Captain Ahab hunted the white whale. Javert pursued Jean Valjean. And now, Mark Green is after Andrew Cuomo.
After a career studded with frustrating election results, Mr. Green has found in Mr. Cuomo the perfect embodiment of all the slippery, dodgy, bullying front-runners he has chased in the past. This time, he is determined not to let his quarry get away—even if it kills him.
“I’ll take the debate to him,” said Mr. Green, after handing out fliers between a subway stop and a puddle in Crown Heights on Tuesday morning. “They can call that negative, positive, comparative or a tomato, but it’s all about your record, your values, your views and your agenda.”
With just over three weeks to go until the primary, the garrulous, hyper-confident former city Public Advocate is devoting all of his remaining energies to smashing Mr. Cuomo’s meticulously constructed reputation to bits. Mr. Green has even taken the extraordinary step of formally announcing a month-long, 20-part schedule of negative attacks on his opponent’s record as the Clinton administration’s Housing Secretary—a key component of the much-hyped Cuomo biography.
Conventional political wisdom, certainly, suggests that maybe it’s all a bit much.
“The key for any message, but especially a negative message, is consistency,” said Evan Stavisky, a Democratic consultant. “But an 18-part attack seems a little convoluted and unfocused.”
But Mr. Green is undaunted.
So far, his campaign has blamed Mr. Cuomo for hurting poor New Yorkers by overseeing a fraud-ridden housing program, and after that, Mr. Green insinuated that the former Housing Secretary encouraged underage smoking by steering federal tax money towards the construction of smoke shops on Indian reservations.
And Mr. Green has plenty more to say. He plans in the coming days to go after Mr. Cuomo’s oft-repeated boasts of having doubled anti-discrimination enforcement actions during his tenure at H.U.D., and to call into doubt Mr. Cuomo’s assertion that his experience supervising more than 350 lawyers has prepared him for the State Attorney General’s job.
“We’ll get to that,” said Mr. Green. “He didn’t supervise the attorneys. He ran around handing out grants.”
Though Mr. Green has run negative campaigns before—most famously in the 2001 Mayoral race, which earned him the undying enmity of a substantial chunk of the city’s Democratic rank-and-file—he sometimes seems uncomfortable in the role of tough-talking bad guy, like a candidate with an extreme split-personality disorder.
On Friday evening, he showed up to meet attendees of Shakespeare in the Park on 81st Street and Central Park West wearing black shoes, black pants and black blazer. Between kindly salutations to passers-by—“Hi, I’m Mark Green, Democrat for attorney general”—he offered acrimonious asides to a reporter about Mr. Cuomo.
“He’s tethering his candidacy basically to his years as the Housing Secretary; therefore, it is necessary and proper to examine his record,” said Mr. Green, after chatting sweetly to a blind woman in a wheelchair. “So they shouldn’t act wounded or whiny when I say, ‘Well, you invited this scrutiny.’”
Mr. Green made a quick lap around the stage, explaining to inquisitive voters why Mr. Cuomo was wrong for the job. As he spoke, he shuffled nervously from side to side, positioning and repositioning two young volunteers armed with fliers to better cover his back and front flanks.
“Vote for him for housing czar, but for me for attorney general,” he said.
Cuomo Uses Surrogates
Mr. Cuomo, so far, has adhered to the textbook conception of front-runner behavior and refrained from personally attacking his nettlesome opponent. Instead, he has sent surrogates to smack Mr. Green for him.
On Monday, Assemblyman Jose Rivera sent an open letter to Mr. Green that said he had “learned nothing from the divisive and negative race you ran in 2001 against Fernando Ferrer which cost the New York City Democrats the mayor’s office.”
And, perhaps signaling a wider concern in the party about all-out war between the two top candidates for attorney general, another contender took the unusual step of calling on Mr. Green to cease and desist.
“Come off the ledge, Mark—come back,” said Sean Patrick Maloney, another candidate for attorney general, who added: “I think that right now, it is a sign of desperation and a mistake for Mark to put his eggs in this basket.”
When asked about the attacks, Mr. Cuomo himself has done his best to sound a restrained, if slightly patronizing, tone.
“He has run for office many, many times, so he has his own particular tactics,” he said in a phone interview about his opponent’s assaults. “I decide how to run my campaign. My campaign happens to be a positive campaign.”
While Mr. Cuomo has spent years taking credit for turning around H.U.D., which was in disarray when he came to office in 1997, his tenure also contained a number of lowlights. Among the best publicized was his failure to monitor and root out fraud in a program intended to increase home ownership and stability in low-income neighborhoods, especially in New York City.
But Mr. Cuomo’s general line about his time as the head of the Department of Housing and Urban Development is that the problems that existed during his tenure were all pre-existing ones, and that he has been broadly applauded for cleaning up the agency.
As for Mr. Green’s allegations regarding the corrupt housing program in New York—officially known as the 203K program—Mr. Cuomo said that the charges actually reflected his success at fixing a troubled initiative.
“203K? I was the one who found the abuses and turned them over to law-enforcement agencies and made the changes,” said Mr. Cuomo. “That was me who did that. Well, there were problems—yeah, I know, that was the point.”
Whether or not the attacks on Mr. Cuomo’s record are having an effect, to hear Mr. Green tell it, he has no choice but to continue. Up to this week, the media has largely treated his retail campaigning as so much ranting from a second-place no-hoper, and it’s not as if he has the money to flood the airways with commercials.
In such circumstances, the occasional prospect of press attention has been the stuff of thrills. On Friday outside Central Park, for example, an idling Eyewitness News van drew the attention of one of Mr. Green’s staffers several minutes before the candidate showed up.
“Do you know why ABC is here?” Anne Strahle, Mr. Green’s campaign manager, asked hopefully.
By the time Mr. Green appeared at a nearby hot-dog stand, the news van had pulled away.
“You’re the first journalist to know that I am campaigning,” said Mr. Green shortly afterwards.
He blamed “journalistic laziness” for the lack of coverage. “With only four weeks left, somebody is going to have to compare his record and my record, his substance and my substance.”
He shook his head with frustration when he said that Mr. Cuomo, an “entourage candidate,” was “in hiding.”
“He is a classic front-runner, pretending that he doesn’t have to engage the public, the press, opponents,” said Mr. Green as he climbed up a hill in Central Park, his face growing a brighter shade of orange under his white hair. “But he is not the incumbent, and he is not 60 points ahead like Spitzer.”
The role of Eliot Spitzer—the enormously popular shoo-in candidate for Governor—in the campaign has been another point of frustration for Mr. Green.
Mr. Cuomo, despite a historically strained relationship with the current attorney general, has been doing his best to create the impression that he is Mr. Spitzer’s chosen heir. His recent television ad ends with a snapshot of Mr. Spitzer beaming at his side. Mr. Cuomo has developed a knack for popping up at the same public events with Mr. Spitzer. And not insignificantly, Mr. Cuomo and Mr. Spitzer now share a consulting firm.
Mr. Green is having none of it.
“Nobody believes that Eliot Spitzer is supporting Andrew Cuomo,” said Mr. Green, with a pained look on his face, as he headed out of the park.
Instead, Mr. Green said, prominent members of Mr. Spitzer’s office were partial to his candidacy, though he stopped just short of suggesting that Mr. Spitzer was pulling for him.
“I didn’t say he was. And I didn’t just wink at you—I had something in my eye,” said Mr. Green, winking unmistakably.
‘The Perennial Candidate’
At 61, Mr. Green is no political novice. He has done this before, and before that, and before that, too. A candidate for Mayor in 2001, for the Senate in 1986 and 1998, for Public Advocate in 1993 and 1997—the two races that he won—and for Congress in 1980, Mr. Green has been derided by the Cuomo campaign as a “perennial candidate.” It’s a moniker he hates.
“That’s a lie, obviously. That phrase should apply to stand for someone who only runs and loses,” he said in a white van driving back to his Flatiron home, where he planned to spend the weekend reading his own book in preparation for publicity interviews. “I’ve won five or six primaries—he never has—and I think I understand the psyche and psychology of primary Democratic voters.”
Still, Mr. Green can’t seem to get away from the idea of his eternal candidacy.
Walking around the park on Friday, for example, he found himself engaged for nearly 10 minutes juggling a conversation between an advocate for the legalization of marijuana and a 9/11 conspiracy theorist.
“What about 9/11?” asked the conspiracy theorist, a Yonkers resident in her early 50’s. “Have you read all the evidence that 9/11 was an inside job yet?”
“I don’t want to,” said Mr. Green. “I don’t believe it.”
“If you look at the evidence, you will,” she said.
“I saw the plane hit the tower—come on,” he said.
“It was a poorly designed building,” piped in the pot enthusiast, who wore sandals and black socks and had a long gray beard.
“Hi, Mark Green. Where you from?” said Mr. Green, reaching out to another passerby. “Italy! Oh, very good. Congratulations on the World Cup.”
A new wave of park-goers crossed the street. “Heads up!” yelped Mr. Green, who began furiously introducing himself and handing out flyers.
Brett Leitner, a 32-year-old in media sales at HBO, stopped to say that he supported Mr. Green and had seen him campaigning quite a bit over the years.
“Yes,” said Mr. Green. “I have been around.”