Up From Fox Street
In 1987, when he was 36 years old and a largely untested member of the City Council, Fernando Ferrer was picked by the battered remnants of the Bronx Democratic machine to serve out the term of Stanley Simon, the Bronx's bumbling and disgraced borough president who had been caught in a bribery scheme. Simon's departure followed the dramatic fall of another Stanleythe cigar-chomping Bronx Democratic boss, Stanley Friedmanwho was convicted in a separate scandal.
After Ferrer took office, when opponents really wanted to get his goat they taunted him as "Stanley Ferrer."
The name made him seethe.
Freddy Ferrer never made any bones about his political heritage. "I came through the regular Democratic organization," he said openly to anyone who asked. "Not from Mars."
But even those not supporting his current race for mayor say Ferrer has proved to be much more complicated than the party loyalist many expected him to be. And they remember with clarity his first vigorous steps to eraseboth literally and politicallythe stains from the landmark Bronx county courthouse on 161st Street.
"When Freddy walked into the borough president's offices in 1987 the stench of corruption was everywhere," recalled Hank Sheinkopf, the political consultant who worked for years with Ferrer but now advises Public Advocate Mark Green's mayoral campaign. "The courthouse was covered with graffiti. The first thing he did was have it taken off, and the next thing was to issue an ethics code for county employees."
The new borough president also invited the city's comptroller to send in an audit team to scrutinize the officean unheard-of action for a politician. He then ordered the 35 aides in his office who were not covered by civil service protections to submit resignations. Half were sent packing. Those retained and all new hires were ordered to file statements disclosing their personal finances, another innovation.
Ferrer did something else borough presidents weren't supposed to do. He baldly acknowledged that the county was in woeful shape: it had the city's poorest residents, its most ailing housing stock, the highest crime rate, many of the worst schools, and the fewest economic opportunities.
"There was a palpable hopelessness in the borough," he says now of that time. "The symbols and reality of failure were just overwhelmingthe rubble-strewn lots, the window decals" [that masked abandoned, city-owned buildings].
Fourteen years later, Fernando Ferrer is running for mayor citing the dramatic changes in the borough since he took office. The measurements of success are a campaign mantra: 66,000 new units of housing, 34,000 new jobs, an All-America City award to the borough from the National Civic League recognizing public-private projects Ferrer helped launch.
Instead of phony decals, the symbol of Ferrer's renaissance is the restored Lorelei Fountain that sits in Joyce Kilmer Park at 161st Street and the Grand Concourse, a long fly ball from Yankee Stadium. A tribute to the poet Heinrich Heine, the fountain was donated a hundred years ago by proud German-Jewish residents and over the years had fallen into urban decay. "It had been vandalized, painted over, and graffiti covered," said Ferrer. "Now it is restored, and the largely Hispanic neighborhood claims it as their own. People feel a sense of ownership now, a sense of participation."
That's the emblem of one of Ferrer's messagesrevitalization, participation, success. The other major theme leads in a reverse direction. While touting his own borough's accomplishments, Ferrer is emphasizing the failure of the Giuliani administration to bring minorities into his revived New York.
"I'm not Rudy-lite," he told mayoral forums this spring by way of introduction. The description is an effort to distinguish himself from his three Democratic opponentsGreen, City Council Speaker Peter Vallone, and Comptroller Alan Hevesiwho are more likely to credit Giuliani's achievements. His campaign is marching under the banner of the "Other New York"a loosely defined term intended to mobilize those angriest with the mayor over issues of police abuse, welfare cutbacks, and educational failures.
Ferrer insists his criticism of Giuliani has been consistent over the years, but the approach is also obviously geared to accommodate a potentially winning political strategy: Ferrer, who is of Puerto Rican descent and would be the city's first Hispanic mayor if elected, believes that if he can mobilize a broad coalition of Hispanic and African American voters, there are enough votes to put him over the top. It's a tent big enough to allow in whites disgruntled by eight years of Giuliani as well, Ferrer hopes.
At 51, Ferrer is a slim man whose thick brown moustache and thinning hair are both now peppered with gray. He has a likeable manner that sometimes verges on shyness. It has allowed most people (other than his own staff, who call him "sir") to feel comfortable addressing him simply as "Freddy." He wears thin, wire-rimmed glasses that turn his occasional wide-eyed expressions of disbelief into a slightly comical Groucho Marx look that only underscores his affability.
"I just have a very good feeling about Freddy," says Queens assemblywoman Cathy Nolan. Along with Ruth Messinger, Geraldine Ferraro, and Congresswoman Nydia Velasquez, Nolan is one of several women political figures who have endorsed Ferrer. "He has a nice easygoing way about him, the kind that's needed in the post-Giuliani era," she says.
Despite that demeanor, many in the Bronx who have sparred with him over politics or development issues, and even some supporters, describe Ferrer as sometimes prickly and thin-skinned. It's a trait he claims to have outgrown. "When I was young and foolish probably," he says.
On a recent Saturday afternoon, Ferrer, wearing a pressed white guayabera shirt and razor-sharp khakis, stood on the steps of a post office on Mermaid Avenue and West 28th Street in Coney Island addressing a small crowd mobilized by a local African American Democratic political club that has endorsed him. The neighborhood contains its own images of success and failure in the Giuliani era: Prosperity is reflected in new chain stores that have opened on the shopping strip and the new $30 million minor league ballpark a few blocks away; nagging poverty still clings in the sight of empty lots, decaying wood frame buildings, and the little plastic bags used for crack cocaine that sprinkle a nearby sidewalk.
"Coney Island has spent too much time in the other New York; it has to be brought back," Ferrer told the mostly black crowd before switching to another campaign mainstay. "A community needs a relationship with its police based on trust and respect," he said.
"You can feel the sincerity coming from him when he talks about the low-income people and their problems," said Rodney Knight, a schoolteacher, explaining why he and other members of the South Brooklyn Independent Political Club endorsed Ferrer. "You can tell he's saying what he means."
Even opponents agree Ferrer is more confident and better prepared than he was in his first mayoral run four years ago, when he bailed out halfway through the Democratic primary amid faltering fundraising and a series of public gaffes.
One episode occurred on a radio show hosted by former mayor David Dinkins, who asked Ferrer about an incident a week earlier in which a white cop, who later said he thought the victim had a gun, fatally shot a Hispanic man in the back.
"To shoot someone in the back is an execution. And that's precisely what occurred here," said Ferrer.
The press jumped on the statement and Giuliani and then-police commissioner Howard Safir denounced Ferrer for cop bashing and jumping to conclusions. A grand jury later ruled the shooting justified, stating that the victim was waving a machete, and declined to charge the officer, who proceeded to sue Ferrer for defamation. The case was dismissed.
Asked about the incident last week, Ferrer paused. "Do I regret having said it? I regret the intemperate language. There is little justification for intemperate language," he said.
It's a situation he hopes to avoid this time around. "I am four years older, four years wiser," he said.
Although he didn't know it then, Ferrer was also ill at the time. After he pulled out of the race, he had a test that revealed an enlarged thyroid gland. A side effect of the illness, Ferrer notes, is high irritability. He opted to have the gland removed surgically and now takes Synthroid, a common medication for those who've had the condition.
When he announced his candidacy in 1997, Ferrer chose the backdrop of the Waldorf Astoria, where his grandmother spent 30 years working in the kitchen helping to support Ferrer and his sister. His mother and father, both natives of Puerto Rico, divorced when he was young, and Ferrer remembers a childhood marked by nights of no heat and shoes with holes in them. For his current campaign, Ferrer brought the press to the block on Fox Street in the South Bronx where he was raised. The tenement he lived in is gone now, one of the thousands lost to the borough's firestorm of abandonment and arson in the 1970s. But dozens of others nearby were rescued and renovated, and there are now rows of new, affordable townhouses developed under housing programs that Ferrer backed.
There is some debate about exactly how much credit Ferrer deserves for the borough's rejuvenation. In 1988, goaded by criticism from neighborhood groups and aided by an improving economy, then-mayor Koch committed $5.1 billion to new housing initiatives, much of it aimed at the Bronx.
Ferrer is careful to praise Koch, calling the housing production plan "his greatest legacy to the city." But it was his work as borough president, he says, that helped knit together the community and private partnership that brought the plan to life. Others confirm the role.
"He was more than just a cheerleader; that would be to minimize his role," says Felice Michetti, the hard-charging former housing commissioner who served under Koch and Dinkins. "He sent a very strong message: 'I want this to happen.' He never lost sight of the ball and was smart enough to take advantage of what was available," she says, adding, "It is something that would never have happened under Stanley Simon."
Even after the Koch money was committed, Ferrer continued to press City Hall for more development funds. In the early 1990s, a group of religious leaders and community advocates presented him with a plan to create new housing, a school, and a job training center within the long abandoned Morrisania Hospital towers. The hospital's carcass had long been coveted by other, more politically connected developers.
"Freddy told us, 'I like what you are doing, but politically you have to understand this is difficult. Everybody has staked a claim on this site.' But then he backed us all the way," said Nancy Biberman, who founded the group Women's Housing and Economic Development Corporation, which rebuilt the site with state and city funding. The project was singled out by the National Civic League when it awarded the Bronx its All-America City award in 1997.
Political allies weren't turned away from every project, however. The billions pumped into the Bronx have made some builders wealthy, and they are among those today making the most generous contributions to Ferrer's now $4 million campaign coffers. Procida Realty & Construction, for instance, a firm that has built many major projects in the borough, has poured $17,000 into Ferrer's current mayoral bid.
Some of these contributors have proven embarrassing. Ferrer returned $7000 raised by builder Joseph Pontoriero of Worth Construction following a New York Post story that the builder had been banned from working on city schools after he refused to answer questions about alleged mob ties.
Nor has the political machine that gave birth to Ferrer been banished. If anything, under the leadership of Ferrer's close friend and ally former assemblyman-turned-lawyer Roberto Ramirez, the Bronx Democratic Party is as close to the borough president's office as ever. Ramirez has orchestrated several moves aimed at winning a Ferrer endorsement from Reverend Al Sharpton, so far without success. Aides to Ferrer say confidently that they still expect to land Sharpton's backing, which could help Ferrer break away from the pack. To date, he has been running neck and neck with Vallone and Hevesi, with Green in the lead.
Although he has little time for reading these days, there is a book open on a table in Ferrer's home about another product of a powerful political machine who went on to serve his city admirably. It is Empire Statesman: The Rise and Redemption of Al Smith, by Robert Slayton. "He is someone I happen to admire a lot," said Ferrer. "Came out of poverty on the Lower East Side, had an eighth-grade education, became New York's first really progressive governor. Built public housing, parks. He was quite a guy."
And Smith was someone who was groomed by Tammany Hall, but rose above it, Ferrer was reminded by a visitor.
"Transcended is the word, I think," he replied.
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