Ed Koch and Rudy Giuliani are the only two white mayors of New York in the last 24 years. Their combined 20 years were searing examples of racial division, with blacks, much more than Latinos, feeling left out, if not scorned. Ironically, David Dinkins was defeated in 1993 by Giuliani's "one-city-one-standard" campaign, which was designed to convince anyone who wasn't black that Dinkins favored his own.
Giuliani's ads, one of which used his wife Donna to wail that those "who support my husband are called racist," were denounced in a Times editorial as an attempt to "make a campaign that stands to benefit from racial fear appear to be the victim of those fears." The Times concluded: "Not since the heyday of Lee Atwater have we seen such devious artistry when it comes to stirring feelings of racial paranoia among whites."
Giuliani's election-day operation featured thousands of white off-duty cops, firemen, and corrections officers, assigned to "monitor" black districts by Giuliani, which Dinkins denounced as "an outrageous campaign of voter intimidation and dirty tricks." The hubbub over these ads and tactics was forgotten overnight; Ramirez and company were determined to make sure it lasted a little longer this time.
But Dinkins's campaign is not the only parallel experience. Last year, Ramirez ran Larry Seabrook, a black state senator well known only for scandal, against Eliot Engel, the county's six-term, white congressional incumbent. If Al Sharpton's perception/reality calculus is the standard, everyone on both sides thought, despite Ramirez's protestations, that race was the underpinning of the campaign. Sharpton later acknowledged that the Ramirez-Seabrook alliance was designed to win his support for Ferrer's candidacy this year, a first step in the building of a black-Latino coalition.
Engel says now that Ramirez "used code words"precisely what Ramirez accuses Green ofto try to defeat him in his majority black and Latino district. Seabrook printed buttons urging people to elect the county's first African American congressman and mailings that said, "It's time for us to be represented by one of us." Ramirez, who removed Engel's picture from the party's dinner journal and banners, accused him of "appealing to the worst in us by saying that the only reason I have decided not to back him is because he's not black."
When Engel won, Ferrer, who stayed nominally neutral, visited Engel at his Riverdale home. He wanted Engel's support for the upcoming mayoral contest, but all he offered was a let-bygones-be-bygones appeal, the echoes of which must have come back to haunt Ferrer in recent days.
"He was very conciliatory," Engel recalls. "I said to him we ought to replace Roberto as county leader. He said, 'It ain't gonna happen.' I said why not pick a consensus person who can bring all the elements of the party together. He said, 'Slim pickins' and refused." Engel wound up backing Alan Hevesi in the primary and Green in the runoff.
One of the most complex and powerful figures in New York politics, Ramirez has already voluntarily quit the assembly and told the Voice he intends to "soon" follow through on his promise to step down as Bronx leader. He insists he needs "no title" to play the role he sees for himself in the life of the city, which he describes as aiding "the coming to age of a political culture and constituency." His wounds, savvy, and commitment are real, but so are his mistakes. The double standard he rails about in others is one he knows all too well himself.