Brother Gifford Croons: Buddy, Can You Spare a Vote?

So there was A. Gifford Miller, standing around in khakis and one of his candy-stripe Sea Island cotton button-downs outside the Western Beef on Merrick Boulevard in Queens.

“We Know the Neighborhood,” the acid orange sign stated flatly. A big black dude in blue-tinted square-frame sunglasses cannonballed out of the supermarket’s automatic doors.

“Gifford Miller ain’t got a pray-uh!” he boomed.

“Well—you can pray!” said Mr. Miller, 35, the Speaker of the City Council now running for Mayor. Though New York born and bred, Mr. Miller is a white Anglo-Saxon Protestant and, hence, a minority contestant in a city whose leaders are decided by the city’s unforgiving tribal politics. And in this summer of extenuating atmospheric conditions, Mr. Miller was working particularly hard to adopt himself out to any ethnic neighborhood that might appreciate his progressive-Democrat intentions.

This very Sunday, he was back to hanging around the most affluent black community in the city. The notion was to exploit the disconnect between black leadership in southeast Queens, where make-believe-Republican Mayor Michael Bloomberg is hardly disliked, and in Harlem, where C. Virginia Fields is expected to show strong in the Sept. 13th Democratic primary. Earlier that morning, Mr. Miller could be seen stepping out on faith in the area’s holy-rolling Bible churches, with their tambourines and drum sets and Yamaha keyboards, Kleenex boxes in every emotion-filled pew, and friendly neighborhood church ladies—a known Panzer-like voting bloc.

“Bloomberg is going to run over you like a, crush you like … like … the Russians crushed the Central German Unit!” the man at Western Beef went on.

“So it’s going to take him four years and cost him 20 million people?” asked Mr. Miller, a history buff.

Mr. Miller waited for his next potential convert and took a Johnny Carson–style golf swing as several locals stopped to shake hands with Leroy Comrie, their Yogi Bear of a councilman, who was introducing Mr. Miller around. They looked over at the guy that Mr. Comrie was endorsing for Mayor with a narrow squint, as if he were a snakehead just fished out of their water supply.

“There’s nothing wrong with you, man, but the majority of the people in this city are non-white,” said a fellow with fuzzy gray whiskers. “I want a non-white Mayor. White man’s got all the power.”

But here was a white man who didn’t, who had just been moseying around the Amity Baptist Church, the Reverend Dwight E. Shanklin presiding. Matt Epperly, Mr. Miller’s Nantuckety blond personal assistant—his “body person,” as they say in the business—purposely stayed behind in the Speaker’s Chevy Suburban with its black-tinted windows. (Campaign workers for one of Mr. Miller’s rivals refer to Matt, a Georgetown and Kerry-bid graduate, as “the whitest white guy in Christendom.”)

The goateed Reverend Shanklin looked like Henry VIII in his stately black robe aflame with crimson crosses as he sang and swung his fist over his head, as if to lasso his congregation. These were mainly elegant women in pastel suits and hats spuming bits of veil and rosettes, fanning themselves and balancing Bibles sewn into cloth purses atop their hosiery.

“Let the Lord use you or use us as he wishes,” he said to Brother Gifford, who was fresh from the 8 a.m. deaconesses over at Merrick Park, where he clapped and swayed to “I’ve got the victory! Ha-lle-lujah!” A woman had screamed during the traditional laying on of the hands, but Brother Gifford, in his cool cream linen blazer, didn’t flinch.

Brother Gifford preached about the kids who were failing in our schools and the schools that were failing our kids. He said that he’d just put Sunday parking meters out of business (a suggestion successfully heisted from candidate Freddy Ferrer), how even meters deserve a day of rest and how “the Mayor just doesn’t get it.” He told them a once-upon-a-time about “a man who was wolkin’ in the woods—an atheist!” and the grizzly bear who “raised his great big right paw to strike him.” (Like both Bushes, John Kerry and Uncle Remus before him, Mr. Miller twangs and drops his G’s before select audiences.)

Who knew that Mr. Miller had decided to sponsor a Reverend James Cleveland memorial postage stamp? Now he would charm the seniors with a solo, that old Reverend Cleveland crowd-pleaser, “ Ple-ee-ease be patient with me.”

Three electric organs got busy. “ Phenomenal!” is how Reverend Shanklin reviewed Mr. Miller’s set. (Mr. Miller has to be careful; eyes glazed over when he performed Ireland’s marathon national anthem at his annual St. Patrick’s parade party at the Princeton Club.) Asked to comment on Mr. Miller’s minstrelsy, most political consultants emit a noise that sounds like Ack!— even if there’s precedent: Jimmie Davis, the strumming and singing governor of Louisiana, who wrote “You Are My Sunshine” for his horse. And, of course, Mayor Jimmy Walker was a songwriter.

On his way home, Mr. Comrie slipped Mr. Miller a soul-brother handshake.

Family Affair

Mr. Miller prefers to downplay his minority status. His campaign Web site used to note that he lived on the East Side of Manhattan, without specifying the uptown latitude.

One late afternoon in August, Mr. Miller was wolkin’ down the street in East Harlem, past the Johnson and Jefferson housing projects, past the pawnshops, sneaker stores, Pentecostal churches, and those fast-food restaurants where they slide you your hamburgers through a sheet of bulletproof glass. Mr. Miller reached for the hand of an advocate for senior citizens who was winging by a cuchifritos lunch counter. In those Princetonian rags (from the racks of Seize Sur Vingt, a Nolita store wallpapered with edgy photographs of scanty-panty Lolitas), Mr. Miller looked like he was “from another planet,” said the guy. But an athletic young black man who had just finished building a charter school—aided by kids remanded by the court system—was in awe: “For him to just call up and say he would stop by was something.”

Gifford Miller’s dynamic 78-year-old father, Leigh, was along, looking similarly Preppy Handbook down to his cordovan loafers. “Have you ever been to the Conservatory Garden at 105th and Fifth?” Gifford asked one fellow who appeared to be missing a few teeth in the balcony. “My mom designed that.”

Dad moved in to close the sale. “I’m on the community board, and I know you need affordable housing,” said Leigh. “The other one there, he’s trying to buy your vote.” Leigh patted the braided head of a toddler.

“I vote for you, you buy me a house,” the man said.

Leigh Miller is the self-made son of two teachers in Olympia, Wash. He rode scholarships and the G.I. Bill to both a Yale college and law degree before joining the Kennedy and Johnson administrations. He helped found the Agency for International Development, which did things like funnel surplus grain to Pakistan and India. Leigh did know John F. Kennedy: One of Gifford’s two half-brothers from Leigh’s first marriage was in the Kennedy White House kindergarten.

In 1966, Leigh married Lynden Breed, a debutante and a Smithie who had worked for two Congressmen and was an assistant to Chalmers Roberts at The Washington Post. As is the case with most WASP’s flapping around New York, everybody at some point cross-pollinated with everybody else, and Gifford’s very distant cousins include John Kerry, Howard Dean, J.P. Morgan, Franklin Delano Roosevelt and George W. Bush.

Lynden is one of the Breed, Abbott & Morgan Breeds, and the “A.” in A. Gifford Miller actually stands for Alan, the name of her father. Alan Breed’s was a life of unfulfilled promise: A few years out of Princeton, he was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis and died at the age of 44. His wife, Rosilla Hornblower, had roomed with Mary McCarthy at Vassar. The Breeds would play bridge with Ms. McCarthy, who repaid their friendship by making fun of Rosilla’s New Deal liberalism in her best-seller The Group. In the 30’s, Rosilla was active in the National Consumers League, where she fought for minimum-wage laws; in The Group, Priscilla Hartshorn is employed by the League of Women Shoppers.

Gifford’s father eventually landed at American Express, as an international banker. “My parents lived in London for two years,” Gifford says, haltingly admitting that he had actually been there with them in the late 70’s, in a striped Norland Place school tie, with his younger brother Marshall. Back in New York, the lifestyle was shabby-genteel in the slightly elevated Whit Stillman construct: His parents bought a nine-room co-op in a handsome building at 98th and Fifth at a time when there was lots of space to be had for little money. “Doctors from Mount Sinai lived there,” says realtor Patricia Burnham of P.S. Burnham Inc. “It didn’t yet count as Carnegie Hill.”

“The Millers are the kind of old-time, low-profile WASP’s who never touch their principal,” said David Patrick Columbia, editor of the Web site New York Social Diary. Upper- upper Fifth was a tad iffy—several paces north of where Cy Vance, Tish Baldrige, Paul Newman and Ralph Lauren came to nest—but the Millers were urban pioneers. “The Millers do good things, and they help their community,” says Toni Goodale, a Democratic fund-raiser. Leigh Miller is on the board of Planned Parenthood and, among so many other activities, has worked on behalf of the Osborne Association, which provides job training to former prisoners. Even the Millers’ clubs—the Cosmopolitan, the Century—are the clubs of achievers.

Uptown Bildungsroman

When Gifford’s mother, one of the city’s foremost public-garden designers, sought to revamp the Conservatory Garden several blocks uptown, friends feared for her safety. “This was before the notion that you could do really great public spaces in New York City and people would respect them, which is now an article of faith,” says Gifford, who remembers wanting to play video games but being dragged off to water and weed among East Harlem’s community school groups.

Grammar school was literally across the street at single-sex St. Bernard’s; when Gifford was 11 or 12, he was mugged on his block for a Casio watch.

“I told him it was broken, but he told me that he would blow my head off if I didn’t hand it over,” says Mr. Miller, who testified before a grand jury when the guy was actually caught. Truth is, the Millers’ world was to some degree insulated from the barrio by Mount Sinai’s sprawl. “One of the things I regret about St. Bernard’s is, it’s a bit more cut off from East Harlem than it should be,” says Mr. Miller. “French was taught instead of Spanish. I’m still enraged by that.”

A trumpeted event at St. Bernard’s is the annual eighth-grade Shakespeare play. In Mr. Miller’s year, it was The Tempest. After a little prodding, Mr. Miller confesses that he actually asked to play Miranda—“a fairly sizable part,” he explains, “not the most sought-after role, but one of the keys to success in life is having weak competition.”

Home from Middlesex boarding school, Mr. Miller would only occasionally drift through Dorrian’s Red Hand or the Surf Club. Choirboy looks made it hard to get a hold of a really good fake ID, he said, smiling adorably. At Princeton, he played club lacrosse for a couple of years and, in a student body boiling over with professional class presidents and fogies before their time, he didn’t strike others as A Serious Person. He liked dorky music. He majored in politics and moved in with a girl everyone assumed he would marry. The summer before senior year, they were bicycling on Martha’s Vineyard when she was hit by a truck. “It changed him,” says Robert Hammond, a close friend and painter active in Chelsea’s High Line Park project. That’s when Mr. Miller’s latent ambition emerged.

His friends never expected him to be, well, good at this. “He was sort of abrasive—he loved irritating you,” said Mr. Hammond. “He would call me ‘Hambone’ or, if there were a whole bunch of people around, he’d shout ‘Boner!’”

Mr. Miller also likes to argue; he will take the other side of an argument if he thinks he can have some fun. Someone he’s argued with lots is Mayor Bloomberg, who is annoyed by Miller’s mini-Mayoralty, those needling press conferences. As the Mayor complimented Mr. Miller at their annual budget presentation, Mr. Miller restlessly cracked his knuckles under the podium. “The Mayor would act grumpy at their Tuesday-afternoon meetings—that is, if he didn’t cancel on Gifford, which was often,” said one Council member. “But Gifford thought it was funny the Mayor didn’t like him.”

“There was an intense mutual dislike,” said another source close to the situation. “The Mayor sees Miller as a junior employee, a spoiled rich kid who barely worked a day in his life.”

After college, Mr. Miller was hired by Upper East Side Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney, a friend of his parents. After winning a seat on the City Council in a special 1996 election, Mr. Miller appeared to have intentionally evacuated from The Social Register.

Observers thought of Mr. Miller as an accidental Speaker, backed by the Queens machine and playing a very smart game campaigning for and funding his allies after term limits virtually swept the Council clean. “He willed himself to be Speaker,” said Manhattan Councilwoman Christine Quinn, Because of term limits, Council members old and new are obliged to bang a lot of cans as they essentially run for their next office. It sometimes feels like the Senate of the Galactic Republic from Star Wars with all the diverging interests, the grandstanding on silly issues that have no business in this venue.

“Gifford is very bright and was one of the stars when I was there,” said ex-Speaker Peter Vallone, who has endorsed Mr. Miller for Mayor. Even Charles Barron, the former Black Panther who represents East New York, pronounces Mr. Miller “a nice guy.”

Lots More Mr. Nice Guy

Too nice, some say.

Everyone palms money from lobbyists—except for a billionaire Mayor who placates the special-interest groups with personal checks. But Mr. Miller’s problem with the special interests is that he’s for all of them, said one Council member: “He’s like a candy store—everybody may not get the jumbo bar, but everyone walks out with at least the nickel bar, and you’re a real loser if you only got penny candy. Because he doesn’t say no to anybody. He’s too busy running for Mayor.”

People think they see some affectation, comparing Mr. Miller with Shrek’s shrimpy Lord Farquaad, tootling around in his chauffeured S.U.V. with a brace of bodyguards like some prig Mack Daddy (but then, two years ago, a Councilman was shot in cold blood on the floor of the Council chamber). Standing next to someone who’s got the microphone, Mr. Miller has a tendency to go “Mmmmm, mmmm” in agreement, much like a Campbell’s Soup kid.

“He’s been forced into a race he’s not ready for. It’s the Peter Principle,” the Council member continued.

“Gifford is used to being underestimated,” countered Queens Councilman Eric Gioia. “He’s compensated for that with a lot of hard work.”

There are those who believe that Mr. Miller should have run for Manhattan borough president, that by going for broke at a very early age and losing, he’ll be out in the cold until 2009, with no media or fund-raising base. People like to say that Mr. Miller pines for Carolyn Maloney’s Congressional seat, though he has denied this. Still, the lusty fight he lost against the garbage-transfer station on East 91st Street certainly put him in good odor with both their districts.

How might it all play out? TV commercials have already upped those low polling scores. “People may think I look young, but as head of the City Council, I got results,” one script announces. He’s all smiles, the guy you’d want passing the cranberry sauce at your Thanksgiving table (to paraphrase a Quinnipiac poll question that Mr. Bloomberg routinely bombs). The commercial invites you to think of him as the Second Coming of Jack Kennedy, strolling the city park with his wife, Pamela, and button-cute children, Addison, 4, and Marshall, 3.

Right now, Mr. Miller hopes to score second in the primary and find himself in a run-off with Freddy Ferrer. C. Virginia Fields, Anthony Weiner and Mr. Miller are now pretty much tied for second, but one problem the Speaker faces “is that a lot of non-Hispanic white voters, particularly Jewish voters, already know that they’re voting for the Mayor and will skip the primary,” said consultant Joseph Mercurio, late of the Fields campaign.

In a run-off, Mr. Miller probably presents the most viable threat to Mr. Ferrer. “Gifford’s got money, he’s got troops, he’s got a record on every single issue, because he’s been voting and sponsoring bills and duking it out with the Mayor on stuff,” said political consultant Norman Adler. “What’s Ferrer going to say? ‘I was over at the Drum Major Institute taking two-hour lunches?’” But a run-off could very well damage Mr. Miller with Hispanic voters on the way to a Bloomberg-Miller match-up. “The run-off is going to be a bloodbath,” said political consultant Hank Sheinkopf.

“For something to happen here, it would require a deus ex machina,” said Fred Siegel, a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute and author of the Rudy Giuliani biography Prince of the City. “A terror attack in which we discover that Bloomberg’s disassembly of the Office of Emergency Management has left the cops and Fire Department in a state of confusion.”

Mr. Miller postponed a second sit-down interview—something about his cat. Achilles has been with him since he graduated from college, and now the poor thing has cancer. Mr. Miller decided it was wrong to have Achilles put down just yet, as he is still up and walking. One tries not to see a metaphor.

Like Newt Gingrich, Mr. Miller has cracked the sacred scrolls of Colleen McCullough’s hyper-researched Roman toga-rippers; he’s friends with doorstop biographer Robert Caro.

Mrs. Miller is a brisk, down-to earth former Princeton swimmer who, as a little girl growing up outside San Francisco, was an Olympic prospect. Today, she’s a litigation lawyer on leave from Arnold & Porter. In the swelter of the Gay Pride parade, she kept an eye on the children as a guy with a Prince Valiant haircut struggled like Diddy’s umbrella man to stay up and over Mr. Miller with a “Miller for Mayor” poster in case a photographer wandered by. Mr. Miller’s son Marshall was riding a scooter. “Whatever happened to Connecticut?” one of the children recently queried Mrs. Miller, suddenly remembering the swimming pool at the in-laws’ Litchfield County country house. Asked if he will consider public schools for his kids, Mr. Miller tends to get twitchy; come fall, both will be enrolled at Park Avenue Christian, where Addison’s tuition alone costs more than $13,000.

With the face of a fourth-year hospital resident, Mr. Miller has an air of quiet competence. He’s got some silver at the temples. He’s a Thomas Keller of the barbecue, a whiz with the Bisquick who often cooks breakfast for his little boys. In January, Anthony Weiner accused Mr. Miller of being an “out-of-touch Upper East Side rich guy.” Naturally, Mr. Miller disputes this. “I’m worried about where to send my kids to school,” he said. “I’m worried about the subways getting me and my wife to work every day…..”

But doesn’t he have a car and driver?

Mr. Miller smoothly emended his statement: “I take the subway sometimes—at least once or twice a week,” he said, adding: “I worry about how to afford housing.”

The Millers live in a 21¼2-bedroom duplex in a turn-of-the-century tenement turned gussied-up co-op. “When you say ‘duplex,’ I think of Mr. Drummond,” said Councilman Gioia. It’s a nice place, very lived in, very Pottery Barn, “but it’s not like you walk in and say, ‘This guy’s loaded!’ There’s a postage-stamp-size backyard,” he added. Mr. Miller admits he’s a millionaire, but only if you count his real estate (and public filings seem to bear this out).

Mr. Miller doesn’t think he’ll ever return to Fordham Law, calling the third year “literally just a way for schools to extort $40,000 out of impoverished law students, through large law firms that pay those bills, by further enslaving law associates for an extra several years of indentured servitude.”

Like his rivals, Mr. Miller has a lot of plans that would be paid for by taxes that are purely speculative. He proposes to drum our fair share of money out of Albany and Washington by agitating alongside a coalition of city power Menschen—“not like our Mayor, who approaches everything like a one-man band,” he said. His main quibble with the Mayor’s school plan is that it leans on “bureaucratic reshuffling and test preparation.” He sees a day when our schools will be more like those in the suburbs. In his travels, when he comes across a schoolteacher, he always says, “Bless your heart!” Corny, but he means it. His people are confident that those wooden-sword fights over the $1.8 million of taxpayer money spent on all those fliers with his beamish-boy picture, or the cash his campaign accepted from slumlords, will be forgotten inside the voting booth.

“You know the old baseball saying,” he told someone in front of Zabar’s: “They don’t throw it at your head until you’ve whacked a few out of the park.”