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In 1987, when he was 36 years old and a largely untested member of the City Council, Fernando Ferrer was picked by the battered remnants of the Bronx Democratic machine to serve out the term of Stanley Simon, the Bronx's bumbling and disgraced borough president who had been caught in a bribery scheme. Simon's departure followed the dramatic fall of another Stanleythe cigar-chomping Bronx Democratic boss, Stanley Friedmanwho was convicted in a separate scandal.
After Ferrer took office, when opponents really wanted to get his goat they taunted him as "Stanley Ferrer."
The name made him seethe.
Freddy Ferrer never made any bones about his political heritage. "I came through the regular Democratic organization," he said openly to anyone who asked. "Not from Mars."
But even those not supporting his current race for mayor say Ferrer has proved to be much more complicated than the party loyalist many expected him to be. And they remember with clarity his first vigorous steps to eraseboth literally and politicallythe stains from the landmark Bronx county courthouse on 161st Street.
"When Freddy walked into the borough president's offices in 1987 the stench of corruption was everywhere," recalled Hank Sheinkopf, the political consultant who worked for years with Ferrer but now advises Public Advocate Mark Green's mayoral campaign. "The courthouse was covered with graffiti. The first thing he did was have it taken off, and the next thing was to issue an ethics code for county employees."
The new borough president also invited the city's comptroller to send in an audit team to scrutinize the officean unheard-of action for a politician. He then ordered the 35 aides in his office who were not covered by civil service protections to submit resignations. Half were sent packing. Those retained and all new hires were ordered to file statements disclosing their personal finances, another innovation.
Ferrer did something else borough presidents weren't supposed to do. He baldly acknowledged that the county was in woeful shape: it had the city's poorest residents, its most ailing housing stock, the highest crime rate, many of the worst schools, and the fewest economic opportunities.
"There was a palpable hopelessness in the borough," he says now of that time. "The symbols and reality of failure were just overwhelmingthe rubble-strewn lots, the window decals" [that masked abandoned, city-owned buildings].
Fourteen years later, Fernando Ferrer is running for mayor citing the dramatic changes in the borough since he took office. The measurements of success are a campaign mantra: 66,000 new units of housing, 34,000 new jobs, an All-America City award to the borough from the National Civic League recognizing public-private projects Ferrer helped launch.
Instead of phony decals, the symbol of Ferrer's renaissance is the restored Lorelei Fountain that sits in Joyce Kilmer Park at 161st Street and the Grand Concourse, a long fly ball from Yankee Stadium. A tribute to the poet Heinrich Heine, the fountain was donated a hundred years ago by proud German-Jewish residents and over the years had fallen into urban decay. "It had been vandalized, painted over, and graffiti covered," said Ferrer. "Now it is restored, and the largely Hispanic neighborhood claims it as their own. People feel a sense of ownership now, a sense of participation."
That's the emblem of one of Ferrer's messagesrevitalization, participation, success. The other major theme leads in a reverse direction. While touting his own borough's accomplishments, Ferrer is emphasizing the failure of the Giuliani administration to bring minorities into his revived New York.
"I'm not Rudy-lite," he told mayoral forums this spring by way of introduction. The description is an effort to distinguish himself from his three Democratic opponentsGreen, City Council Speaker Peter Vallone, and Comptroller Alan Hevesiwho are more likely to credit Giuliani's achievements. His campaign is marching under the banner of the "Other New York"a loosely defined term intended to mobilize those angriest with the mayor over issues of police abuse, welfare cutbacks, and educational failures.
Ferrer insists his criticism of Giuliani has been consistent over the years, but the approach is also obviously geared to accommodate a potentially winning political strategy: Ferrer, who is of Puerto Rican descent and would be the city's first Hispanic mayor if elected, believes that if he can mobilize a broad coalition of Hispanic and African American voters, there are enough votes to put him over the top. It's a tent big enough to allow in whites disgruntled by eight years of Giuliani as well, Ferrer hopes.
At 51, Ferrer is a slim man whose thick brown moustache and thinning hair are both now peppered with gray. He has a likeable manner that sometimes verges on shyness. It has allowed most people (other than his own staff, who call him "sir") to feel comfortable addressing him simply as "Freddy." He wears thin, wire-rimmed glasses that turn his occasional wide-eyed expressions of disbelief into a slightly comical Groucho Marx look that only underscores his affability.
"I just have a very good feeling about Freddy," says Queens assemblywoman Cathy Nolan. Along with Ruth Messinger, Geraldine Ferraro, and Congresswoman Nydia Velasquez, Nolan is one of several women political figures who have endorsed Ferrer. "He has a nice easygoing way about him, the kind that's needed in the post-Giuliani era," she says.