Did Bigotry Alone Spell Ferrer’s Doom?

The erudite professor of practical politics, Roberto Ramirez, wasn’t wrong when he told The New York Times that the late Mayoral candidacy of Fernando Ferrer may have paved the way for a more successful Latino candidate in the future. As the failed Presidential campaign of Al Smith begat John F. Kennedy, as Percy Sutton’s attempt to break the Mayoral color line begat David Dinkins, so might Mr. Ferrer’s defeat bequeath to New York its first Latino Mayor.

Mr. Ramirez, who had served as Mr. Ferrer’s counselor for years, put his friend’s defeat in this broader perspective. “Historically,” he told The Times, “when a candidate emerges from a community that traditionally had not participated in the highest policy and elected positions, that candidate must pay a price.” Smith, the first Catholic Presidential nominee, would be the most notable example of the Ramirez theory. Without Smith, would the country have accepted Kennedy in 1960?

“Society at large is unaccustomed to viewing individuals who come from that community with having the wherewithal to manage the finances, the policy,” Mr. Ramirez continued. “I think Fernando Ferrer made a down payment for future candidates of his race.”

In essence, Mr. Ramirez is saying that New Yorkers aren’t ready to entrust the city’s finances to a Latino. This is a pretty explosive argument, even in its dandified language. Mr. Ramirez says “society at large” is “unaccustomed” to the notion of a Latino in charge of the treasury and the government. Since when did New York become “society at large?”

The impulse to blame defeat on bigotry is strong and, in the bitterness of defeat, understandable. Few of us would have exchanged places with Mr. Ferrer over the last few months; to spend even a day on any campaign trail is to witness enough humiliation for a lifetime. The men and women who pursue elected office are expected to smile through tiresome rituals and vacuous inquisition. It’s hardly a wonder that when such an exercise ends in further humiliation, the victim lashes out.

And Mr. Ferrer did so, blaming the media and the pollsters and just about everybody except himself. Mr. Ramirez blamed “society at large” for its unwillingness to accept a Latino candidate as Mayor.

Generations ago, a similarly embittered Al Smith complained, after being overwhelmed by Herbert Hoover, that the time had not yet come when a man could say his beads and be President—the reference was to the Catholic practice of praying the rosary. And that’s how history remembers Al Smith’s defeat: The country wasn’t ready to accept a Catholic in the White House.

But that explanation—attractive in this age of ethnic and religious grievance—ignores a more complex story told in the actual election returns: Smith lost New York, which had elected him Governor four times, and other states with large numbers of Catholics (Pennsylvania, Illinois), but held onto most of the Solid (Democratic and Protestant) South: South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Arkansas and Louisiana.

What Will Rogers told Smith before the 1928 election applies to Mr. Ferrer as well: You just can’t lick this prosperity thing.

That is a more nuanced reading of both the ’28 Presidential election and the ’05 Mayoral campaign. Leave it to a humorist to figure out what was really going on.

Had Al Smith been a white Anglo-Saxon Protestant, would he have defeated the heir-apparent to Calvin Coolidge, whose very name was associated with the prosperity of the Roaring 20’s?

If Fernando Ferrer were named Mark Green (just for laughs), would he have defeated Mr. Bloomberg, whose first term saw the city’s stunning recovery—in purely economic terms—from 9/11?

In both cases, surely the results would not have changed. Smith might have won a few more states in the South, and perhaps Mr. Ferrer would have collected more votes in the places where “society at large” remains unprepared for a Latino Mayor. (One wonders: Where are those voters who rejected Mr. Ferrer because of his race—or, more precisely, his ethnicity? Staten Island? South Brooklyn? Forest Hills? To believe this is to assert that these areas were prepared to renounce the Republican incumbent if only the Democrats had nominated a white guy. That is more than a stretch: That is ridiculous.)

Mr. Ferrer expressed his disappointment that the Democrats didn’t rally around the first Latino to win the party’s Mayoral nomination, but as Mr. Ramirez points out, this is not unusual for trailblazers. And Mr. Ramirez is equally correct to observe that the next Latino Mayoral nominee will find a path freed of brambles and underbrush, thanks to Mr. Ferrer’s candidacy.

One wonders, though, if he is prepared for the third stage of ethnic voting (defeat and success being the first two), when Latinos are freed—as Catholics were in the Presidential election of 2004—to reject one of their own.

How do you explain that? Did Bigotry Alone  Spell Ferrer’s Doom?