By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
"Freddy told us, 'I like what you are doing, but politically you have to understand this is difficult. Everybody has staked a claim on this site.' But then he backed us all the way," said Nancy Biberman, who founded the group Women's Housing and Economic Development Corporation, which rebuilt the site with state and city funding. The project was singled out by the National Civic League when it awarded the Bronx its All-America City award in 1997.
Political allies weren't turned away from every project, however. The billions pumped into the Bronx have made some builders wealthy, and they are among those today making the most generous contributions to Ferrer's now $4 million campaign coffers. Procida Realty & Construction, for instance, a firm that has built many major projects in the borough, has poured $17,000 into Ferrer's current mayoral bid.
Some of these contributors have proven embarrassing. Ferrer returned $7000 raised by builder Joseph Pontoriero of Worth Construction following a New York Poststory that the builder had been banned from working on city schools after he refused to answer questions about alleged mob ties.
Nor has the political machine that gave birth to Ferrer been banished. If anything, under the leadership of Ferrer's close friend and ally former assemblyman-turned-lawyer Roberto Ramirez, the Bronx Democratic Party is as close to the borough president's office as ever. Ramirez has orchestrated several moves aimed at winning a Ferrer endorsement from Reverend Al Sharpton, so far without success. Aides to Ferrer say confidently that they still expect to land Sharpton's backing, which could help Ferrer break away from the pack. To date, he has been running neck and neck with Vallone and Hevesi, with Green in the lead.
Although he has little time for reading these days, there is a book open on a table in Ferrer's home about another product of a powerful political machine who went on to serve his city admirably. It is Empire Statesman: The Rise and Redemption of Al Smith, by Robert Slayton. "He is someone I happen to admire a lot," said Ferrer. "Came out of poverty on the Lower East Side, had an eighth-grade education, became New York's first really progressive governor. Built public housing, parks. He was quite a guy."
And Smith was someone who was groomed by Tammany Hall, but rose above it, Ferrer was reminded by a visitor.
"Transcended is the word, I think," he replied.