Finding Freddy

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.  

But Ferrer was a far better candidate four years later. His theme of "the other New York" soaked up the accumulated disaffection generated by Rudy Giuliani, and he won the primary with 36 percent. Crucially, that fell short of the 40 percent needed to avoid a runoff with Public Advocate Mark Green, triggering a bitter fight, with racial overtones, between two Democrats. When it was over, Green prevailed by a mere 16,000 votes.

Ferrer doesn't dwell, at least for the record, on that result. He tells the Voice that the reason he lost is simply that Green got more votes. "There might be a subset of reasons for it but they're unimportant to me," he adds. Ferrer faces a different problem in this year's primary. With Manhattan Borough President C. Virginia Fields in the race and Thompson (both African Americans) waiting in the wings for an open seat in 2009, Ferrer doesn't yet have the same black-Latino coalition behind him that he counted on in 2001. His friend and adviser Bill Lynch, a longtime political operative, tells the Voice, "I think that coalition still can come together for him. He's just got to compete with Fields for every vote in the black community, which I think can happen." The candidate, however, pooh-poohs the worry, saying, "I have always tried to appeal to broad coalitions in this city."

One such appeal came last Wednesday, at a middle school on Staten Island. Ferrer was the only mayoral candidate to show up for an Alliance for Quality Education forum at I.S. 27 in Port Richmond, where a nearly all-white crowd of 70 people wanted to hear what was going to be done for schools that, they claim, are as much as 83 percent over capacity.

In public, Ferrer speaks slowly, exuding experience and confidence and not a lot of wonkish detail. At the Staten Island forum, he entered with his jacket off and his shirtsleeves rolled up, and he held a water bottle and the mic in one hand as he gestured with the other. When a parent rattled off stats on just how crowded her kid's school was, he whistled. When a PTA leader tried to interrupt him, he cut her off. After a teacher rose to complain about disruptive kids, Ferrer noted, "Even disruptive kids have good parents and come from good homes." The parent shouted, correcting him, "Some. Some." Ferrer waved dismissively, saying, "I'm not going to split hairs with you."

"He will not try to overwhelm you with his rhetoric but he'll impress you with his thought process," says Lynch. "I would say he's a guy who's sensitive to working people, particularly the middle class, and a guy who came through the public education system. He's very, very intelligent. And I think to know Freddy is to like him."

Not for everyone. Asked if Ferrer strikes him as genuine, Puerto Rican activist and Ferrer critic Vicente Alba replies, "I wouldn't say that there was no genuine belief." He pauses. "I've never seen it."

From the beginning of his career, Ferrer's critics have charged that he obscures his beliefs. As city councilman in 1986, Ferrer backed a gay rights bill but also voted for an amendment that weakened the law, angering gay rights advocates. Memories of the vote linger in the gay political community. Ferrer hasn't forgotten either: At an April forum, when he was asked again to defend the 1986 vote, Ferrer came prepared with exact quotes from a New York Times editorial that agreed with him.

In 1996, Ferrer clearly flipped on the death penalty—and admitted it. After the shooting of 33-year-old police officer Kevin Gillespie, Ferrer decided to back execution for cop killers. "As a Roman Catholic, I have enormous difficulty with this," Ferrer said at the time, "but there comes a time in this society when the line must be drawn. That time is now." Later that year, he told the Times that he supported abortion rights, but he added, "I have problems with unlimited abortions. You know? Every time a mother hiccups, that's no reason to abort a child." Some saw that as a flip, but as any pro-choicer will tell you, disliking abortion is compatible with supporting legal access to it.  

Ferrer's recent statements to a cop union on Diallo are also open to interpretation. Ferrer never called the 1999 shooting a crime in the first place, and he claims credit for having been arrested in protest of Diallo's death. But critics say that the spirit of that protest contradicts what Ferrer told the Sergeants Benevolent Association in March.

"I think he's a classic politician, and as such I don't think they stand for very much," says Alba. "He's being now touted as possibly the first Latino mayor in this city. I would suggest to you that we need a better example of a leader than that."

Even the highlight of Ferrer's public life—his role in the rebound of the Bronx—is the subject of debate. According to his campaign bio, Ferrer "oversaw the borough's revitalization." But veterans of that period do not cite Ferrer for initiating or leading that effort; credit for that goes to Ed Koch's housing plan and the grassroots community groups that fought to save their own neighborhoods. Ferrer is usually praised mostly for not getting in the way by trying to steer contracts to buddies. "He was the borough president who presided over the resurgence," says Fordham University administrator and veteran Bronx leader Joe Muriana, choosing his words carefully.

Asked to define his own role, Ferrer points to "the leadership we took in planning," like bringing together more than 1,000 Bronx residents in a plenary session in 1988 "and saying, 'OK, let's plan for our borough together.' " That plan, Ferrer says, became the blueprint for directing the newfound funding.

"He didn't do it alone," says Lynch. "I thought Freddy as borough president, as number one cheerleader of the Bronx, convinced a lot of other people to work with him in turning around the Bronx."

Being mayor, of course, involves more than cheerleading. And Ferrer is signaling that he knows this, with his signature policy statement so far: a proposal to place a half-penny tax on all stock sales for four years in order to pay for the city's share of the $23 billion Campaign for Fiscal Equity (CFE) court judgment. Ferrer says he put forward the plan knowing that "it would get barbecued by the newspapers," and he was right. His rival Democrats and the tabloids slammed him for singling out an industry that is one of New York's main sources of jobs and money. Coming on the heels of the Diallo mess, it looked like another misstep by Ferrer.

But he's not treating it that way. He continues to bring it up at debates, arguing that Wall Street can afford a half-cent a trade, and that by funding a better-educated workforce, the tax will create rather than kill jobs. Most importantly, he says, if the city doesn't ante up something, the state will never come through with its far larger share. "The mayor's negotiating position is zero," Ferrer says. "Well, that has brought us exactly zero in terms of CFE funding."

It's later on Sunday and Ferrer is being driven to his next event, a dinner on the Lower East Side. The forum at Wonderland is over, and the candidates displayed few policy differences. The choice among Democrats is between their styles and their stories.

Ferrer's story is one in which government played a life-altering role. "I really do understand," he says, "the power of a good education, the value of living in decent housing, the value in my own life of an after-school program that kept me off a rough street, or accessibility to higher education, having a good job to be able to support yourself and make your own contribution to the life of this city."

Four years after some mixture of racism and fate ended Ferrer's 2001 bid, he doesn't refer to the "other New York" anymore. But it still seems to be what his candidacy is all about.

"I'm never going stop talking about people who have been cut out of opportunity in New York, of hope in New York. I take those things personally," he says, blaming Republican policies in Washington, Albany, and the Bloomberg administration. "That's bad news for the middle class. It's also worse news for the working class and the poor who just want to work their way into the middle class. This isn't hard to figure out."

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