By Anna Merlan
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Freddy Ferrer, the mayoral candidate whose bold early moves have stirred the first campaign storm, says his opponents are now "throwing some tree trunks in the way" in an effort to "slow me down."
In a wide-ranging interview with the Voice, the Bronx borough president was as ecstatic about his recent endorsement by state comptroller Carl McCall as he was irritated by the virtually simultaneous, undercutting comments of two of his presumed allies, Reverend Al Sharpton and union leader Dennis Rivera. Ranked second of the four Democratic candidates in all the public polls and the only minority in the race, Ferrer clearly believes Rivera, Sharpton, and other black and Latino leaders will eventually wind up with him in a coalition reminiscent of the one that elected David Dinkins in 1989.
Shortly after the McCall announcement, Sharpton told Andrew Kirtzman on NY1 that despite the endorsement by the state's highest-ranking black official, Ferrer still had "a lot of ground to cover." The mercurial minister explained that "at this point," Ferrer has "neither of the black county leaders with him" nor "the former mayor with him," references to Brooklyn Democratic boss Clarence Norman, Manhattan's Denny Farrell, and Dinkins. Norman is supporting Comptroller Alan Hevesi, and Farrell and Dinkins are said to be leaning toward Public Advocate Mark Green.
Sharpton added that Ferrer also doesn't have "the last candidate for mayor with him"an allusion to his own 1997 race. This statement was seen as a reversal of Sharpton's long-standing public comments supportive of Ferrer, timed to damage him just as Ferrer was holding two press conferences announcing not only McCall's backing, but the endorsements of 15 elected officials, mostly black and Latino. Included in the group were a new black state senator for the Bronx, Ruth Thompson, whose election Ferrer opposed last September, and a new assemblyman, Carl Heastie, who actually worked for Hevesi for years.
In April 1999, Sharpton told the Post's Jack Newfield that he was "very seriously considering just being a part of a broad coalition that supports someone like Freddy Ferrer," and stated that "most likely I would prefer Ferrer." After Sharpton got Ferrer ally and Bronx Democratic leader Roberto Ramirez to back black State Senator Larry Seabrook in a 2000 challenge to an incumbent congressman, Eliot Engel, the Ferrer-Sharpton alliance appeared sealed. When Seabrook lost a race that took on divisive citywide ethnic overtones, Sharpton told the Voice that Ferrer, who remained neutral in the race, had nonetheless "fulfilled his obligations through Roberto."
"I have no complaints," Sharpton said in a September interview. "The coalition is not in any way offset." Sharpton also declared that if he did not run himself, "It is highly likely I will be for Ferrer."
But since then, Sharpton has put himself in play, publicly toying with a possible candidacy, inducing all four candidates to come to his National Action Network headquarters for the first mayoral exchange, and openly flirting with the candidate he once described as a sworn enemy, Alan Hevesi.
Sharpton acknowledges meeting with Ferrer, Ramirez, and other top Ferrer backers in December at Dennis Rivera's union offices and "denouncing" Ferrer for remaining neutral in the Seabrook raceprecisely the opposite of what the minister told the Voice. Sharpton explains this conflict by pointing out that his "public posture and private negotiating position are two different things," saying he "will use whatever he can in the room" with Ferrer and others he bargains with to "get something" for his own constituency.
Ferrer says now that he "doesn't know what to make" of Sharpton's changing comments, claiming that "the conversations I have with him have always been very nice." In fact, Sharpton took an entirely different tack in a Voice interview Monday, saying that if he decides not to run, "my initial focus will be Freddy." Sharpton said he "would have to be convinced to go somewhere else," joking that he "may be playing hard to get; but that doesn't mean I'm taking a new date to the prom."
Nonetheless, Ferrer was implicitly referring to the Sharpton shots at him when he said that his mayoral opponents were trying "to kill a piece of good news"namely, "the electricity" he believes McCall's endorsement has generated in the minority communitywith some timely counterspin. "I know the tree trunks didn't get thrown in the road by themselves," he said.
If Sharpton was acting with the encouragement of a Ferrer opponent, it could, strangely enough, have been Hevesi, who roundly denounced the minister in 1997. Sharpton has been dining and kibitizing with Hevesi's master strategist, Hank Morris, for months, and the public barbs Hevesi once flung at the minister have turned into bouquets. Hevesi's overt support of Engel against Seabrook apparently did not have the same effect on Sharpton as Ferrer's neutrality. When Sharpton told the Postin 1999 that he'd probably back Ferrer and not run himself, his rationale was "outfoxing" Hevesi, whom he saw as benefitting from a "white backlash vote against me" if he did run.
Ferrer is far more understanding about Rivera's confusing recent statements. Conceding that it was not an "unreasonable" assumption of pundits and other campaign observers until recently that Rivera's 350,000-member powerhouse union would endorse him, Ferrer was obviously disappointed by Rivera's declaration in the New York Observer last week that he "might end up not endorsing anybody." But he saw it as Rivera's "musings, in or out of context."
"My guess is it was spun out," Ferrer suggested again, though he quickly added he doesn't think Rivera is "cooperating" with his opponents. Hevesi's Morris is on Rivera's payroll as a media consultant, is doing a major current project for Rivera, and has been lobbying him about Hevesi's longstanding track record of support for Rivera's union. Morris says he had nothing to do with either Sharpton's or Rivera's recent statements, adding, "It's insulting for anyone to think that anyone tells Dennis Rivera or the members of 1199 or SIEU what to do."
On the other hand, the one batch of recent quotes from a major black leader that appeared helpful to Ferrer might not be all they were cracked up to be. Harlem congressman Charlie Rangel told the Daily News' Juan Gonzalez that he preferred Ferrer, rating him first among the four candidates and Hevesi last. But Rangel told the Voice, "My preferences will have very little to do with whom I support. I said I like Freddy; that's all. I think a closer reading of the article would indicate that. The ability to win will decide who I endorse."
Rangel, who is widely seen as the city's most influential black leader, refused to answer a question about whether he had "doubts" about Ferrer's ability to win. "I'm no good at that," said Rangel, indicating he relied on others, like former deputy mayor Bill Lynch, to advise him on that score. "They do better at that than I do," Rangel said. Lynch, who is backing Ferrer, says he definitely believes Ferrer "can win."
Rangel says that he, Sharpton, Queens congressman Gregory Meeks, and "many others" he would not name "are on the same page as of this reading" in picking a candidate to jointly back, but that "anytime anybody decides" that this decision-making process "isn't working" for them, it may end. Meeks included Rivera, DC 37's Lee Saunders, Manhattan borough president Virginia Fields, Teamsters Local 237 leaders, and other undecideds in the group that he said "is meeting almost weekly" in this joint process. Asked if the group was following his lead, Rangel said, "I wouldn't be meeting with them if I thought they were just following my lead."