The Last Reformer?


His critics may tag him an unreconstructed liberal, but Mark Green—New York City Public Advocate and now U.S. Senate candidate—is, in fact, much more complex than that. One moment, he’s eloquently enumerating everything wrong with America’s political system—the corrupting influence of big money, the corrosive effects of economic inequality, the bloated Pentagon budget—sounding like the kind of renegade reformer all too absent from the Democratic Party these days. Moments later, he’ll throw a paean to President Clinton, praising his pragmatism and influence in reshaping the Democratic Party, a questionable sentiment from someone who says he loved Bulworth. For those who’ve witnessed too many progressive Democrats veer toward the center, Green’s rhetoric can resemble an unsettling high-wire act.

Mark Green does not want to be associated with any of the attributes normally ascribed to candidates on the left: marginal, quixotic, fringe, flaky. He’s not running for the Senate to make a statement or to pad his resumé. He’s running, he says, because he thinks he can beat incumbent Alfonse D’Amato, whom Green regards as a veritable stain on American politics.

Green has devoted a great deal of time in his years as an activist and public official thinking about how a liberal­left Democrat can win higher office while sticking to his principles. So he is running as a populist, but it’s a populism more reminiscent of Ralph Nader than Huey Long. On the stump, the candidate often sounds like he’s running for another term as public advocate.

“When I was running for public advocate in 1993,” he recalls, “I ran against a popular black state legislator, a popular Latino assemblyman, two Orthodox Jews from Brooklyn, and a labor leader. So one reporter asked me, ‘What’s your base?’ I answered, ‘Consumers who vote.’ I want to move beyond identitygroup politics and talk about issues that affect lots of neighborhoods, from the environment, to the economy, to health care.”

A laudable sentiment, but is it a winning formula in a Senate race? His two opponents in the primary present significant problems. Brooklyn Congressman Charles Schumer is a prolific fundraiser who will likely cut into Green’s base. And Geraldine Ferraro, though running a lackluster campaign thus far, still has the name recognition that will give her a leg up. Despite that, Green has been conducting his campaign with sometimes brazen confidence. He has no campaign manager, and only a limited relationship with Democratic groups and institutions that can get out the vote: labor, local political clubs, and county organizations. Still, a surprising number of pundits think Green will end up getting the nomination.

“I think he can win the primary,” says Democratic strategist Hank Sheinkopf. “He is the lefty in the field, and people on the left tend to do better in Democratic primaries, because that’s who turns out. And he has a history of winning contested races where he is being outspent by significant dollars amounts.”

“He’s the best of the three candidates,” adds former mayor Ed Koch. “Ferraro’s shot her bolt. She’s going down. Chuck Schumer does everything and claims everything, but no one’s impressed.” However, Koch says he will endorse D’Amato.

There are two schools of thought when it comes to sizing up the Democratic primary. One is that Ferraro, being the only woman in the race, has a distinct advantage, since the male vote will be split between Green and Schumer, who both happen to be Jewish and from New York City. (As one political observer wryly noted, “there are too many circumcized dicks in this race.”) Another is that women have a hard time winning statewide in New York, and voters will eventually gravitate toward one of the two men. Here’s where the role of money comes in, and it’s an area where Green has not exactly lived up to his surname.

Mark Green had managed to raise some $1.6 million by the end of March, besting only latecomer Ferraro ($1.3 million) and lagging far behind Schumer ($6.1 million), not to mention D’Amato ($9.2 million). He plans to have at least $4 million by September, enough for a primary victory perhaps, but he would be in a difficult position to top the rested and well-heeled D’Amato in November. But what Green does have going for him is his sense of purpose. No one in public life has served as D’Amato’s bête noire more prominently and consistently than Mark Green. He ran against D’Amato in 1986, losing badly but raising questions about the Senator’s ethics and conduct that have haunted him ever since.

A former intern for Jacob Javits, Green worked for Ralph Nader in the early 1970s, eventually becoming director of Public Citizens’ Congress Watch, then the largest consumer lobby in Washington. In 1980, he helped found a think tank called Democracy Project, and went on to make two unsuccessful bids for elected office (Congress in 1980 and the Senate in 1986), before being appointed Consumer Affairs Commissioner under David Dinkins in 1990. Three years later, he was elected to the newly named office of Public Advocate, an ombudsman of city services.

Green’s four and a half years as public advocate have clearly established him as a reformer. Still, there’s a bit of Clinton’s pragmatism in him. In an age where welfare “reform” is sweeping the nation, he opposes the idea of unionizing welfare recipients and of using government as an employer of last resort for poor people.

Green claims his principles have remained the same, it’s his tactics that have changed. “Look at two of the most successful politicians in recent years, Bill Clinton and Rudy Giuliani. Each has stressed performance, not labels, which is what I’m doing in my Senate race. The public does not think of an ‘ism’ when it thinks of me.” Green says his priorities as a senator would be campaign finance reform, a consumer HMO “bill of rights,” and a broader federal role in protecting children. He says there’s a marked contrast between the Mark Green of today and the one in 1986.

“As a candidate, the difference is night and day,” Green now says. “In 1986, I was an unknown without funds and no public record of accomplishment. Today, I have a widely known public record and 22,000 donors.” In the 1986 campaign, D’Amato shrewdly made sure that his two debates with Green had a small audience. “This year, he’ll probably be urging debates, because it will be a nip-and-tuck election,” says Green.

But what of debates featuring the Democrats? Besides Monday’s upstate debate, so far voters have been subjected to lackluster candidate forums, which have come about because of prodding by Geraldine Ferraro, who wants her opponents to sign a pledge saying in effect they would never criticize her.

“It’s uncomfortable competing with her,” Green says. Like Ferraro, Green cohosted CNN’s Crossfire in the early ’80s, and threw a few jabs at his “on the left” successor. “I do find it curious that she cited her experience on Crossfire as a credential to run for the Senate,” he says. “If that were true, then Pat Buchanan should be president. I regard my Crossfire experience as valuable, but it’s not a stepping stone.”

What’s shaping up to be the biggest stepping stone to the Senate these days is access to money, but Green downplays the issue. “At the end of the day, you need to raise enough money,” he acknowledges, as he prepares to schmooze at a swanky affair at a midtown hotel. “The nominee is going to be chosen not by donors, but by the Democratic primary voters. Based on political history, I wouldn’t bet against me.”