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Despite that demeanor, many in the Bronx who have sparred with him over politics or development issues, and even some supporters, describe Ferrer as sometimes prickly and thin-skinned. It's a trait he claims to have outgrown. "When I was young and foolish probably," he says.
On a recent Saturday afternoon, Ferrer, wearing a pressed white guayabera shirt and razor-sharp khakis, stood on the steps of a post office on Mermaid Avenue and West 28th Street in Coney Island addressing a small crowd mobilized by a local African American Democratic political club that has endorsed him. The neighborhood contains its own images of success and failure in the Giuliani era: Prosperity is reflected in new chain stores that have opened on the shopping strip and the new $30 million minor league ballpark a few blocks away; nagging poverty still clings in the sight of empty lots, decaying wood frame buildings, and the little plastic bags used for crack cocaine that sprinkle a nearby sidewalk.
"Coney Island has spent too much time in the other New York; it has to be brought back," Ferrer told the mostly black crowd before switching to another campaign mainstay. "A community needs a relationship with its police based on trust and respect," he said.
"You can feel the sincerity coming from him when he talks about the low-income people and their problems," said Rodney Knight, a schoolteacher, explaining why he and other members of the South Brooklyn Independent Political Club endorsed Ferrer. "You can tell he's saying what he means."
Even opponents agree Ferrer is more confident and better prepared than he was in his first mayoral run four years ago, when he bailed out halfway through the Democratic primary amid faltering fundraising and a series of public gaffes.
One episode occurred on a radio show hosted by former mayor David Dinkins, who asked Ferrer about an incident a week earlier in which a white cop, who later said he thought the victim had a gun, fatally shot a Hispanic man in the back.
"To shoot someone in the back is an execution. And that's precisely what occurred here," said Ferrer.
The press jumped on the statement and Giuliani and then-police commissioner Howard Safir denounced Ferrer for cop bashing and jumping to conclusions. A grand jury later ruled the shooting justified, stating that the victim was waving a machete, and declined to charge the officer, who proceeded to sue Ferrer for defamation. The case was dismissed.
Asked about the incident last week, Ferrer paused. "Do I regret having said it? I regret the intemperate language. There is little justification for intemperate language," he said.
It's a situation he hopes to avoid this time around. "I am four years older, four years wiser," he said.
Although he didn't know it then, Ferrer was also ill at the time. After he pulled out of the race, he had a test that revealed an enlarged thyroid gland. A side effect of the illness, Ferrer notes, is high irritability. He opted to have the gland removed surgically and now takes Synthroid, a common medication for those who've had the condition.
When he announced his candidacy in 1997, Ferrer chose the backdrop of the Waldorf Astoria, where his grandmother spent 30 years working in the kitchen helping to support Ferrer and his sister. His mother and father, both natives of Puerto Rico, divorced when he was young, and Ferrer remembers a childhood marked by nights of no heat and shoes with holes in them. For his current campaign, Ferrer brought the press to the block on Fox Street in the South Bronx where he was raised. The tenement he lived in is gone now, one of the thousands lost to the borough's firestorm of abandonment and arson in the 1970s. But dozens of others nearby were rescued and renovated, and there are now rows of new, affordable townhouses developed under housing programs that Ferrer backed.
There is some debate about exactly how much credit Ferrer deserves for the borough's rejuvenation. In 1988, goaded by criticism from neighborhood groups and aided by an improving economy, then-mayor Koch committed $5.1 billion to new housing initiatives, much of it aimed at the Bronx.
Ferrer is careful to praise Koch, calling the housing production plan "his greatest legacy to the city." But it was his work as borough president, he says, that helped knit together the community and private partnership that brought the plan to life. Others confirm the role.
"He was more than just a cheerleader; that would be to minimize his role," says Felice Michetti, the hard-charging former housing commissioner who served under Koch and Dinkins. "He sent a very strong message: 'I want this to happen.' He never lost sight of the ball and was smart enough to take advantage of what was available," she says, adding, "It is something that would never have happened under Stanley Simon."
Even after the Koch money was committed, Ferrer continued to press City Hall for more development funds. In the early 1990s, a group of religious leaders and community advocates presented him with a plan to create new housing, a school, and a job training center within the long abandoned Morrisania Hospital towers. The hospital's carcass had long been coveted by other, more politically connected developers.