The Other Freddy Ferrer

2001 candidate trades two NYCs for one, prefers mainstream to upstream

Freddy Ferrer was in black Brooklyn midday Saturday, smiling into a mic at a church-organized block party, delivering with gospel-cadence passion a resonating refrain of the dropout, housing, and health care horrors "we can change." For a few charged moments, his message fused with the everyday needs of the 150 who were listening and he connected, breaking through a bright and bustling neighborhood carnival of booths and balloons.

Accompanied by two young aides who've never done a mayoral campaign before, Ferrer, 55, already on his third such adventure, is this time leading a lonely crusade. Severed from many of his 2001 friends and advisers, he's often seemed almost a solitary figure, struggling to discover a rationale for unseating a flush and functional incumbent who alienates no one, acquires many, and accomplishes much. Instead of relying on the trusted inner circle of city-honed and deeply bonded aides and allies at his side four years ago, he is handled now by tacticians with hefty national résumés who are often strangers—both to him and the city he wants to govern. What was a movement in 2001 has become a candidacy; what was a coalition, a mere campaign. He is staying above the fray rather than sparking it, reinventing himself for what may be the final time.

Bizarrely, though, he is as wounded now in black communities by his own words as he was bolstered in 2001 by his "Two New Yorks" theme. No sooner was he off the stage at the end of Washington Avenue near Gates Avenue that a middle-aged woman in African dress rushed up to him in anger. "I was going to vote for you" until "your statement" in March that the Diallo killing wasn't a crime, she scolded. "You should have apologized." He squirmed, murmuring an unintelligible response and ambling up the street, looking for hands that would shake his. "You've got a big problem," she shouted.

A few feet away, a gray-haired, lean man reminded him that they'd been arrested together at the Diallo protests in 1999 and that they'd sat next to each other in police custody. Ferrer embraced him and moved on. "I was a little disappointed by what he said, but I still support him," the man told a reporter. "That was the reason we got locked up. But people have a right to change their minds." He said Ferrer bought lunch that day for him and several others who were arrested. A retired corrections officer, the man refused to identify himself, adding that he "supports the police, but you have to be in our circumstances to understand" why he got arrested.

"I am not a salmon," Ferrer explained when asked by the Voice why he didn't lay out the full context of his Diallo comments, which also included criticisms of the cops that are rarely quoted, or contrast them with Bloomberg's comparative silence on the case. But swimming upstream is precisely what the Ferrer of 2001 did, taking on a media that distorted his "Other New York" message as if it were racially divisive when Ferrer was clearly talking class. It's certainly possible that a Ferrer in tune with his 2001 message, instead of searching for a new one, might have answered a police union's Diallo question differently. And if his 2001 friends and advisers could not have helped him avert his spontaneous stumble at the outset of his 2005 campaign, they might've found a way by now to get him past it.

The Ferrer team of 2001 believes, almost without exception, that he would've won the September 11 primary with more than 40 percent, avoiding a runoff, had not the attack occurred and the election been canceled. They also believe that he would've won the October runoff but for the incendiary, and racially charged, attacks in Mark Green–tied literature and the media. What's undeniable is that he won the primary and came within 16,000 votes of winning the runoff, meaning his campaign was the second most successful minority effort in city history, exceeded only by that of David Dinkins. Yet this year's version looks like a conscious rejection of 2001 even while it flirts with a similar underclass message.

Allen Cappelli, who was Ferrer's communications director for years and remains a friend, says this one "is almost like a peacetime campaign" with Mike Bloomberg merely "the opponent, not the enemy," as Rudy Giuliani was four years ago. "It's about policy now," says Cappelli, "but it was about survival the last time," contending that even though Giuliani was term-limited out, the need to rid the city of what he stood for "fueled everything we did." Bloomberg has "taken the steam" out of the "enough-is-enough" rage of the Giuliani years, says Cappelli, leaving Ferrer with a subtle and moving target. Cappelli concedes that some of Ferrer's 2001 allies "didn't understand the difference between a class message and a race message," insisting that "Freddy always understood it," and that these supporters "stepped on the ethnic land mines of New York." The season of tabloid trashing that followed still haunts Ferrer and, says Cappelli, caused his campaign this year "to hesitate to navigate that terrain again," for fear of inviting another media celebration of classless pretense.

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