Fernando Ferrer sought to turn the contest for New York City Mayor into a brawl last weekend. Who could blame him?
Up until Sunday’s first public debate, nothing had gone right for Mr. Ferrer. His decision to throw some oratorical haymakers when he got the chance was almost inevitable.
The tactic was not a total failure. Although some of his attacks seemed lumbering, there were enough sharp jibes at Mayor Michael Bloomberg for the challenger to claim a narrow victory in the battle of the sound bites. Mr. Ferrer’s strong showing also brought a spark of interest to a contest that had been soporific.
Unfortunately for Mr. Ferrer, however, such “victories” are little more than cosmetic at this stage. His shots at the Mayor scored points, but they didn’t come close to delivering a knockout.
It now appears that nothing except a monstrous gaffe by Mr. Bloomberg can save Mr. Ferrer from becoming yet another Democratic loser in an overwhelmingly Democratic city.
Whenever Mr. Ferrer or his aides are asked about their failure to gain traction in this campaign, they immediately cite their relative poverty by comparison with Mr. Bloomberg. That is not just an incomplete explanation; it is a disingenuous one.
Mr. Ferrer has, in fact, been undone by fundamental, self-inflicted problems that have bedeviled both his campaign this year and his career at large.
The Democratic challenger has tried hard to present himself as the archetypal man of the people. The closing line in many of Mr. Ferrer’s television ads is: “He’s not like Mike. He’s more like you.”
This, in turn, feeds into Mr. Ferrer’s Big Idea—that there are two New Yorks, one affluent and satisfied, the other impoverished, maltreated and discontented. He is the man to stand up for the embattled denizens of the latter, he contends.
Alas, Mr. Ferrer’s rhetoric and record rub against each other here. The use of the “Two New Yorks” theme is intended to position him atop the moral high ground. But any leader who wants to claim that territory needs a past that bespeaks conviction and constancy. Mr. Ferrer falls far short. He has a long, inglorious history of taking the most expedient course.
Mr. Ferrer’s flip-flops are notorious. In 1997, fighting for the Democratic Mayoral nomination in a field that was crowded on the left, he lurched toward the center.
His blanket opposition to the death penalty was jettisoned. His erstwhile support for abortion rights now came wrapped in rhetoric more suited to the religious right: “Every time a mother hiccups, that’s no reason to abort a child,” he remarked on one occasion.
The 1997 challenge fizzled and died. Come 2001, Mr. Ferrer apparently decided there were political gains to be made by a return to the left. The “Two New Yorks” theme was duly trotted out. He lost again.
Mr. Ferrer saved his most egregious display of spinelessness until earlier this year. The Amadou Diallo fiasco played as big a role as anything Mr. Bloomberg has done in bringing Mr. Ferrer to his current, near-hopeless predicament.
The facts, lest we forget, are that Mr. Ferrer, addressing the Sergeants Benevolent Association in March, opined that the 1999 killing of Amadou Diallo by NYPD officers was a “tragedy” but not “a crime.” He also asserted that there had been an effort to “over-indict” the officers involved. Mr. Ferrer later tried to distance himself from the comments without disowning them. The mess was never cleared up.
“He lost the moral argument when he lost the Diallo argument,” political consultant Hank Sheinkopf said. “When that happened, he became like any other politician.”
Mr. Ferrer’s handling of the Diallo episode was destructive because it went far beyond standard political clumsiness. Diallo was an unarmed, young black immigrant, killed by 19 of the 41 bullets that the NYPD fired at him. Could there be a starker example of a citizen of “the other New York” meeting with brutal injustice?
But Mr. Ferrer betrayed Diallo’s memory in a brazen effort to expand his own political acceptability. Such lapses are not easily forgiven or forgotten. Nor should they be.
The Ferrer campaign has had other problems too, of course—not least a general lack of purpose, urgency and direction. In fact, Mr. Ferrer has only harked back to the “Two New Yorks” idea quite recently, perhaps out of desperation to find something captivating to talk about.
Some analysts believe that the “Two New Yorks” motif was never likely to form the basis of a winning strategy. “It’s not so much that I find [the theme] divisive as I find it exclusionary,” Democratic consultant George Arzt said. “He should have been talking about trying to lift all boats.”
That may be so. But Mr. Ferrer’s boat has been sinking for a long time, holed below the waterline by his own actions.
There was no reason to believe he would patch those holes in time for Tuesday’s final debate.