Green’s Crisis Advantage

How Mark Topped Freddy in the Race to Rebuild

The man asleep on the Prospect Park bench I passed this chilly Monday morning was completely covered in blankets, his shopping cart of handpicked odds and ends lodged directly behind him. Rising from the cart, perched between jammed plastic garbage bags, was a tiny and tattered flag, saluting America less than 24 hours after it had gone to war again, celebrating a nation of patriots and paradoxes.

With an election to pick New York's next mayor just days away, it's hard to deny that ours is a tale of two cities. But unfortunately that's what Mark Green seemed to do in the Sunday debates, disparaging the "Other New York" campaign theme of his opponent Fernando Ferrer as "divisive," shortly before American bombers hit Afghani targets for the first of what promises to be many times.

Yet in a way, nothing demonstrates the unity of these two cities in this moment of peril—when all of New York's very survival appears hauntingly uncertain—more than the man in the park, simultaneously outcast and comrade, rootless and rooted, discarded and embracing. He is as connected to the Trade Center dead and the troops in search of their killers as any other New Yorker, a link in a chain of indiscriminate anguish with so much at stake this Thursday.

The test in the Democratic runoff is now about which of these two candidates is best able to lead a whole city—fractured by inequity—that urgently and uniformly doubts itself. The city's near-bankruptcy 25 years ago is our closest parallel, but the psychic distance between the headlined Gerald Ford threat that the city should "drop dead" and the savage destruction of our skyline, as well as our financial lifeline, leaves us without comparable, comforting precedent. The next mayor will have to cut a new path for this city, confronting the challenge of an economy that will continue to suffer aftershocks as loud as the twin collapses.

As eloquent as Ferrer has been for months about the pain of bifurcated boom, he has seemed almost tone deaf about the dark days we now face. David Axelrod, the campaign's top strategist, told the Postthat "if people are looking for sea-changes in strategy, they'll be greatly surprised." Ferrer declared, "The towers have tumbled. But our commitments have not. They are still strong."

Ferrer is still talking about imposing a tax surcharge for after-school programs when we'll need it to cover core school costs, still promising big raises to unions more likely to see large layoffs, still focused on billions for housing in a city that lost the office space that, for tens of thousands of New Yorkers, paid the salaries that pay the rents. When he backed increases for neglected city parks in one recent appearance, the Timeseditorial page called him "borderline irresponsible," erring on the understated side only by suggesting that he hadn't crossed the pandering line.

It was as if he read the September 25 exit polls that revealed that most voters were in denial, with only 1 percent of his supporters giving the reconstruction of downtown their top priority, and decided that he could lead a government in denial. It wasn't his use of the Happy Land fire of a decade ago as a WTC parallel that troubled so much as it was his Happy Talk, saying again and again that, despite this sudden new age, he remained wedded to "the reasons that impelled us to run in the first place." The premise of this false promise is that the Other New York is so disconnected it will believe he can still deliver in an age of daunting deficits what he offered when the city had a $2 billion surplus.

Mark Green, on the other hand, has said from the outset that many of the "dreams" he brought to the campaign would have to be "deferred," specifically pulling back on: housing plans, park increases, substantial wage boosts, and others. Without unveiling a specific agenda of reductions, Green has worked at diminishing expectations while Ferrer has tried to sustain them, apparently more concerned about energizing his vote than leveling with it.

Green has been disingenuous about his acquiescence to a Giuliani extension, his seduction of Al Sharpton, and the truthfulness of Ferrer's two-city theme. But he has been far out front on reviving and protecting New York—with a security proposal developed by Jerry Hauer, perhaps Rudy Giuliani's most competent aide, and a rebuilding plan that recognizes that dispersing the financial district, as Ferrer suggested, is what New Jersey and Connecticut want, not what this city needs.

As magnetic as Ferrer's multiethnic coalition is, and as savvy and gutsy as he was when he faced down Giuliani, his shallow comparison of Trade Center and Bronx rubble raises doubts about his judgment. He did not rebuild the Bronx, as even his endorser Ed Koch admits, and designating housing sites in a sea of vacant desolation bears no resemblance to reconstructing the global capitol of capital. A scholar of government, Green brings a policy depth to these complex challenges that Ferrer's early fumbling, and Bronx clubhouse origins, cannot match.

Green also brings a constancy of progressive purpose that eludes the elastic Freddy. Reformatted by the then Clintonesque consultant Dick Morris, Ferrer ran for mayor in 1997 as a pro-death-penalty moderate, converted by the killing of a Bronx cop. Today he talks only about brutal cops. He's apologized for calling late-term abortions "barbaric," but his statement, also in 1997, that there's "no reason to abort a child every time a woman hiccups" sounds so authentic it's hard to believe that it wasn't his consultant, not his conscience, that changed. He's even flipped on his recent Giuliani proposal, swinging from a clear offer to name the mayor the head of his reconstruction authority to making him a dollar-a-day recovery overseer until the rubble is gone.

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