The Other Freddy Ferrer

Fernando Ferrer announces his proposed health care plan at Betances Health Center.
photo: Kate Englund

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.  

Way back on February 8, at a King celebration at Lehman College, Ferrer revisited, ever so briefly, his 2001 theme. "I've spoken in the past about two New Yorks. Let me be clear: I am still committed to solving this problem. In my heart, I know that this is a reality we still face. I see it when I ride the subway. I see it when I visit the schools. We don't want a city that's an island of the vastly rich surrounded by a struggling mass of working poor desperately trying to get into the economic and social mainstream." Asked if Ferrer has mentioned it since, campaign spokeswoman Jen Bluestein said he does "whenever he's asked." He may be avoiding a land mine, or the springboard that could propel him to City Hall.

In a Voice interview, Ferrer simultaneously acknowledged that "nothing is the same as 2001" and argued that he was "still talking about the issues that have always been important to me," contending that "we can't pat ourselves on the back while we are leaving so many behind." He did not point to any subsequent repetition of the Lehman theme, all the while vaguely claiming, "I don't know that the two campaigns are very different," noting, "It's the same guy with the same sensibilities."

It's certainly not the same team, with many of the people who shaped the 2001 message silent now. Media consultant David Axelrod, a Jew from Brooklyn whose business is based in Chicago, has been replaced by David Doak, a Protestant from Missouri who's based in Washington. Axelrod made himself a physical presence in New York in 2001, meshing with Ferrer's populist urges, while the skilled Doak, who helped run Dinkins's 1989 win, is a more remote technician. Axelrod started with Ferrer in 2000—eight months before Doak did in this election cycle—giving Axelrod more time to bond with his candidate than Doak has now.

Ken Knuckles, Ferrer's former deputy borough president and closest black friend, has become head of the Upper Manhattan Empowerment Zone, an apolitical post that restricts his participation, though Ferrer said he's still a frequent "sounding board." Dennis Rivera, the legendary leader of the city's health care workers' union, was so intricately involved in 2001 he suggested background music for the Latino TV ads. This year, he and his vast army of street troops are on the sidelines.

Bill Lynch, who ran the Dinkins campaigns, has been in touch with Ferrer "a couple of times every other week" but says he's not nearly as involved as he was in 2001. Lynch and Jane Thompson handled labor outreach then, but Thompson has moved on to the teachers' union. Journalist Jack Newfield, who was both a sage friend of Ferrer's and his champion in print, died last year. Arnie Segarra, who was Ferrer's body man just as he had been Dinkins's, traveled everywhere with Freddy in 2001, and was as familiar a face in minority neighborhoods across the city as his candidate's. He is irreplaceable but he says "no one called" this time. Andrea Batista Schlesinger was so wise a policy analyst that Ferrer has bequeathed the think tank he had run since 2001, the Drum Major Institute, to her, forcing her to keep her distance from this campaign.

Cappelli and John Del Cecato, who was new to Ferrer in 2001, became surgically connected mouthpieces, with Del Cecato also the cushion in the car with him and the first call every morning. After the loss, Del Cecato joined Axelrod's firm, so when Axelrod left Ferrer early this year, Del Cecato, who ran Axelrod's New York office, left too. In their collective stead is Nick Baldick, whose Washington-based firm ran John Edwards's presidential campaign at a monthly rate $5,000 less than its current Ferrer paycheck. Having never done a New York or minority race, Baldick did briefly advis e Cablevision in its war against the Jets stadium, as did Axelrod. Also on the tab is a veteran of Hillary Clinton's 2000 campaign, Jonathan Prince, a consultant whose debate advice Ferrer is said to welcome.

As competent as this crew may be, including spokeswoman and press critic Bluestein, they are not viscerally tied to the angst that Ferrer 2001 evoked. They cannot substitute for the deep reserves of unfiltered advice from real friends that Ferrer inhaled every day four years ago, when his campaign was a combination of mission and family, shaking up the city with its boldness and resonance. Ferrer fed off that, growing stronger as his speeches repeatedly reached crowds, caught up in the collective cause he led. As clear as that difference is to several ex- allies still very fond of Ferrer, he refused to acknowledge it in a Voice interview: "There were a lot of friends who were a physical presence then," he says. "There are a lot of friends who are a physical presence now." He insists he is completely comfortable with his new team.  

Only Roberto Ramirez, Luis Miranda, and Jeff Pollack remain from 2001, otherwise known now as Mirram Global, the "general consultant" to the 2005 campaign. Ramirez is a lightning rod and, together with his then friend Al Sharpton, combined in 2001 to harden Ferrer's inclusionary class message, giving it a racial edge. The boss of the Bronx Democratic party in 2001, as well as a consultant, he brought an organization and base to the campaign then, but now he is just another hired hand. He has sharply reduced his public profile this year, though Bluestein would not answer questions about whether that was a conscious campaign decision.

One of the most electric figures in city politics, Ramirez warred with Cappelli, Axelrod, and other key players in 2001. Now they are gone, and he is indispensably in charge. In fact, in 2003, Ramirez and Miranda's company, Mirram, formed a partnership with Pollack's Global Strategies, a polling firm, and now it's impossible to tell how much Ramirez is actually making on the campaign. The three companies have so far been paid $484,000, though none of the other Democrats even retains a "general consultant" in addition to their media consultant. As close to Ferrer as anyone in public life, Ramirez is also his bridge to a coterie of power brokers, donors, and operatives, wrestling in the shadows so Ferrer can prosper in the sunlight.

But with so much change inside and outside the campaign, the core content of Ferrer's 2001 message—what he derided as "the path of economic polarization" in the Lehman speech in February—remains as viable a vision for a changing city as it was four years ago. It may be the only unifying way Ferrer can successfully contrast himself with Bloomberg. Instead the Democratic front-runner, despite his denials, appears to do it piecemeal, offering provocative plans for schools, housing, and health care, but compartmentalizing each rather than weaving together a comprehensive class theme.

When confronted about minority structural unemployment at a televised debate in July sponsored by the Community Service Society, Ferrer turned it into another opportunity to talk about graduation and dropout rates. Council Speaker Gifford Miller sounded more like the old Ferrer, denouncing the "total silence" of the mayor, who he said "has never addressed this crisis at all out loud." Miller spoke of the council's $20 million structural-unemployment initiative, focused on "job training for the formerly incarcerated," and pushed city-aided capital access for minority entrepreneurs.

Dealing with the overarching issue of poverty one slice at a time, as Ferrer has, plays to Bloomberg's agenda. But even the mayor's multimillion-dollar campaign staff has a problem with the Big Picture. Asked to provide the Voice with any Bloomberg speech or policy paper revealing a broad understanding of the grip poverty still has over the lives of millions of New Yorkers, the campaign couldn't. Instead, the staff manufactured a list of poverty-related initiatives, some impressive, some not. They couldn't find a moment when Bloomberg, in his own words, addressed the structural realities that cripple so many lives, when he showed that he understood this Other City, much less had a plan to reverse the seemingly timeless tide of underclass life.

Of course, no mayor since John Lindsay, not even a black one, has talked in those terms. But one very real candidate did. Just four years ago. It's time we heard from him again.

Research assistance: Jessica Bennett, K. Emily Bond, Nicole D'Andrea, Leslie Kaufmann, Stephen Stirling

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