On the Mark

Green's populist campaign appeals to Hollywood and Harlem

"May I give you some propaganda?" he offered a woman rummaging through a crate of apples, handing her some literature. "It's largely accurate."

"Vote for me!" he shouted into a crowd under a tent of tomatoes the size of softballs. "I'll get you half off on all produce. It's corrupt, but economic." Most of his jokes got only a smile, but that one brought the tent down.

Green can shift gears with amazing alacrity, effortlessly going from jokester to earnest campaigner to Lee Atwater­like attack dog. In a surprising development, the object of Green's scorn has not been the vulnerable Geraldine Ferraro, but Chuck Schumer. For weeks, Green has relentlessly pounded away at Schumer's record, painting the nine-term congressman as a comfy insider. "He's a legislative bureaucrat, not a progressive leader," Green told the Voice. "He's done good work on guns and banks, but those are not the issues of '98.HMOs, tobacco, campaign finance reform, and education are. And those are the issues on which he has no significant record. He had to create a record by spending millions on TV ads. It's easy to go after the NRA when you're a Brooklyn Democrat. Where has he been on HMOs and tobacco and Giuliani and D'Amato all these years?"

Green says he's focused more on Schumer because the congressman has a record, whereas Ferraro has been out of Washington since 1984. Political insiders, however, say this is a deliberate tactic on Green's part. "It makes sense," one party activist says. "If Mark just laid back, then the race would be between Chuck and Geraldine. What he wants to do is make it impossible for people to leave him out of the game. If he spent his time attacking Ferraro, he'd look like the bad guy, and that wouldn't do anything but help Chuck. Attacking Schumer means that he keeps himself in the game a lot better." Of course, it's also an easier way to get free media, something the penurious Green, who's no slouch when it comes to hamming it up before TV cameras, badly needs.

So how can Green win? Ironically, he could benefit the most from the expected low voter turnout. In 1986, when Green upset John Dyson despite being considerably outspent, the turnout was only 13 percent, or 600,000 votes. In 1992, when Al Sharpton was in the race and the Democrats were looking to take over the White House, more than a million voters came out to the polls, upping the turnout to 25 percent. Election analysts are predicting a turnout this year at somewhere around 20 percent or less. Lower turnout usually means the primary will be decided by the more ideological voters, the ones more likely to vote for Mark Green. With his strong popularity in New York City, Green should be able to corral a quarter of a million votes.

Although downstate is certainly Green's base (he was the largest vote-getter citywide in both 1993 and '97), he has not conceded upstate to Ferraro, as many believe. He has campaigned vigorously in various upstate cities for the past two years. He has even won the endorsements of some major black elected leaders, including William Johnson, the mayor of Rochester, who will be lending his voice to Green's radio commercials, and Arthur Eve, the assembly's minority speaker from Buffalo. His work upstate helped him win the rural caucus last spring. Today, Schumer is expected to take the Albany area, Ferraro will likely do well in Erie County, while Green has good support in Rochester. Many believe the race should be decided in New York City and the 'burbs, where all three candidates have various strengths and weaknesses. For Green, the biggest problem may be money, though he says he has enough to win the primary.

"I think of fundraising the way Mark Twain thought of bourbon: too much is not enough," he says. "You always want more."

As of two weeks ago, Green had raised a total of $2.8 million, with $1.1 million cash on hand. In the first days of September, Green began airing ads in upstate New York (a cheaper market), one featuring the candidate facing the camera saying what he believes in amid a bucolic background of trees and grass. Another commercial shows Green jogging with a group of mock politicians following him, in an obvious metaphor for the progressive candidate. (A car chasing Green in the commercial has Schumer stickers on it.) In the last week of the campaign, set to air as the Voice hits the newsstands, he will unveil his coup de théâtre: a commercial featuring the paralyzed actor Christopher Reeve, enthusiastically endorsing Green. Intentionally designed to tug at the heartstrings (and rally the party faithful, since Reeve is a longtime Democratic activist), the ad will run statewide.

In the end, the primary will be decided by those very ideological voters Green is actively targeting. But will they go with the lucrative pragmatist Schumer, who perhaps has a better shot at beating D'Amato, or the principled idealist Green, who would have to take on the Fonz's $12 million war chest?

Green thinks the issue is clear cut. As for campaign finance reform, while on the stump last week the candidate observed, "Hearing [Schumer] denounce the money system under which he's raised $13 million--the most ever in American history in a primary--reminds one of Elmer Gantry denouncing sin."

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