Can Mark Green Really Be a Front-Runner?

Whatever you may think of him, you’ve got to hand it to Mark Green: The man just will not give up.

He has spent the better part of three decades trying to be someone—someone big—in politics, and usually coming up short. Some actually believed we’d seen the last of him (as a candidate, at least) on that September night three years ago when, digesting his 20-point loss to Andrew Cuomo in the Democratic primary for attorney general, Green swore to supporters that he’d never seek elected office again. 

But, like Richard Nixon after promising the press that they wouldn’t have him to kick around anymore, Green just couldn’t stay away from the game. So he’s back, running at the age of 64 for the only office he’s ever won: public advocate. And, for now at least, he’s the front-runner, leading a crowded Democratic pack with 35 percent of the vote—21 points ahead of his nearest rival.

Officially, Green is running “because I’m devoted to public service,” but it’s not hard to see the calculation behind his move: Get back on the ballot, re-establish a base, post a win, and then use the visibility of the public advocate’s office to take one last shot at the kind of Big Deal office that has always eluded him—the mayoralty, which (assuming a Bloomberg win this fall) will be wide open in 2013.

Green already followed this path once before, and it took him as close as he’s ever been—and may ever get—to the bigtime. In 1993, he notched his first-ever general-election victory, claiming the public advocate’s post. Re-elected in 1997, he spent the rest of the decade using his perch to battle Rudy Giuliani from the left.

Then, with Giuliani forced out by term limits in 2001, Green found himself poised to claim the mayoralty. He was hardly adored, but the rest of the Democratic field—Fernando Ferrer, Peter Vallone Sr., and Alan Hevesi—was underwhelming, and few gave Michael Bloomberg, the main Republican candidate any real chance. New Yorkers were largely disengaged from the race; because of his name-recognition advantage, this apathy was on Green’s side.

But Green nearly lost the Democratic nomination to Ferrer, who caught fire late in the campaign and actually won the preliminary vote. But, with the assistance of an ugly negative campaign that left many black and Hispanic leaders hostile toward, Green overtook Ferrer in the run-off and began the general election with a double-digit lead over Bloomberg. His moment, it seemed, had arrived.

And then, in the closing days of the race, Giuliani threw his weight behind Bloomberg, cutting a television ad that blanketed the airwaves and that—thanks to Giuliani’s unparalleled post-9/11 popularity—fundamentally changed the race. It was just enough to push Bloomberg over the top, by two points, or about 35,000 votes.

That excruciating defeat still haunts Green, as illustrated by the frequency with which he talked about it in private and not-so-private circumstances for years after.

His manner and style make a poor impression on many people, but as mayor, it’s possible that he would have grown on voters—especially in the boom years that preceded last fall’s Wall Street bust. It might be Green, and not Bloomberg, getting the credit for leading New York back from the devastation of 9/11. And who knows what being mayor could have led to? The governorship? A Senate seat? A spot on the national stage? All he needed was for that first domino—the mayoral election—to fall, and all of the clout and status he’d sought for so long would have followed. Two lousy percentage points kept it all from happening.

There have been plenty of other missed opportunities, too. Like the House race in 1980, when, fresh off an apprenticeship with Ralph Nader, Mark Green took on Bill Green, the liberal Republican who’d won a 1978 special election to represent the East Side in the House. Bill Green won by ten points—and held on to the seat until 1992, when redistricting softened him up enough to lose to Carolyn Maloney. With a win, Mark Green, then 35 years old, could have begun a long career in Congress—or used his seat to position himself for bigger things.

Instead, he disappeared into the think-tank world and re-emerged in 1986 to challenge Al D’Amato for his Senate seat—only to lose, 58 to 41 percent. Twelve years later, when D’Amato was far more vulnerable, Green ran again. But it was hopeless: Geraldine Ferraro’s celebrity and Chuck Schumer’s money suffocated Green in the primary. Schumer emerged as the winner, defeated D’Amato, and became a Senate powerhouse—a fixture on Sunday shows and, possibly, a future majority leader of the Senate. Green went back to the public advocate’s office to prepare for ‘01.

And then there was the A.G.’s race in 2006. The job itself actually seemed a perfect fit for Green and his litigious brand of public advocacy. But what’s got to kill Green is what Cuomo, who beat him handily, has done with the office—using high-profile investigations and prosecutions to transform his once-tarnished image and to emerge as, by far, the most popular politician in the state. Green can only stare at Cuomo’s brilliant image rehab and think: That could have been me. That should have been me!

So here he goes again—one more run at the brass ring. And on one level, it’s not hard to see it working out. Yes, Green is awfully polarizing, even among Democrats, and the “perpetual candidate” tag doesn’t help. But the public advocate’s race won’t attract much attention, and he’s easily the biggest name in it. With three other Democrats running, Green will only need 40 percent in the primary to avoid a run-off and win the nomination (tantamount to election in November) on the spot.

And, at least from the far-off vantage point, the 2013 mayoral field looks a lot like 2001’s— a bunch of midgets skirmishing to replace the giant who can’t run again. There may not even be a credible Republican running; the race could be settled in the Democratic primary. In a crowded field of no-names, Public Advocate Green’s chances wouldn’t be that bad. Maybe, at 68 years of age, that’s when he’ll finally get his moment.

But don’t bet on it. He’s Mark Green. He’s not supposed to win the big one. 

Can Mark Green Really Be a Front-Runner?