Ferrer's Color-Coded Victory Plan

A Freddy win in September could pose a demographic dilemma for big-bucks Mike

Race will determine the winner of the 2005 campaign, as it has in every mayoral contest over the last 40 years—virtually ever since John Lindsay became the only Republican elected by a black majority in 1965.

It has already been the convulsive theme of most electoral media coverage, with Fernando Ferrer's comments about a 1999 police shooting now in their fifth month of inexplicable controversy, the latest manifestation of the city's craving for divisive distraction. The Bloomberg camp and its media allies still hope that the endless retelling of Ferrer's Diallo gaffe will force a runoff between Ferrer and Virginia Fields, the black borough president of Manhattan, poisoning the well just as an ugly leaflet depicting Ferrer kissing Al Sharpton's butt did in 2001. Acting as a surrogate for Bloomberg and Fields, Reverend Calvin Butts tried to revive the Diallo theme on NY1 last week, though he never so much as appeared at the 1999 protests. His blast fell so flat no daily wrote about it.

If, as polls suggest, November becomes a choice between Mike Bloomberg and Ferrer, the city may wind up gripped by a racial whirlwind it has not experienced since 1989, when David Dinkins won City Hall in an unprecedented burst of pride and promise. In a Voice interview, Ferrer said that the "it's-our-time" undercurrent of the 1989 campaign wasn't Dinkins's "reason for running," nor is it "mine now," but asked: "Did it help David? Yes." There are people, Ferrer concluded, "who are rightly concerned" that all New Yorkers "have their day in the sun," and while he doesn't know "if people look at it in the same terms as they did" in 1989, he is certainly well aware of this year's historic opportunity.

NYC comptroller William Thompson (above right) endorses Fernando Ferrer. Calvin Butts (opposite left) grins with Mike Bloomberg at the opening of a Harlem IHOP.
photo: Richard B. Levine
NYC comptroller William Thompson (above right) endorses Fernando Ferrer. Calvin Butts (opposite left) grins with Mike Bloomberg at the opening of a Harlem IHOP.

Though the multinational Latino community is the city's largest ethnic group, no one from it has ever held any position of citywide power, and no pollster has any real idea how many Latinos will vote when they finally have an opportunity to collectively claim the top prize. No insider has any idea either how many black voters, 71 percent of whom supported Ferrer in the 2001 runoff, will conclude that their own fortunes are inextricably tied to their economic and ethnic neighbors. And as 16 point wide as Bloomberg's lead is, even his campaign could provide no evidence that, in an actual election, saturation advertising moves minority voters—as it demonstrably does white voters—especially when there is a minority alternative on the ballot.

It's these unknowns that haunt Bloomberg's money machine. He has a record that commands multiracial respect in public polls, with the overwhelming majority of blacks and Latinos joining whites in seeing him as "a strong leader" who has managed the city's budget and services with competence. Unlike his two white predecessors, Ed Koch and Rudy Giuliani, whose five combined terms reach back nearly three decades, Mayor Mike has never played the race card and hopes to win as a crossover candidate, albeit one with virtually monolithic white support.

The likelihood of his garnering significant minority support against a minority candidate is, however, another great unknown, never achieved in a citywide primary or general election that has pitted white candidates against blacks or Latinos. Can Bloomberg, running as a Republican in a Bush era without the spark of racial insult that consumed Mark Green four years ago, win enough of the minority vote simply by being evenhanded and capable? Or will he become an incidental casualty of the rising tide of empowering history?

The power of race in New York politics is axiomatic. Ed Koch was the last white Democrat to win an open mayoral election—i.e., one without an incumbent—and he did it way back in 1977. That year was also a watershed in black/Latino political relations, with Congressman Herman Badillo belatedly entering the race and submarining Percy Sutton, the first black with a real shot at winning. Ask David Dinkins today and he will tell you exactly which month Sutton and Badillo announced 28 years ago, a tit-for-tat obstacle to coalition still alive an era later. Koch won a third term in 1985 after Harlem's black leadership repaid Badillo by blocking his candidacy in a subterranean deal that catapulted Dinkins to the Manhattan borough presidency and, ultimately, the mayoralty. In 1993, though, Dinkins became the only incumbent in the 20th century to lose a general election, defeated by Giuliani's "One City, One Standard" racial theme.

The last three prominent white Democratic liberals to run—City Council President Carol Bellamy in 1985, Manhattan Borough President Ruth Messinger in 1997, and Public Advocate Mark Green in 2001—have lost, two of them to Republicans in general elections. White mayoral wannabes in 2001, like Council Speaker Peter Vallone and City Comptroller Alan Hevesi, repeated this pattern, as Speaker Gifford Miller and Congressman Anthony Weiner appear to be doing this year. Even though Miller has the support of many minority councilmembers, he has been unable so far to break Ferrer and Fields's hold on Latino and black voters.

These past and anticipated results, sometimes by crushing margins, have established that minority voters will turn out in large numbers only for minority candidates, as blacks did for Dinkins in 1989 and, to a lesser degree, 1993, and as Latinos did for Ferrer in 2001. No matter how much they disliked Koch in 1985 and Giuliani in 1997, as the polls showed, they were not driven to vote against a white candidate as much as they were to vote for one of their own.

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