One week, almost to the hour, after Mark Green defeated Freddy Ferrer by a meager 15,000 votes, Green traveled last Thursday night to the Soho headquarters of the Ferrer campaign. The mayor-to-be went around 5:15 for a tortured exchange with a pained but professional Ferrer, who indicated, as he had in his runoff night concession speech, his intention to endorse Green. Ferrer wanted Green to come back—after attending the Al Smith dinner uptown—to meet with some of his anguished and angry supporters. Ferrer wanted to make sure Green heard what they had to say.
Waiting at 611 Broadway were former Dinkins deputy mayor Bill Lynch, ex-Koch and Giuliani aide Luis Miranda, Reverend Al Sharpton, who’d managed to energize both Ferrer’s black and Green’s white vote, and Roberto Ramirez, the Bronx Democratic boss who helped propel the largest Latino turnout in city primary history. Green came at 10 p.m. with two uninvited black assemblymen who’d backed him, Denny Farrell and Clarence Norman, the Democratic leaders of Manhattan and Brooklyn respectively, but Sharpton stopped them at the door. Only Green and his 50-year-old campaign manager, Rich Schrader, were welcomed into the lions’ den.
Ramirez and Sharpton dominated the heated conversation, with Sharpton objecting to Green’s disingenuous attempt to deny seeking his endorsement, recounting in detail the effort to win it, including appeals from Green aide and Sharpton friend Alan Roskoff. Sharpton coolly recalled that Green had once told him that political reality was 90 percent perception, and that if most white people thought he was racially offensive, Sharpton had to pay attention to this consensus view. “If most blacks and Latinos think you played the race card,” Sharpton observed, “you have to pay attention.”
Ramirez blasted what he called the “patronizing, condescending, insensitive” post-runoff comments by Green and Schrader, as well as the stereotyping of Ferrer that he believes occurred in the final days of the campaign. The complaints focused more on the posters, leaflets, and phone calls that used Sharpton to demonize Ferrer than on Green’s “Can-we-afford-to-take-a-chance?” TV ad.
When Green was asked by reporters if he regretted denying that he’d sought Sharpton’s endorsement, Green said no, adding that Sharpton’s ‘presence here’ indicated he was now backing him, apparently unaware that in fact Sharpton had already left the crowded platform.
Schrader rebutted the Ramirez attack on the ad, insisting that pointing out differences was the essence of politics and that, though hard-hitting, it had nothing to do with race. He referred to Ferrer’s decision to reject Giuliani’s request for a three-month extension as “chump populism.” Ramirez assailed the presumptuousness of Schrader suggestions on NY1 that Green could win without making peace with the Ferrer malcontents, but that he needed them to govern. Ramirez still says he finds Green’s subsequent repetition of that sentiment “troubling,” precisely because it left the impression that Green was patting himself on the back for being “big” enough to reach out.
The exchange got so personal Schrader threatened to walk out. Ramirez discovered an even higher decibel level, and Schrader, who was nearly killed by a heart attack a year ago, got up and left. Concerned about leaving Green alone, Schrader dispatched a police bodyguard to the room, who told Green he was late for his next appointment. The kid from Great Neck stayed anyway, face to face with the bitter residue of his own greatest triumph, forcing himself to listen, more conscripted by the anguish than by the anger.
The next morning Ferrer and a large group of backers—led by Charlie Rangel and most of the other elected officials who’d endorsed him—gathered at the same headquarters to roast Democratic National Committee chair Terry McAuliffe and New York state party chair Judith Hope. The Ferrer camp was incensed that neither had responded to pre-runoff appeals to denounce the inflammatory tactics. By 2:30, the morning attendees, including U.S. senators Hillary Clinton and Chuck Schumer, stood on a platform at the Sheraton Hotel and appeared to join a somber Ferrer in endorsing Green.
As soon as Green finished speaking—deriding the leaflets etc. as “racist” and promising for the first time to investigate his own campaign—Sharpton and Ramirez walked off the stage and disappeared, dissatisfied that only McAuliffe had explicitly stated that Sharpton and Ferrer had been unfairly vilified. Schumer, Clinton, Hope, and Green had reportedly agreed to say that, but instead made only indirect reference to it. When Green was asked by reporters if he regretted denying that he’d sought Sharpton’s endorsement, Green said no, adding that Sharpton’s “presence here” indicated he was now backing him, apparently unaware that in fact Sharpton had already left the crowded platform.
Ramirez and Sharpton later told reporters that, despite appearances, they had not yet endorsed Green. Sharpton is awaiting a vote by the National Action Network. “I don’t believe Mark stereotyped Freddy,” Ramirez told the Voice. “But I believe he capitalized on the stereotyping. His campaign saw an opportunity and didn’t stand up against it.” Ramirez is awaiting a clearer statement from Green, the parameters of which he declined to spell out. At his press-conference speech, Green blamed “independent freelancers” for the street tactics, saying nothing that suggested he felt any responsibility for the election-day fumes that left so many choking.
Ed Koch and Rudy Giuliani are the only two white mayors of New York in the last 24 years. Their combined 20 years were searing examples of racial division, with blacks, much more than Latinos, feeling left out, if not scorned. Ironically, David Dinkins was defeated in 1993 by Giuliani’s “one-city-one-standard” campaign, which was designed to convince anyone who wasn’t black that Dinkins favored his own.
Giuliani’s ads, one of which used his wife Donna to wail that those “who support my husband are called racist,” were denounced in a Times editorial as an attempt to “make a campaign that stands to benefit from racial fear appear to be the victim of those fears.” The Times concluded: “Not since the heyday of Lee Atwater have we seen such devious artistry when it comes to stirring feelings of racial paranoia among whites.”
Giuliani’s election-day operation featured thousands of white off-duty cops, firemen, and corrections officers, assigned to “monitor” black districts by Giuliani, which Dinkins denounced as “an outrageous campaign of voter intimidation and dirty tricks.” The hubbub over these ads and tactics was forgotten overnight; Ramirez and company were determined to make sure it lasted a little longer this time.
But Dinkins’s campaign is not the only parallel experience. Last year, Ramirez ran Larry Seabrook, a black state senator well known only for scandal, against Eliot Engel, the county’s six-term, white congressional incumbent. If Al Sharpton’s perception/reality calculus is the standard, everyone on both sides thought, despite Ramirez’s protestations, that race was the underpinning of the campaign. Sharpton later acknowledged that the Ramirez-Seabrook alliance was designed to win his support for Ferrer’s candidacy this year, a first step in the building of a black-Latino coalition.
Engel says now that Ramirez “used code words”—precisely what Ramirez accuses Green of—to try to defeat him in his majority black and Latino district. Seabrook printed buttons urging people to elect the county’s first African American congressman and mailings that said, “It’s time for us to be represented by one of us.” Ramirez, who removed Engel’s picture from the party’s dinner journal and banners, accused him of “appealing to the worst in us by saying that the only reason I have decided not to back him is because he’s not black.”
When Engel won, Ferrer, who stayed nominally neutral, visited Engel at his Riverdale home. He wanted Engel’s support for the upcoming mayoral contest, but all he offered was a let-bygones-be-bygones appeal, the echoes of which must have come back to haunt Ferrer in recent days.
“He was very conciliatory,” Engel recalls. “I said to him we ought to replace Roberto as county leader. He said, ‘It ain’t gonna happen.’ I said why not pick a consensus person who can bring all the elements of the party together. He said, ‘Slim pickins’ and refused.” Engel wound up backing Alan Hevesi in the primary and Green in the runoff.
One of the most complex and powerful figures in New York politics, Ramirez has already voluntarily quit the assembly and told the Voice he intends to “soon” follow through on his promise to step down as Bronx leader. He insists he needs “no title” to play the role he sees for himself in the life of the city, which he describes as aiding “the coming to age of a political culture and constituency.” His wounds, savvy, and commitment are real, but so are his mistakes. The double standard he rails about in others is one he knows all too well himself.
Research assistance: Jill Nawrocki, Lisa Schneider, Lisa Marie Williams, Katie Worth
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on October 23, 2001