The Kid From Great Neck
Last Friday night, Mark Green, more comfortable as front-runner than he ever was as outsider, strode into North Shore Towers, an 1855-unit development with a movie theater, golf course, supermarket, and two swimming pools on the Queens border, a couple of miles from the suburban sanctuary where he grew up four decades ago. He put on his black suit jacket for the first time in a day of hot shirtsleeve campaigning, and the look was complete: His erect head, dancing hands, gleaming teeth, slimming frame, and blow-puffed gray hair all mesh with a man almost as clever at small talk as he is at big talk.
Introduced to a seated crowd of a hundred or so elderly Jews as "a kid from Great Neck," the 56-year-old public advocate corrected his civic association host, emphasizing "Bensonhurst-Great Neck," reminding everyone of his Brooklyn roots. Not only does Green's campaign bio skip the nearly 15 years he spent in Nassau County, but his best-kept secrets are that he didn't move to the city until he was 35 and that he's so Manhattan he's only slept in an outer borough twice since he was three.
Yet this son of the suburbs, whose country-club, tennis-champion youth and early Nader years in Washington lacked a gritty urban edge, has been ahead in every poll since the mayoral race began. He is counting down the days to September 11, when he expects, in a four-way Democratic primary, to take the first step toward governing a city that both daunts and beckons him. He did a little Jewish bit for the North Shore crowd, invoking his efforts on behalf of Israeli spy Jonathan Pollard, terrorist victim Devorah Halberstam, and kosher Yankee dogs (so people could "nosh and root at the same time"). Recalling that he was even invited to speak at the complex when he ran for Senate in 1998, though the parents of his opponent Charles Schumer lived there, Green quipped, "Whatever happened to Chuckie Schumer, anyway?" But his core message was remarkably similar to the one he delivers across the citydemanding more of teachers, praising David Dinkins's "civility and decency," citing his lawsuit to unmask police brutality, and blasting the Giuliani dream of a stadium in every borough as more "nostalgia" than economic development.
The final question was from a redhead breathing fire. OK, we heard all the nice stuff, she said. Why did you support Ralph Nader for president last year when he's against Israel? Why are the Satmar and the Muslims supporting you when they "spit on Israel?" The crowd until now had been quietly appreciative. Suddenly they were leaning forward in their seats, 75-year-old adrenaline aroused and flowing.
Green started with the easiest charge. He observed that he'd actually backed Al Gore and tried to get his old friend Nader to cool it. "I worked for Nader from 1970 to 1980, making our cars safe," he said of the presidential candidate, who last year called for a suspension of American aid to Israel. "That was 30 years ago, and I'm still proud of it." He talked about how he recently went to the 50th anniversary of the synagogue in Elmont that his father helped found and where he was bar mitzvahed. He recounted how he'd taken his son Jonah to Israel after his bar mitzvah to show him that he was "a link in a 4000-year-old chain," and wondered aloud why "my commitment" to the Jewish state was being questioned.
And then he did something he did not have to do. He likened the recent Muslim immigrants whose coalition endorsed him to "our own families who faced discrimination" when they arrived in America. He said he welcomed the Muslim support, renouncing only the endorsement of one group in the coalition that refused to recognize the state of Israel and reject terrorism. He wanted a city of mutual Jewish and Muslim respect. Extending his unity appeal, he said, "It is good for the Jewish community that I can walk into any black community in this city and be welcomed." The applause that filled the room forced the redhead to explain privately to him that she was "just trying to provoke you," administering a kind of grandmotherly gut-test. "I loved your answer," she said.
By the time Green was done at North Shore, his wife, Deni Frand, and children, 22-year-old Jenya and 17-year-old Jonah, had arrived and were getting ready for a ride to the Hamptons and a quiet Saturday together. He and Frand will celebrate their 24th anniversary on August 13. They met at a political fundraiser in the summer of 1976, when he was running the Senate campaign of former U.S. Attorney General Ramsey Clark and she was organizing benefits with Harry Belafonte. "I looked across the room," Frand recalls, "and he had such a warm and confident smile, I was completely drawn to him." All Green can remember is telling himself, "Whoa-a-aI live in Washington and she lives in New York." Six months later, she moved to Washington, and six months after that, they were married.
It is a love-at-first-sight saga remarkably like the one that brought Donna Hanover from Miami to Washington four months after meeting Rudy Giuliani (though that is clearly where the marital similarities end). In fact, Mark Green and Rudy Giuliani were born in Brooklyn only 10 months apart, grew up in Long Island just five miles apart, went to college and law school virtually simultaneously, missed the Vietnam War with high draft lottery numbers, lived only in Washington and New York City as adults, decided to put their son and daughter through private schools, and wound up enthralled by the same Boston cop.
Incredibly, when Deni and Mark moved to New York in 1980, they lived at 444 East 86th, one floor below the apartment Donna and Rudy bought a couple of years later. Green remembers seeing Rudy in the lobby shortly before he moved north to 530 East 90th Streetwhere he lives to this day. Green and Giuliani have talked frequently of the neighborhood walks they each took to Carl Schurz Park and Gracie Mansion, just three blocks from the building they both then lived in. Green even identifies four traits he says he and Giuliani share: "We're energetic, goal-oriented, hardworking, and love policy combat."
Yet, in countless other ways, the two could not be more dissimilar. Green became a Dodger fanatic in the Jackie Robinson era; Giuliani put on a Yankee uniform while living within a stone's throw of Ebbett's Field. In the early '70s, Green rode his motorcycle one midnight after another to the Mayflower Hotel near the White House to get The Washington Post's early-edition latest on Watergate, while onetime Democrat Giuliani spurned George McGovern in 1972 and worked in the Nixon Justice Department.
The two even traded cities in 1980, with Green moving to New York to lose a congressional race and create his progressive Democracy Project, while Giuliani, already an "independent," formally became a Republican and Ronald Reagan's associate attorney general. By 1986, Rudy was doing a drug-bust stunt in Hells Angels garb to help re-elect the man who'd made him New York's top federal prosecutor, Senator Al D'Amato, while Green was running against D'Amato and, subsequently, pressing the Senate ethics charges that damaged him badly.
Finally, over the last seven and a half years, the contrast has been so stark that Green became New York's anti-Rudyevicted from a senior center and barred from speaking, targeted in a failed charter referendum, and ridiculed as a liberal relic. He sued Giulani again and again. His reports barked. He never winked or flinched. It is not just name recognition that has carried him to the top of the polls; it is voter recognition that he stood tall at a time when others wavered.
Green has spent a life in pursuit of causes; Giuliani is his own only cause. Green regards the reception he receives among black voterswhich is strikingly warm, even from the usually more reserved black menas a powerful validation of his advocacy career. Giuliani takes the same sort of pride in their rejection, converting it into a sign of his unwillingness to pander.
Giuliani changed his party registration three times, moved from embracing Mario Cuomo to Newt Gingrich in a matter of months, and shifted from trying to post the Ten Commandments in the schools in 2000 to revealing the one he'd happily broken. Green, on the other hand, is rooted in a Jewish reform and liberal tradition in New York politics that started in 1932 with the election of Governor Herbert Lehman but has never set a mayoral agenda. Abe Beame was always a clubhouse functionary and the onetime hair shirt Ed Koch actually celebrated his many machine and ideological compromises. After a near century of Jewish reform influence, Mark Green may represent the best chance ever for this city to see how it governs.
There are, however, worrisome chinks in Green's liberal armor. In 1999, already preparing for this mayoral run, he declared for the first time that he favored the abolition of parole, seconding Governor Pataki's State of the State address. While Green denies it, the sudden call for what he called a Truth-in-Sentencing law looked like a calculated counter to the predictable campaign charge that he is soft on crime.
Though Green usually assiduously studies issues before taking a position, his staff could only point to conversations with one Vera Institute criminal justice expert and a talk with a single assemblyman. Despite the disproportionate stake that minorities have in the issue and the unanimous, public opposition of the state's Black and Latino Caucus to Pataki's proposal, Green jumped aboard without speaking to a single leader of color.
When the Voice asked him what felonies released parolees in New York are most likely to have committed, he paused, obviously aware that parole has already been eliminated for violent felons, and specified, "assault without a dangerous weapon, larceny." When told that two-thirds of the felons released last year were convicted only of drug offenses, he launched into a call for "dramatic change" of the Rockefeller drug laws, which have resulted in long jail terms for minor offenses. He did not seem aware that parole is the only way out for those crushed by the mandatory Rockefeller sentences. Asked if he was making parole abolition contingent on Rockefeller reform, the candidate who has already featured his throw-the-keys-away position in get-tough mailings to voters, replied: "Would I accept one without the other? I'll have to think about that." The quickest mouth in the mayoral race had reduced himself to mumbo-jumbo.
Similarly, as activist as Green has been on minority issues like police brutality and children's services, he has been mute about the fate of the 600,000 who disappeared from welfare rolls under Giuliani and, aside from a single, vague 1997 report, silent about the horrors of the workfare program. Green has so carefully calibrated a support of affirmative action, ever vigilant about any whiff of "quotas," that he got the lowest audience rating among the mayoral candidates at a packed Harlem AIDS forum last week when he balked at creating any funding preference for black-run AIDS groups.
As much as Green talks diversity, his inner circle of top policy-making advisers has long been very white, with exceptions like current aide Barry Ford, who was hired at the start of the election year. Latinos have been even lower on the Green totem pole, with the highest-ranking holding down administrative posts. David Dinkins is apparently his closest black friend, though he might not remain that once he learns that Green dissed his tennis game to the Voice. "He needs to work on his backhand," said Green, who had arthroscopic surgery on a knee a few years ago but still smirks at any thought that Dinkins could beat him.
Other blacks who worked closely with Green in the Dinkins era, like Deputy Mayor Bill Lynch, are not endorsing him now. "I asked him a couple years ago to name the blacks who are his key people, and he couldn't," Lynch recalls. On Fernando Ferrer's campaign payroll now, Lynch says, "I'm concerned about that."
Some of the same ambiguities cloud Green's campaign finance future. Though he's been writing for two decades about the ugly power of money in politics, he has no plans to restrict the flow of contributions to his committee from people doing business with the city if he becomes mayor. "I've never thought that far ahead," he demurs, saying the same about any changes in the lobbying practices that have been such a scandal in both the Giuliani and Dinkins eras. So powerless as public advocate that he was "hardly ever lobbied," nor could he attract quid-pro-quo contributions, he laughs at the notion that he might have achieved his Mr. Clean status due to a lack of opportunity. "It was either idealism or luck," he says, offering no ethics reform specifics, though his campaign has dumped many long-winded proposals about other issues on reporters' desks. Green acknowledges that in July, for the first time in his political career, he started getting large front-running donations over the transom, without his having to get on the phone and beg. "They're not giving because they believe in me; they're giving because they're worried about me," he smiles. If he does not embrace a clear new personal standard of campaign finance conduct, so should we all be.
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