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.

"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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