On the Mark

Green's populist campaign appeals to Hollywood and Harlem

Give Mark Green some credit. In the waning days of his Senate campaign, trailing in the polls and in the all-important fundraising sweepstakes, the city's public advocate has not resorted to demagoguery—no promises to crack down on crime, welfare cheats and big government.

Instead, he's been turning up the populist rhetoric even more, talking about health care reform, after-school programs, and immigrants' rights. But Green, 53, is a populist with a flair for drama (perhaps the result of his cozy connections to Hollywood types like Warren Beatty, Billy Baldwin, and Sarah Jessica Parker among others). On August 31, he brought before reporters and cameras victims of HMO abuses: a man whose HMO refused to pay for a new wheelchair; a police officer whose father was prematurely discharged from a rehab center following a stroke; a man whose stepson died after his HMO refused to approve treatment for a congenital heart disease. Green used the occasion to outline an ambitious 20-point plan for reforming HMOs and ensuring consumer protection. He's not being pious. He truly believes this is the path to victory on September 15.

"Money talks, consumers vote," Green says, in a familiar refrain. (No candidate uses the word consumer more than Mark Green.)

"This is a campaign contest based on her polls, his ads, and my record of results." The "her" is Geraldine Ferraro, of course, and the "his" is Brooklyn Congressman Chuck Schumer, both better known in Greenspeak as "my worthy opponents." That's about the highest compliment he gives either of them these days. As the primary draws near, Green, unlike Schumer--as many pundits predicted--has been the aggressor, injecting some life into what has been a lackluster race. Until Green took the offensive, zinging Schumer with razor-sharp analyses of his congressional record, the campaign was a dreadfully dull affair, filled with tedious "candidates forums" and other relatively innocuous events. As Green has repeatedly said in recent weeks: "People understand the difference between substance and slander. Let's not stifle debate and bore voters to death."

Now that the post­Labor Day period has arrived, many believe the race will tighten. "It's a tough campaign to call," one frustrated Democratic strategist observed. "In primaries, people are usually campaigning in the same arena--there's a lot of overlapping. These candidates are coming at totally different angles: one candidate is about money [Schumer], one candidate is about fame [Ferraro], and one candidate is about ideology."

The question remains whether there are enough ideological voters on the left to propel Green to victory. Popular pols like Rudy Giuliani and George Pataki have eschewed party labels and stressed competence. And thanks to Bill Clinton's despoiling of whatever principles were left in the Democratic Party, Green may have a tough time finding the right audience in 1998.

The former Nader raider will have none of it. On the campaign stump, he draws a stark contrast between himself and his opponents, depicting them as sellouts looking for a cheap ride to Washington. "If you want a politician on both sides of the issue, there are other folks running," he told the congregants at the New Life Center of Truth, a black church in East Flatbush, with David Dinkins and Councilwoman Una Clarke by his side last Sunday. "There will be candidates running who have more money than I do, God knows," he told an impeccably dressed crowd at City Councilman Lloyd Henry's church earlier in the morning. "They're better at calling donors, I'm better at suing them. And if you think I have been on your side all these years on tobacco companies, HMOs, and police misconduct, will you be on my side September 15?" Needless to say, an amen corner erupted from the previously subdued churchgoers.

For many months, Green has been aggressively courting the black vote, from AfricanAmericans in Harlem to West Indians in Brooklyn to Haitians in Rockland County. Clearly, Green enjoys a stronger rapport with blacks than most white Democrats. He got an enthusiastic reception at a subway stop in Harlem last week, warmly greeted by most (yes, most) of the local straphangers. An elderly Harlem resident, clad in funky '70s polyester with a big collar, stopped to chat with the public advocate. "See that building?" he said, pointing to a high-rise on Lenox Avenue. "Most of the people there are voting for you!"

"He's up here where the people are," the cigar-chomping Harlemite later told the Voice, refusing to give his name. "I don't see the other politicians up here. You see them on the damned television. But he's here, right in the center of Harlem, on 135th Street."

Indeed, Green's campaign has managed to reach out to a broad section of New York's liberal mosaic. Consider his schedule one day in late August: a subway stop on Crown Heights; a City Hall press conference advocating for a stronger Family and Medical Leave Act; a subway stop in Harlem; a street festival in Harlem; a black church in the Bronx; a meeting with a group of Chinese American acupuncturists and business leaders; a meeting with a Latino group in Williamsburg. But he hasn't forgotten the white liberals either. He spent one sweltering Saturday morning in Park Slope with hundreds of shoppers in the green market at Grand Army Plaza. Purveyors and consumers of organic foods tend to be Mark Green's people, even though Schumer lives in the neighborhood. Comfortable in his element, Green tossed one-liners as easily as he gave out pamphlets. The jokes were terrible, of course, but he's Henny Youngman by most politicians' standards.

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