Peel away the rhetoric about rebuilding lower Manhattan, saving the city’s economy, circumventing term limits in order to keep self-proclaimed indispensable mayor-for-life Rudy Giuliani in office for a few more months, and what’s at the heart of Mark Green’s victory in the mayoral runoff October 11 is that white folks played the race card. Again.
Green beat Fernando Ferrer by a small margin, one that got smaller with the news that the Board of Election counted some votes twice, and shrank again with the last tallies. The primary figures from the runoff show a number of interesting facts about the role of race in the election, and who composes the real racial monolith when it comes to voting.
The numbers from the September 25 primary, which Ferrer and Green entered as frontrunners, showed that among African American voters, who were 24 percent of the electorate, 52 percent chose Ferrer, 34 percent opted for Green, and a combined 13 percent went for Hevesi and Vallone. Latinos—23 percent of voters—voted 72 percent for Ferrer, 12 percent for Green, and a combined 17 percent for Hevesi and Vallone. White voters, who were 48 percent of the electorate, voted 40 percent for Green, 31 percent for Vallone, 20 percent for Hevesi, and 7 percent for Ferrer. While nearly half of all black voters and 29 percent of Latino voters presumably looked at the issues and supported either Green, Vallone, or Hevesi, only 7 percent of white voters could bring themselves to vote for Ferrer. Are we really to believe this vote is the result of a meritocracy, that in a field of four Democratic candidates only the three white candidates took positions palatable to 93 percent of white Democrats?
Racism has long been the studiously ignored elephant in the middle of New York’s political landscape; with this election it doesn’t seem possible for white voters to deny that they see it. The numbers tell the story, and the tired argument that whites voted their principles, not their prejudices, simply does not hold water. With the unholy trinity of The New York Times, Daily News, and New York Post marshaled against him, it’s amazing that Ferrer built a diverse coalition that included blacks, Latinos, and the handful of truly progressive white people left in New York. He also won the support of Peter Vallone, the Reverend Al Sharpton, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Ed Koch, Geraldine Ferraro, and the powerful unions 1199, the United Federation of Teachers, and District Council 37.
In the days before the election, it looked as if Ferrer actually had a good chance of becoming the Democratic nominee. And then white folks played the race card. In their frenzy to avoid the possibility of a Puerto Rican mayor, white voters in New York were willing to forgo principles on October 11. Take term limits, for instance: No matter that Mark Green caved when Rudy strong-armed him into agreeing to illegally extend his term; democracy and the rule of law were apparently small prices to pay. Or take the possibility of conflicts of interest: Public worries that pushed Hevesi out of the race no longer mattered by the time of the runoff. Despite the shadow of Green’s brother, a major developer looming with the potential to reap much more than Al Sharpton would from City Hall, and even though the federal government has committed at least $40 billion to rebuilding New York and hundreds of millions more have come in through donations, voters seemed to think that the devastated financial district couldn’t be resurrected without a white man at the helm.
Then there was the borderline laughable spectacle of the mainstream media revising, even twisting, their own politics into pretzels in order to continue supporting Green after his immediate acquiescence to Rudy’s three-months-more demand. Post run-off, having garnered white votes, Green was trying to distance himself from his eleventh hour concession by insisting the decision to change the law was up to the Democratic state legislature, a fact he knew when he opportunistically gave in to Giuliani.
Finally, there was New York white folks’ favorite living justification for playing the race card, the Reverend Al Sharpton, whose endorsement Green courted assiduously. No matter how much weight he loses, Sharpton will never be slim enough to avoid being cast as the Big Black Bogeyman in times of racial desperation. Although the Green campaign denies any knowledge or participation, voters report having received telephone calls on election day in which Ferrer was portrayed as a tool of the evil Reverend Al, to whom he was about to “hand over” the city. Leaflets distributed election night in Brooklyn began, “Al Sharpton has waited a long time to get his hands on our city. Freddy Ferrer will give it to him” and concluded, “This is Sharpton’s chance. Will you keep it from him?”
And they did. By election day Mark Green’s campaign, after pledging not to go negative, flooded the airwaves with an attack ad, labeling Ferrer “borderline irresponsible,” “racially divisive,” and ending, “Can we afford to take a chance?”
Well yeah, we could afford to and we ought to, but only “the other New York” did. When it came down to the wire, white New Yorkers weren’t interested in giving even a sliver of the pie. It didn’t matter that black, brown, and poor New Yorkers have profited least from the city’s recent economic boom and are the most hard-hit economically by the events of September 11. Witness the nearly 10,000 people who jammed into the first post-disaster job fair on October 17, many of whom had been out of work for months.
After a tense week of telephone calls and meetings, last Friday, at a unity rally crowded with loyal but disgruntled and uncomfortable looking democrats, Freddy Ferrer endorsed Mark Green. Breaking ranks, Bronx Democratic leader Roberto Ramirez has yet to endorse Green, nor has the Reverend Al Sharpton. Making the most of a bad situation, the Bloomberg campaign has released ads directed at disaffected Latino and Black voters, urging them to jump ship. On the streets, Latin and black voters were pissed off, disgusted, and talking about either ignoring the election or defecting. The only thing that’s clear is that while Green voters couldn’t vote with the other New York, neither candidate can win without us.
Read Jill Nelson’s “The Race Factor,” an interview with former deputy mayor Bill Lynch Jr.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on October 23, 2001