The most interesting story to emerge from primary night involves the least consequential office on the ballot. But his surprisingly anemic second-place finish behind Bill de Blasio likely means that the beginning of the end of Mark Green’s long political career—one more notable for its failures and near-misses than for its triumphs—may now be at hand.
Yes, it’s true that Tuesday night’s public advocate results—a 33 to 31 percent edge for de Blasio, with a few precincts still outstanding—look eerily similar to the 2001 Democratic mayoral primary, in which Green was bested 35 to 31 percent by Fernando Ferrer. In that campaign, Green went on to overtake Ferrer in the runoff, 51 to 49 percent. So there is precedent for Green winning a runoff—which he now faces with de Blasio two weeks from now, on September 29.
But you won’t find many political watchers putting money on the 64-year-old Green engineering a similar feat this time around. Conventional wisdom has held all year that the former public advocate—the only office he’s ever actually won—needed to clear 40 percent in the first round of voting, or he’d be cooked, thanks to his polarizing image. As the primary approached, most believed he’d fall just short of the magic number, but would still lead the Democratic pack. No one believed he’s actually come in second place. For Green, his primary showing is something approaching catastrophic.
In fact, to look closer at Green’s 2001 runoff experience is to glimpse what is likely to unfold in the days ahead. After running behind Ferrer in the preliminary that year, the bottom almost immediately fell out for Green. Because he was such a known commodity (and one that evoked strong feelings from supporters and detractors), all of the voters who were inclined to support him had done so in Round One; there was no room to grow. It was Ferrer, the fresh face with sudden momentum, whose support expanded rapidly as the runoff began.
Under more mundane circumstances, Green would have been powerless to stem the Ferrer tide and would have suffered a defeat—possibly a decisive one—in the runoff. But this was the race for mayor, just weeks after 9/11. Anxiety was at unprecedented levels and Green tapped into it with a campaign that challenged Ferrer’s fitness and preparation to lead a city that had just been devastated by a terrorist attack (and that, most figured, would be hit by more under the next mayor). “Can we take a chance?” his ads asked.
And then there were the fliers and phone calls—which Green himself didn’t order but that his supporters organized—that targeted white voters with race-baiting efforts to link Ferrer and Al Sharpton. It was all enough for Green to arrest Ferrer’s post-primary momentum and to eke out a runoff victory.
It’s tough to see him doing that now. For one thing, the public advocate’s race simply doesn’t matter to voters as much as a mayoral race does. Voters are more willing to take a chance on a new face and less susceptible to fear-mongering. After all, it’s tough to get people worked up about an office that really doesn’t matter. And, of course, the climate is far different. Sept. 11 was eight years ago. Existential anxiety isn’t driving the electorate today.
So what Green is left with is a situation very similar to the early days of his ’01 runoff: running behind an upstart candidate who has the wind at his back. But the ingredients that allowed him to reverse that trend are all missing.
De Blasio, not surprisingly, delivered the more forceful and peppy speech on Tuesday night. He even challenged Green to ten debates over the next two weeks (yes—that’s five more than Bill Thompson challenged Mike Bloomberg to for their entire fall campaign). The crowd around him was jubilant; they may have been as surprised by the result as anyone. Green, by contrast, seemed to be going through the motions when he spoke, trying to save face by pretending this was the result he’d expected all along.
But it’s not, of course. Maybe Green will find a way to pull this one out in two weeks. If he does, he’ll be back in the game in a big way—an instant contender for the 2013 mayoral election. If not, though, this should be it, for real.