New York City Comptroller Alan Hevesi was the biggest winner among the 2001 mayoral candidates in last week’s Democratic primary, with candidates he backed winning pivotal congressional and other races in the Bronx and Brooklyn. Bronx Borough President Freddy Ferrer was the biggest loser—damaged by several shocking defeats suffered by his top ally, Democratic boss Roberto Ramirez.
The endorsements that the prospective mayoral candidates made are likely to determine who supports them next year, and in a hotly contested, four-or-five-candidate Demo-cratic race in 2001, the backing of local elected officials and their political organizations may be a vital factor.
Ferrer conceded in a Voice interview that he may have lost the support of several elected officials in his home county as a result of his and Ramirez’s primary choices, but insisted that he’ll “still carry their districts,” minimizing the damage. With Hevesi or other opponents potentially gaining the backing of a half dozen Bronx leaders, however, Ferrer’s margin of victory in the Bronx may well have narrowed, making him a weaker citywide candidate.
Public Advocate Mark Green, the front-runner in most polls of the mayoral field, also lost ground by endorsing Councilwoman Una Clarke and activist Barry Ford, who were defeated by Brooklyn incumbent congressmen Major Owens and Ed Towns. While Green also claims that the primary results “don’t change the mayoral race in any significant way,” Hank Morris, who is Hevesi’s chief political strategist, says that “it’s the comptroller who’s putting together an impressive political coalition.”
An ecstatic Morris accompanied Hevesi on his election-night swing through the Bronx and Brooklyn and declared: “Some of the grass is starting to grow and show.” Saying that Hevesi “had a very good day,” with “many of his friends winning,” Morris pointedly added that Ferrer “had a bad day.”
Owens, who has endorsed Green in four prior elections, introduced Hevesi at his victory party last Tuesday as “the next mayor of New York” and is now likely to join a broad coalition of black elected officials in the county backing Hevesi. Towns endorsed Ferrer in 1997—switching to Rudy Giuliani when Ferrer dropped out—and he is a probable Ferrer booster again next year, bringing some black elected officials with him. Hevesi was the only mayoral candidate to back Owens, and Ferrer the only one to back Towns.
City Council Speaker Peter Vallone, the fourth of the major mayoral candidates, steered clear of most races, but joined Hevesi in endorsing Eliot Engel, the Bronx congressman who won a racially polarized primary in the Bronx. Green and Ferrer remained neutral in the contest between Engel and black state senator Larry Seabrook—a position that may come back to haunt them in Riverdale and other white neighborhoods where the Seabrook challenge was seen as an ethnically motivated power grab, and turnout far exceeded ordinary levels.
Ferrer was more damaged than Green by the Seabrook misadventure because of his close ties to Ramirez, who abandoned the pro-incumbent posture of most party leaders and spearheaded the Seabrook candidacy.
While Engel says his relationship with Ferrer, whom he backed for mayor in 1997, remains “cordial,” he told the Voice: “During my campaign a lot of people told me they would’ve been inclined to support Ferrer. But because of what Ramirez did to me, they were much less likely inclined.” Engel said Ferrer was the one who first gave him a heads-up about Ramirez’s intentions. “He said in the spring that he had been hearing rumblings from Ramirez he didn’t like and suggested I call him,” recounted Engel. “That night Ramirez called me and said he was going with Seabrook.” Engel says that “if Ramirez doesn’t change his ways and open the window and let democracy in, he ought to step down” as party leader.
Ramirez lost three state senate races—with incumbent David Rosado losing to Pedro Espada, Assemblyman Sam Bea to Mount Vernon City Council president Ruth Thompson, and district leader Mike Benedetto losing badly to Lorraine Koppell. Ramirez candidates lost by an astounding average margin of 14 percent in the four races, an extraordinary embarrassment for any county leader.
Ferrer also endorsed Rosado and Bea—races he and Ramirez managed to lose even though Espada was facing an upcoming trial on felony charges and Thompson was from Westchester, which accounts for less than a third of the vote in the two-county district. Ferrer blames the Espada win on Rosado, whom he calls a “dunderhead” even though he’s supported him repeatedly for senate and City Council. Engel, whose district also includes part of Westchester, said he was “instrumental in convincing Thompson” to run, thus creating a strong ally.
The 68-year-old Bea gave up a safe assembly seat to run for senate at Seabrook’s and Ramirez’s urging. Ironically, Carl Heastie, who is a budget analyst for Alan Hevesi, won Bea’s seat with the support of Ferrer and Ramirez.
Ferrer remained neutral in the Koppell race, while both Green and Hevesi endorsed the wife of former state attorney general Oliver Koppell. Benedetto, who was encouraged to run by Ramirez in an attempt to block Koppell from winning the party’s nomination, said in an interview that it was so apparent he was going to lose that he didn’t even bother to run a primary-day operation, going to work at his public school job instead. When the Voice visited Benedetto’s club in the early evening on election day, the door was open, but the storefront was empty. Like Engel, Koppell said that Ferrer may have been damaged in her Riverdale base by Ramirez’s actions.
She said she had to call the party boss after her win to make sure he wouldn’t aid her Republican opponent, incumbent Guy Velella, who maintains a close working relationship with Ramirez. “Roberto pledged that he wouldn’t give Velella any support in any way,” said Koppell. “He told me I would be entitled to the same benefits as any other Democratic candidate”—hardly an indication that the Bronx leader was prepared to put in the extra effort needed to unseat an entrenched GOP incumbent. Ferrer, on the other hand, called her and, according to Koppell, assured her that “Roberto would do what he has to do” in November. He also called Thompson, who he says he has “an excellent relationship” with, clearly hoping to win her support.
Instead of a county party unified behind Ferrer, however—which was expected just a few months ago—Hevesi may be able to pick up the endorsement of Engel, the Koppells, Thompson, and other elected officials who backed Engel. Vallone, who was likely to win the support of some Bronx councilmembers on his own, also can lay claim to the Engel base. Vallone says he called Engel and “volunteered to endorse and campaign for him” because the chalenge against him “involved everything I dislike in politics,” with Ramirez “disendorsing Engel because he wasn’t the right color, race, or creed.”
But the Engel debacle may not merely affect endorsements. Assemblyman Jeff Dinowitz says that the turnout in his Riverdale district was 30 percent higher than in the Schumer Senate primary of 1998 and that the poisonous contest may also leave a lasting impression on voters. “It struck a nerve when the incumbent congressman was dumped for all the wrong reasons,” says Dinowitz. “It was incredibly offensive to people.” Engel’s campaign manager, Arnold Linhardt, says Ferrer’s and Green’s unwillingess to take a position “could hurt them.” Neutrality “is not standing up for someone at a crucial point,” contends Linhardt, who believes that the impact may “extend beyond the borders of Engel’s district.”
The animosities were so deep, Engel said, that when he went to the Bronx Democratic dinner in June, his name wasn’t even listed on the program as an elected official. “They listed the 16th Congressional District [José Serrano] and the 18th [Nita Lowey], but not mine, the 17th. I was airbrushed out. It was like the old Soviet Union.” Seabrook’s campaign was so transparently premised on maximizing black votes that a huge wall map in his basement headquarters on White Plains Road ignored Riverdale and colored all the election districts outside it in green ink, labeling them “black homeowners” and indicating that these were the areas he was targeting. Seabrook and Ramirez, however, could not overcome Riverdale’s 8000-vote margin for Engel.
Even Ramirez expresses his “regret” that “the Seabrook-Engel campaign was so nasty.” But he insists he would make the same choices again, adding that “to stay neutral” in the race would have “gone against everything my job requires.” Ramirez denounced Engel’s “failure to recognize that there is a constituency out there in need.”
Ramirez insists that Seabrook was going to challenge Engel “no matter who I endorsed,” and that he merely decided to go with the majority of party and elected officials within Engel’s district, who were dissatisfied with the congressman’s performance. Seabrook wanted to challenge Engel now—before the next reapportionment—for fear that the lines would be redrawn to dilute the black and Latino majority in the district.
Seabrook’s and Bea’s losses decimated what was once the strongest black club in the borough, making it a far weaker ally for Ferrer in 2001, when Seabrook is expected to run for the City Council seat that will be vacated by the organization’s last elected official, Larry Warden. The only Ferrer gain from Ramirez’s Seabrook strategy is that it appears to have secured Reverend Al Sharpton’s support in the mayoral contest. Sharpton, a longtime close ally of Seabrook’s, has said that he personally negotiated the Seabrook deal with Ramirez.
“If I do not run myself,” Sharpton told the Voice, “it is highly likely that I will be for Ferrer. Freddy fulfilled his obligations on the Seabrook race through Roberto. I have no complaints. The coalition is not in any way offset.” With the recent success of his joint venture with the King family—a revival of the March on Washington—Sharpton is increasingly seeing himself as Jesse Jackson’s successor on the national civil rights stage as opposed to a marginal vote-getter in the local political circus. That means endorsing Ferrer would help Sharpton’s national alliance-building efforts with Latinos, regardless of the fate of Ferrer’s candidacy.
In Brooklyn, Hevesi clearly cemented an alliance with Assemblyman Clarence Norman, who doubles as the county’s Democratic leader, and a host of black elected officials close to him, including Owens, Assemblymen Al Vann, Roger Green, William F. Boyland, and Nick Perry, City Councilwomen Annette Robinson and Tracy Boyland, and State Senator Velmanette Montgomery. This entire group—possibly joined by others who endorsed Owens, including state senators Ada Smith and John Sampson— could give Hevesi an election-day operation in Central Brooklyn capable of reducing the majority Mark Green has been getting in polls among black Democrats. Norman, Roger Green, and Owens just won serious primaries, with Hevesi actively supporting all three.
Even Sharpton, who was assailed by Hevesi in the 1997 race and is determined to defeat him in 2001, concedes that Hevesi made gains in black Brooklyn. Sharpton says this core of black officials “is going to deliver something” for the comptroller, adding that all Hevesi “wants is a piece” of the black vote, since his main support is among white moderate Democrats.
Owens insists that he “has no mayoral candidate” and that he made no pledge to back Hevesi when Hevesi endorsed him late in his campaign against Councilwoman Clarke. But he says Hevesi was “immensely helpful,” and recounts with bitterness the demise of his longstanding relationship with Green, who he says is “too immature to be mayor.” Owens ticks off the times he endorsed Green—going back to his run for U.S. Senate in the ’80s—and says their relationship fell apart when he switched from Green to Schumer in the 1998 Senate race.
Owens endorsed Green before Schumer entered the race, and when his Brooklyn congressional colleague decided to seek the seat, he met with Green for three hours one Saturday at Green’s home. Owens concluded that Green “had no game plan” to beat Schumer and was staying in the race “as a spoiler,” angered by Schumer’s late decision to run. He wrote Green a four-page letter saying he planned to endorse Schumer and waited three weeks to do it, never hearing back from Green. He instead urged Green to run for mayor and promised his support. “Mark hasn’t spoken to me since,” says Owens. Green declined to comment on what he called Owens’s “selective version” of events.
Green’s decision to back Clarke, who lost by 3383 votes, was, he insists, based on “balancing her and Major’s records,” not the 1998 switch. He refuses to discuss any conversations he had with Clarke about her endorsement in 2001, when she reportedly plans to run her daughter Yvette Clarke for the council position she must vacate. But Clarke’s daughter is on a leave of absence from a job with the Ferrer-controlled Bronx Overall Economic Development Corporation, where Derrick Broomes, a close Clarke ally, is the chief financial officer. Clarke backed Ferrer’s short-lived mayoral campaign in 1997 and Ferrer endorsed her in the race against Owens. Stanley Schlein, the counsel to the Bronx Democratic organization, represented Clarke in her recent legal skirmishes with Owens.
Aligning himself with Clarke next year may also prove to be politically embarrassing for reformer Green since Clarke has already refused to repay a cent of the largest fine ever leveled against a councilmember by the city’s Campaign Finance Board. She owes the CFB $48,066 for wildly exceeding the expenditure cap in 1997, even drawing down $9877 more than she was entitled to in public funding. She also just ran her congressional campaign in similar gross violation of federal law, declining to disclose all but $1000 of the $120,000 she raised between April and June 30, and then not filing at all after that. Green will only say that he is “concerned” about Clarke’s campaign-finance breaches.
Beyond these big-picture races, Green may have helped himself in Queens, where he backed Assemblywoman Cathy Nolan, who won decisively against Patrick O’Malley, a challenger openly backed by Giuliani and Ed Koch, as well as aided covertly by Democratic county leader Tom Manton. Hevesi and Vallone stayed neutral in the race, afraid to alienate Manton, whose support both seek in their home county. Ferrer also endorsed Nolan, who backed Green in the 1998 Senate race. Hevesi’s neutrality could not have pleased Assembly Speaker Shelly Silver and other Hevesi allies from his 22 years in Albany. Green also demonstrated his political clout in Manhattan, where a candidate he backed for the civil court won handily against one championed by Hevesi.
The only local race other than Engel’s that Vallone got vigorously involved in was in the Astoria assembly district that is the centerpiece of his own councilmanic district. Vallone’s candidate, Michael Gianaris, won by over 600 votes over another Greek candidate, Kimon Thermos, who was backed by Green and Ferrer. Hevesi was neutral. Vallone was annoyed by Ferrer’s and Green’s intrusion on his turf, claiming that neither had “ever stepped foot” into his district before, even though Thermos ran in previous elections.
In addition to his Bronx fiascos, Ferrer also backed East Harlem assemblyman Nelson Denis, who lost to Adam Clayton Powell Jr.