The Hidden Persuaders


Thursday afternoon, election day, found the author of one of the unsigned leaflets attacking Fernando Ferrer in the Democratic mayoral runoff perched on a high stool behind the counter of a dusty hardware store on Brooklyn’s Church Avenue.

Isaac Abraham was wreathed in his usual haze of cigarette smoke, signing orders for deliveries as he talked politics to a visitor. Abraham, who is a Hasidic Jew and active in the Satmar community of Williamsburg and its Hatzolah volunteer ambulance corps, was wearing a faded blue baseball cap with the initials NYPD, a hat he has worn for years but which suddenly became fashionable last month.

Seasoned politicos at Ferrer’s headquarters berated Green’s campaign as the ugliest in memory.

Abraham’s name often appears in newspapers as a spokesman for the Satmars or the Hasidic community, although there is much dispute about who does and doesn’t represent those groups. He has frequently been quoted making fierce attacks on former mayor David Dinkins and Reverend Al Sharpton. For years, their names were considered two sides of the same coin among orthodox Jews. But the men were on opposite ends of this election: Sharpton is big with Ferrer, Dinkins is with Green. More often than not in recent years, Abraham has preferred Republicans to Democrats. Former senator Al D’Amato, Governor Pataki, Mayor Giuliani have all gotten his support. But he backed Democrat Mark Green in the runoff for one basic reason.

“Let me tell you,” he assured his visitor. “Freddy Ferrer is the same as Al Sharpton. Electing Ferrer is letting Sharpton run the city.” Abraham pushed across the counter some sheets of paper that he said he had written and helped distribute to more than 7500 Williamsburg households. One was fairly tame. It was a press release announcing the endorsement of Mark Green by a group of tenant associations headed by Abraham. It said: “We ask you to vote for Green. We would rather be with former Mayor David Dinkins at the table than with Al Sharpton.”

The other went straight over the top with the kind of inflammatory language that is always reserved for anonymous leaflets on election days. Typed in capitals, it was headed “An Open Letter to the Voters of the City of New York.” Although it was unsigned, the author proudly admitted his work. The letter started with the September 11 terrorist attack and then linked the perpetrators of that tragedy to the election. It read: “One of the candidates is actively supported by these local terrorists, who had prominent roles in the Crown Heights riots, the Korean grocery boycott, the 125th Street arson, and the Tawana Brawley case, in each instance seeking to violently destroy the very fabric upon which this city is founded. . . . These local terrorists possess the same demented and perverted values as those who attacked the World Trade Center. . . . We must all work together to ensure the defeat of these local terrorists and the defeat of any politician they support. . . . Vote for Mark Green for Mayor.”

Abraham was asked if he had shown the letter and press release to the Green campaign. “No, no. This we do on our own. This is our statement.” Did the campaign help with costs or distribution? He said no again. “Look, we are with Green now, but, who knows? We could be with [Republican candidate Michael] Bloomberg. If people thought Bloomberg could win, they would be for him, no question.”

Flyers like Abraham’s were the subject of much angry talk on Thursday night at Ferrer’s election night rally at the West 43rd Street headquarters of Local 1199, the health care workers’ union. There were also reports that some people in white neighborhoods had received copies of an ugly cartoon that ran in the New York Post, one of Ferrer kissing the rear end of a balloon-shaped Sharpton. These kinds of things are the unwanted detritus of every election, especially when race is a subterranean issue. They are the unauthorized acts committed at the margins of a campaign, usually by those, such as Abraham, with their own, wholly separate agenda. In Abraham’s case, it is not so much support for a candidate as opposition to another. But the seasoned politicos at Ferrer’s headquarters—former Dinkins chief of staff Bill Lynch, ex-Clinton aide Harold Ickes, Bronx Democratic Party leader Roberto Ramirez—were berating Green’s campaign as the ugliest in memory.

They talked as though the crazed flyers were just a hyped-up version of Green’s own television ads. One of these ads quoted a New York Times editorial that called Ferrer’s pledge to maintain a set percent of funding for parks, despite the new fiscal crisis, “borderline irresponsible.” The ad also cited the words of two white politicians, former mayor Ed Koch and council speaker and former mayoral candidate Peter Vallone, who had each publicly blasted Ferrer’s emphasis on “the other New York” as “divisive” and then switched their support to Ferrer without withdrawing their earlier sniping.

How those ads are viewed has now become a dividing point in New York politics. At Ferrer’s election-night gathering, a prominent public relations specialist who backed Ferrer was asked what he thought of the ads. “They’re normal ads. Not especially negative,” he said. As for the unsigned flyers, he said, “This stuff goes on all the time.”

Last year, in what was widely viewed as a pitch to win Sharpton’s endorsement of Ferrer, Ramirez was accused of launching a racial political brawl in the north Bronx after he backed a black candidate, then state senator Larry Seabrook, against a white incumbent congressman, Eliot Engel. Seabrook’s campaign pitch was simple: It’s our turn, he told voters. Engel won and he was prominent at Green’s side at many campaign stops.

It is not difficult to find the point when the race between Green and Ferrer shifted from polite to nasty. It was after the two men split on Mayor Giuliani’s demand that they agree to give him three extra months in office or face him on the ballot in November. Green famously said yes. Ferrer saw what Green did and went in the other direction, to widespread applause and increased poll numbers. Later, Ferrer went to a meeting of Local 100 of the Transport Workers Union to accept their endorsement. He told them he wasn’t an “apprentice. You are either ready or you are not,” he said. “There are only two kinds of people . . . Stand-up people or sit-down people.”

Mark Green first heard Ferrer’s words as he stood in a waiting room at the TV studios of Channel One on West 42nd Street. A clip of Ferrer at the TWU rally appeared on the room’s television. Green stood in silence, his jaw hanging open, as he heard himself referred to as a “sit-down” person, the toughest words heard thus far in a runoff race that was then just two days old.

Green’s runoff-night rally was held at the Sheraton Hotel and Towers on Seventh Avenue. There were more than a thousand people there, about a third of them blacks, with a sprinkling of Hispanics. Dinkins, Reverend Calvin Butts, and taxi drivers representative Fernando Mateo were among those waiting for the moment to join Green on stage. At 10:33 p.m., they cheered the announcement of what they—and everyone else—believed was a clear-cut victory, Green beating Ferrer by 4 percent. Since then, that lead has narrowed to 2 percent due to a snafu at the polls.

A formal certification of the results won’t be known until next week. There are 51,000 paper ballots, of which usually only 20 percent are declared valid. An additional 8000 are absentee ballots. Even if the majority of valid ballots are for Ferrer, it will not change the outcome. Meanwhile, many of the supporters of Fernando Ferrer, who sent a message of empowerment that resonated with most of the city’s black and Latino voters, are talking about bolting the Democratic Party and supporting Bloomberg, the same candidate that Isaac Abraham’s constituency would also like to vote for, if they think he can win.

Research assistance: Lisa Schneider