Code Unknown

••• How to Play the Race Card

The suspicion that an appeal is racially coded can often only be confirmed retro-spectively. As Mendelberg points out in The Race Card, Bush's motivations with the Willie Horton ads came into apparent sharp relief when he vetoed the 1990 civil rights bill. And troublingly, Green evinced brusque disregard for the racial wounds that opened and bled during the runoff hustle. Though he repeatedly insisted that neither he nor his staff knew anything of the subterranean anti-Ferrer efforts in Brooklyn, Green refused to censure his field director when the Daily News placed him at a meeting in which the inflammatory leaflets were discussed. When Ferrer, Sharpton, and others asked that Green uncover who was responsible, his astonishing reply was "I could look back and investigate that moot issue, or try to plan a preliminary budget as the 108th mayor of New York City."

That moot issue. Green's behavior entering the general-election campaign might have stemmed from purest arrogance, latent prejudice, or some combination thereof; it was also unambiguously self-destructive. Kendal Elliott, a graduate student in the department of politics at New York University, used game theory to analyze the surprise outcome of the Green-Bloomberg face-off. Leading Bloomberg by 16 points after the runoff, Green was the dominant or "column player" in this conflict, and needed only to follow a "risk-averse" series of moves (i.e., a bland, friendly campaign) in order to win. Instead, panicked by Mayor of the World Rudy Giuliani's late-inning (if inevitable) Bloomberg endorsement, Green launched a series of negative ads. ("Kill it!") "Green's reaction to the endorsement was highly irrational," Elliott says. "Negative campaigning at that stage was not needed, and had he embraced Ferrer and other prominent liberals, the outcome would have been different."

Racial conflict and Green's blundering alone don't explain Bloomberg's victory; Giuliani's endorsement created palpable momentum. But the public's wish during hard times for the smoothest possible transition cannot account for the numbers: an unprecedented quarter of the black vote and half the Latino vote for a Republican nominee who invested in apartheid-era South Africa, and who in late August called charges that the NYPD engages in racial profiling "outrageous."

Minority report: Democratic Party poopers Ferrer and Green
photo: Richard B. Levine
Minority report: Democratic Party poopers Ferrer and Green

"It seemed that the Ferrer campaign simply wanted some acknowledgment that Green supporters attempted to launch a negative campaign using race, even if Green had no knowledge of the events," Elliott continues. "Green became so overly concerned with losing the white liberal vote that he feared any attention paid to the minority population might cost him more votes in the white population. What I find very irrational is that in an attempt to secure these votes, he used no endorsements from popular Democrats, and instead focused on negative campaigning." White supporters such as the Clintons, Mario Cuomo, and former police commissioner William J. Bratton slipped off the radar. An ad with members of the Uniformed Firefighters Association and Patrolmen's Benevolent Association, beloved heroes all after September 11, never even aired.

"If a candidate wishes to focus on a particular group, the best strategy is to inundate different media outlets with people who look and think the same way as the target group," Elliott says. "In the end, Green alienated both the white vote he was trying to keep and the minority vote that already had a dim view of him." The Democratic Party learned many tough lessons this election season—and might well apply them to the looming contest between gubernatorial hopefuls H. Carl McCall and Andrew Cuomo. But Mark Green should have learned long ago that the collision of politics and racial anxiety is never a moot issue.

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