Mr. Sharpton may not be the first on board the bandwagon of Democratic unity. Back in 2001, the reverend insisted that Mr. Green offer an abject apology for campaign material that targeted him. And without that apology, he walked.

Now, Mr. Sharpton perceives another insult and is demanding another apology. And Mr. Ferrer may be damned either way.

“Freddy may be the Mark Green of 2005,” said the Sharpton ally. “If we didn’t support Green based on principle, how do we support Freddy and cast principle to the side?”

Back in December, Mr. Catsimatidis’ quote drew no particular objection from Mr. Ferrer’s campaign, including from his finance chairman, Leo Hindery, who was read the quote over the telephone and said that he partially agreed.

This week, Mr. Hindery e-mailed a clarification.

“So many excellent Democrats have sought and valued Reverend Sharpton’s support over the years, it’s not accurate to say he cost anyone the election,” he wrote. “I think we are all committed, as Democrats, to coming together and focusing on commonalities and shared goals in this election, and I am sure Reverend Sharpton will join us to make the case to voters that we need new and better leadership in New York City.”

Will that be enough to smooth the differences between Mr. Ferrer and the reverend? We shall see. It’s a situation that puts the historian Fred Siegel, in his forthcoming book about Rudy Giuliani, in mind of an old Jewish joke.

“This is the famous Finkelstein Diamond,” a woman tells a friend of her glittering ring. “But it’s cursed.”

“What’s the curse?” asks the friend.

“Finkelstein.”