The man asleep on the Prospect Park bench I passed this chilly Monday morning was completely covered in blankets, his shopping cart of handpicked odds and ends lodged directly behind him. Rising from the cart, perched between jammed plastic garbage bags, was a tiny and tattered flag, saluting America less than 24 hours after it had gone to war again, celebrating a nation of patriots and paradoxes.
With an election to pick New York’s next mayor just days away, it’s hard to deny that ours is a tale of two cities. But unfortunately that’s what Mark Green seemed to do in the Sunday debates, disparaging the “Other New York” campaign theme of his opponent Fernando Ferrer as “divisive,” shortly before American bombers hit Afghani targets for the first of what promises to be many times.
Yet in a way, nothing demonstrates the unity of these two cities in this moment of peril—when all of New York’s very survival appears hauntingly uncertain—more than the man in the park, simultaneously outcast and comrade, rootless and rooted, discarded and embracing. He is as connected to the Trade Center dead and the troops in search of their killers as any other New Yorker, a link in a chain of indiscriminate anguish with so much at stake this Thursday.
The test in the Democratic runoff is now about which of these two candidates is best able to lead a whole city—fractured by inequity—that urgently and uniformly doubts itself. The city’s near-bankruptcy 25 years ago is our closest parallel, but the psychic distance between the headlined Gerald Ford threat that the city should “drop dead” and the savage destruction of our skyline, as well as our financial lifeline, leaves us without comparable, comforting precedent. The next mayor will have to cut a new path for this city, confronting the challenge of an economy that will continue to suffer aftershocks as loud as the twin collapses.
As eloquent as Ferrer has been for months about the pain of bifurcated boom, he has seemed almost tone deaf about the dark days we now face. David Axelrod, the campaign’s top strategist, told the Post that “if people are looking for sea-changes in strategy, they’ll be greatly surprised.” Ferrer declared, “The towers have tumbled. But our commitments have not. They are still strong.”
Ferrer is still talking about imposing a tax surcharge for after-school programs when we’ll need it to cover core school costs, still promising big raises to unions more likely to see large layoffs, still focused on billions for housing in a city that lost the office space that, for tens of thousands of New Yorkers, paid the salaries that pay the rents. When he backed increases for neglected city parks in one recent appearance, the Times editorial page called him “borderline irresponsible,” erring on the understated side only by suggesting that he hadn’t crossed the pandering line.
It was as if he read the September 25 exit polls that revealed that most voters were in denial, with only 1 percent of his supporters giving the reconstruction of downtown their top priority, and decided that he could lead a government in denial. It wasn’t his use of the Happy Land fire of a decade ago as a WTC parallel that troubled so much as it was his Happy Talk, saying again and again that, despite this sudden new age, he remained wedded to “the reasons that impelled us to run in the first place.” The premise of this false promise is that the Other New York is so disconnected it will believe he can still deliver in an age of daunting deficits what he offered when the city had a $2 billion surplus.
Mark Green, on the other hand, has said from the outset that many of the “dreams” he brought to the campaign would have to be “deferred,” specifically pulling back on: housing plans, park increases, substantial wage boosts, and others. Without unveiling a specific agenda of reductions, Green has worked at diminishing expectations while Ferrer has tried to sustain them, apparently more concerned about energizing his vote than leveling with it.
Green has been disingenuous about his acquiescence to a Giuliani extension, his seduction of Al Sharpton, and the truthfulness of Ferrer’s two-city theme. But he has been far out front on reviving and protecting New York—with a security proposal developed by Jerry Hauer, perhaps Rudy Giuliani’s most competent aide, and a rebuilding plan that recognizes that dispersing the financial district, as Ferrer suggested, is what New Jersey and Connecticut want, not what this city needs.
As magnetic as Ferrer’s multiethnic coalition is, and as savvy and gutsy as he was when he faced down Giuliani, his shallow comparison of Trade Center and Bronx rubble raises doubts about his judgment. He did not rebuild the Bronx, as even his endorser Ed Koch admits, and designating housing sites in a sea of vacant desolation bears no resemblance to reconstructing the global capitol of capital. A scholar of government, Green brings a policy depth to these complex challenges that Ferrer’s early fumbling, and Bronx clubhouse origins, cannot match.
Green also brings a constancy of progressive purpose that eludes the elastic Freddy. Reformatted by the then Clintonesque consultant Dick Morris, Ferrer ran for mayor in 1997 as a pro-death-penalty moderate, converted by the killing of a Bronx cop. Today he talks only about brutal cops. He’s apologized for calling late-term abortions “barbaric,” but his statement, also in 1997, that there’s “no reason to abort a child every time a woman hiccups” sounds so authentic it’s hard to believe that it wasn’t his consultant, not his conscience, that changed. He’s even flipped on his recent Giuliani proposal, swinging from a clear offer to name the mayor the head of his reconstruction authority to making him a dollar-a-day recovery overseer until the rubble is gone.
In 1993, 60 percent of the general election vote was white, and Rudy Giuliani, running against a Democratic incumbent mayor, got 77 percent of it. That means Giuliani won roughly 824,000 white votes, almost enough alone to top David Dinkins’s 858,000 total vote. As black and Latino as the Democratic primary vote was last month—and exit polls may have underestimated it at 47 percent—it will not dominate in November. These voters can nominate Ferrer, with almost no white, Asian, or other allies, but they cannot elect him. That is why Michael Bloomberg is salivating for a shot at Ferrer.
Ready to spend another $15 million on a television blitzkrieg over what will now be only a 25-day general election campaign, Bloomberg can be elected if whites are a slightly larger share than their 1993 percent or if he gets just a bit more of their vote than Giuliani. A suddenly popular president, governor, and incumbent mayor will be at his side, with war waging in the background. The tabloids will be bashing Ferrer daily. The Times will not endorse him, and may even, despite Bloomberg’s campaign-finance sins, decide that it cannot remain neutral.
Harold Ickes, the longtime Clinton strategist, is locked in a back room of the Ferrer headquarters now, working often until late at night, trying to put together the national Democratic pieces that can help Ferrer overcome these Bloomberg advantages. He, the Chicago-based Axelrod, and Democratic National Committee vice chair Bill Lynch are among the seasoned Ferrer advisers who are determined to make sure that a runoff win this Thursday doesn’t just become a cheap thrill, soon crushed by four more Republican years. They know that Ferrer’s message, Sharpton alliance, and campaign ethos make a race against Bloomberg far more difficult for him than it would be for Green.
Bloomberg has said nothing in this campaign that has inflamed or divided—other than his constant championing of everything Giuliani—but his free-spending presence is a reason for Democrats to consciously pick a November winner, one who is ready to take us through our toughest time.
Research assistance: Greg Bensinger, Lisa Marie Williams, Catherine Worth