Labor’s Lone Ranger

Dennis Rivera’s Tortured Path to a Mayoral Endorsement

Several unions endorsed Green with full expectations that Rivera would be right behind them. Some were members of his own parent union, the Service Employees International Union. So intent were the SEIU unions on having a joint endorsement that they even had a name for it: "Speaking With One Voice."

For Local 32B-J, SEIU, which represents 70,000 building service workers and had recently emerged from a trusteeship imposed after its autocratic former boss, Gus Bevona, was ousted, the election was a kind of coming out party. "We had made a decision we were going to build influence in New York City," said local president Mike Fishman. The union signed up 8000 members for a new political fund and enrolled more than 1000 as election-day volunteers. The local announced its endorsement for Green in August, when Rivera was in jail in Puerto Rico, having been arrested in protests against the Navy's bombardment of Vieques. Reporters asked Fishman if he'd spoken to Rivera about the move. He said he had.

Last week, Fishman declined to discuss the conversation, but Rivera said it had gone like this: "Mike said, 'If we endorse [Green], you will not endorse anyone else?' And I said, 'I believe that to be the case.' "

Others had a similar impression. Local 6 of the Hotel and Restaurant Employees endorsed Green based on his position on their issues, but its leaders expected to be part of a major labor push, led by 1199. So did the garment and textile union, UNITE—Green's first big labor endorsement. "The information I had—and it proved to be wrong—was that Dennis was close to endorsing Mark Green," said UNITE president Bruce Raynor.

A few days before the primary, as Ferrer's poll numbers climbed and Green's dropped, Rivera made his decision. "The entire rationale of Mark Green's campaign was that he was going to win. This was no longer true," Rivera explained. In a leap that stunned union allies and others, Rivera jumped aboard Ferrer's bandwagon.

As Ken Sunshine, Rivera's longtime friend and advisor who backed Green consistently and urged Rivera to do the same, put it, "Fights in the family are always worse than fights with enemies."

Several days after the runoff, there was another odd scene when Rivera hosted Republican mayoral nominee Michael Bloomberg at his union headquarters, where Rivera and several of 1199's leaders met with the candidate for over an hour. There wasn't really much to talk about, Rivera acknowledged later. "He struck me as a nice guy, but certainly not someone we could endorse. He did not connect with the officers. He didn't clearly understand our concerns," Rivera said.

But Rivera had invited the media, and he marched Bloomberg downstairs in front of the cameras and into the Martin Luther King Jr. Labor Center Gallery. The room is where the local's famed Bread and Roses cultural project presents art displays, and on the walls that day was an exhibit of photos of blue-collar workers. Bloomberg, whose campaign is predicated on his business acumen, heads a non-union company with some 8000 employees. In his autobiography he gloats about how in the early 1980s he "violated every. . .union regulation on the books" to get his financial data computers installed in business offices all over town.

"We are very thankful to him for coming and talking," Rivera told the press, adding that Bloomberg had urged him to call him "Mike." The visit gave Bloomberg a rare photo opportunity with black and Latino leaders and a rarer one yet to stand in a union hall. A few days later, Rivera was asked again about the reason for the invitation to Bloomberg. "It is fair to say we were incredibly unhappy and angry about what had happened," the union leader said, referring to the Green campaign, its television commercials, and the anonymous calls and flyers.

Rivera found himself in another paradox during the Ferrer campaign, one that the candidate and Rivera's friends have loyally remained quiet about. It had to do with his response to Giuliani's demand for a three-month term extension. To many New Yorkers, no single issue defined Freddy Ferrer more favorably in comparison to Mark Green than his refusal to go along with Giuliani. And Green's agreement with the mayor turned thousands of supporters, including many blacks and liberals, against him overnight. Many people believed the mayor's proposal would be yet another disenfranchisement of the city's black and Latino voters.

Rivera thought otherwise. On September 27, the morning after Ferrer's meeting with Giuliani, Rivera had breakfast with the candidate. "Freddy said, 'I just had a meeting with the mayor and he told me this thing. What do you think I should do?' I said, 'I don't know, Freddy, we just had the primary and you only got 7 percent of the white vote. Giuliani is incredibly popular. I think that you should probably do this.' "

Rivera didn't hear from Ferrer again until 5:00 p.m. that afternoon, when Ferrer called to say he had decided to reject Giuliani's proposal. "I said, 'Wow.' Then I hung up the phone and said, 'There goes the election.' " He added: "The history is that he basically was right and I was wrong."

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