Finding Freddy

Time short, Ferrer has one more chance to let New Yorkers discover him

It's a rainy and quiet Sunday in Manhattan's East Twenties, except for inside the club-turned-political arena Wonderland, where the Democrats running for mayor are gathered for yet another of their frequent Q&A sessions. The room is dark, packed with the youthful supporters of City Council Speaker Gifford Miller. An outsider candidate—he wasn't invited to the forum but showed up anyway to denounce the other candidates as "robots"—has just been ushered out. Ice is clinking behind the bar when a guy in a tie and spectacles, looking a tad out of place amid the chic red lamps and the Che Guevara poster, gets up to make his case.

"I think this election is about a clear choice," Fernando Ferrer says. "It's about a mayor who seems bent on making this city a playground for the privileged. It's a choice between that kind of city and the kind of city that works better for all New Yorkers." In other words, a city that offers good public schools, affordable housing, reliable public transportation, and good jobs. When the questions come, somebody asks about the divisive mayoral race of four years ago and how to avoid such disunity this time around. "I remember 2001," Ferrer jokes. "I think I was there."

He was, and came oh so close. Now Freddy Ferrer's back for a third, very different run at City Hall. He's now a household name, but he's running against an incumbent billionaire. Ferrer's the early front-runner among the challengers, but that has brought intense scrutiny of his comments, such as those on the Amadou Diallo shooting. And this time his candidacy has the look of a last shot: Although he'll be only 59 in 2009, that year's Democratic field is likely to include Comptroller Bill Thompson, a strong candidate who will attract much of the black support Ferrer counts on. If Ferrer fails this year, he'll be a three-time loser whose tenure in public office is fading deeper into memory.

L.A. just elected a Latino mayor, Antonio Villaraigosa, and demographics suggest that New York will follow someday. For nearly two decades, Ferrer has been the leading Latino pol in an increasingly Latino city. When he was sworn in as Bronx borough president 18 years ago, supporters shouted, "He's the one!" The next few months will decide if Ferrer can deliver on that destiny.

After Ferrer's 23 years in elected office, people know his name. But that doesn't mean they know who he is. Ferrer has always defied easy categorization—he's by turns a clubhouse politician, a progressive reformer, an ethnic pioneer. Even his name is malleable, and that's been handy. A veteran Bronx activist recalls once bidding goodbye to the young city councilman by his nickname. No, no, Ferrer joked: "I'm 'Fernando' below Fordham Road. Above Fordham Road, I'm 'Freddy.' "

What's not in doubt is that Ferrer has a great bio. His parents—a truck driver and a bookkeeper who were born in Puerto Rico—divorced when he was eight. He grew up on rough-and-tumble Fox Street in the South Bronx, where, he says, a lot of the guys he knew ended up behind bars. But with smarts and drive, Ferrer earned a scholarship to NYU. After graduation he quickly entered government service: four years as an aide at the assembly, then a staff job on a state commission studying rent regulations. "I had one difficulty with him," the commission's chairman, Jacob Ward, recalls, "and that was I couldn't get him to go home." It paid off. After that gig, Ferrer joined the staff of Borough President Stanley Simon—beginning a relationship that would both nurture and dog Ferrer's career.

Simon was one of the corrupt Bronx leaders whose misdeeds in the 1980s led to scandal and prison. Because Ferrer came out of the same regular-Democratic organization, he has always had to demonstrate his break with the dirty days of Bronx politics. When Ferrer took over as beep he asked all his staff to resign, didn't hire everyone back, and even invited the city comptroller to audit his office. He earned praise from reform pols and the newspapers for cleaning up the place. But isolated events still smacked of the clubhouse past. Ferrer's 1997 campaign took money from several figures reportedly connected to organized crime (he returned some of it), and in 1998 some of his political allies were caught on tape saying that Ferrer could influence the Bronx D.A. to drop an investigation. There is no evidence that Ferrer interfered in the case.

Because of his close ties to the organization, however, Ferrer has little experience with—and no victories in—contested races. Fresh out of NYU in 1972, he had run for state assembly and, in his own words, "got my brains beat out." From then on, Ferrer would run in the Bronx only with machine backing. He was appointed to a vacant district leadership in '78, then in 1982 ran for a City Council seat that had opened up because of redistricting, got his two primary challengers thrown off the ballot, and trounced a Republican opponent 10-1. Three years later he won re-election with 94 percent of the vote. When Borough President Simon—facing imminent indictment in a kickback scheme—resigned, Ferrer's Bronx City Council colleagues appointed him to take over. Re-elected three times, he always beat his general-election opponents by at least 110,000 votes. The lack of electoral combat experience showed in Ferrer's 1997 mayoral run: He dropped out in the middle of May, after scenes of a nearly empty Ferrer fundraiser hit TV.

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