Mike Bloomberg’s 5-1 spending advantage and Mark Green’s 5-1 registration edge roughly canceled each other out, meaning that Bloomberg’s closest-ever margin of mayoral triumph last week was determined, as is often the rule, by which wannabe was wiser. Long one of the smartest pols on the city scene, Green has nonetheless never understood the difference between intelligence and judgment. So he surrounded himself, in his campaign and Public Advocate’s office, with many younger versions of—guess who?—himself, each one able to move with the speed of a sound bite from nimble to clueless at the first sign of crisis.
Here are the three critical campaign decisions in which either seasoned wisdom (abetted by money) prevailed, or the absence of it sunk Green:
• David Garth, the 71-year-old campaign consultant who’s won seven of the last 10 mayoral elections, reached an agreement to run the Green campaign in the summer of 2000. According to Garth and Green sources, the “parameters of a contract were set.” Then Green decided to change the terms of the deal, suggesting that Garth get the same total fee in the end, but that the schedule of payments be adjusted so that he got more in the general election than in the primary, back-loading the payout.
Already reluctant about doing Green, Garth let the belated switch convince him to drop out. He’d already flirted with Fernando Ferrer and Peter Vallone, ultimately passing on them as well. He then began a long dance with Bloomberg that ended in February 2001, when he went on the campaign tab at a rate that would rise to $150,000 a month. Garth agreed to a more limited role with Bloomberg than he had with John Lindsay, Ed Koch, and Rudy Giuliani, playing a general strategist role while Washington-based Bill Knapp actually produced the jointly crafted commercials. But subtract Garth from Bloomberg and add him to the experience-starved Green team, and as surely as Green must now regret this blunder, the result changes.
Green wound up hiring Steve McMahon to do his commercials, pollster Mark Mehlman, and strategist Hank Sheinkopf. None had ever won a seriously contested citywide general election; indeed, neither had Green, his respected campaign manager Rich Schrader, nor anyone else on the key staff. Even their successful citywide primary experience was scant. McMahon—who’s from Nebraska, is based in Virginia, and has never lived in New York—produced ads for the race against Bloomberg that either had no zing (“Green Shares Your Priorities”) or too much (the shrill “Kill it! Kill it!” commercial of the final hours). Sheinkopf, who guided Eliot Spitzer’s 1998 win and Comptroller-elect Bill Thompson’s race this year, was shunted aside.
As strategic as Green was in the runoff, overcoming a floundering Ferrer in the last week with tough ads and message, he had no overarching theme or convincing commercials in the final, unraveling days.
The Bloomberg commercials, on the other hand, created their own Garth-inspired reality, exploiting the Giuliani endorsement so persuasively that Schrader says, “Bloomberg morphed into post-World Trade Center Rudy, almost as if we would get a third Giuliani term if Bloomberg was elected.” Schrader says the negative ads piled atop one another “like snow on a roof,” until Green’s lead collapsed, with particular damage done by the one that simply quoted a smug Green declaring he could’ve “done better” than Giuliani on and after September 11. Schrader also believes that the ad that cobbled together quotes from leading Democrats criticizing Green—utterly misconstruing Senator Chuck Schumer’s comments, which weren’t even about Green—contributed to driving Green’s unfavorables to nearly three times their runoff level.
At 56, and with only two easy wins under his belt, Green was the senior manager of his own panicked team, unable to turn to anyone who’d achieved what he was trying to do. Bill Lynch, the “rumpled genius” of David Dinkins’s 1989 campaign, who despite his ties to Ferrer told Schrader he was willing to advise or help, was at home waiting for a personal phone call from Green that never came.
On the other side of the street were combat veterans like Bill Cunningham, the former Moynihan campaign manager and state Democratic Party director, Maureen Connelly, the ex-Koch strategist who’s also won statewide races, and Doug Schoen, who became Clinton’s pollster after winning New York’s mayoralty three times.
• While most of the post-electoral analysis has focused on Green’s failings with blacks and Latinos, it may well have been his unwillingness to compete for a vote Garth always covets—white Catholics—that cost him the contest. With exit polls ranking white Catholics behind only blacks in their share of last week’s turnout (20 percent), Schrader concedes that Green never even sought the endorsement of Senator Moynihan or aired a commercial with police and fire union leaders and members that was already shot. As prominently as Bill Bratton and Mario Cuomo’s endorsements were featured in the primary and runoff, they, too, disappeared from the screen during the general-election campaign.
Obviously the Giuliani ads were pushing many Catholics to Bloomberg, but Green wasn’t using the heavy artillery available to him, especially the 18 endorsing law enforcement unions that are as much the heroes of the Western world as Rudy. Green wound up getting numbers only slightly better than David Dinkins did among white Catholics, but Dinkins was running against one of their own. Pitted against another Jewish candidate, Green never seized this outcome-changing opportunity to shift just a slice of the Catholic vote, perhaps because no one at the highest levels of his campaign came from or understood that community.
The other major media gaffe was Green’s inexplicable decision not to buy any time on Hispanic television, and just a little on Hispanic radio, to counter the millions that Bloomberg had been pouring into both since the inception of the campaign. The emphasis on black and Hispanic ads was, according to Maureen Connelly, as much a product of Bloomberg’s own understanding of the media business as it was the advice of Garth and other consultants. Combined with the Ferrer fallout, this blitz of targeted ads produced the highest percentage of minority votes for a Republican since Lindsay.
Faced with financial constraints that made it impossible to offset with paid media everything Bloomberg was doing, Green nonetheless decided to limit Bloomberg to two debates, albeit only one that appeared on live television. It was as if Green was heeding, for once, the advice of topflight consultants, namely the ones who had locked Bloomberg up in a candidate protection program since Day One, even hiding many of his public appearances from the press. Considering Green’s experience edge, both on Crossfire and in government, this preventive defense was the ultimate dumb move in a season of them, taken from a playbook that showed no understanding of what Bloomberg’s $60 million campaign was buying on the airwaves and in the mail.
• Asked on NY1 if Bloomberg could’ve won had Bronx Democratic boss Roberto Ramirez, hospital workers union leader Dennis Rivera, and Reverend Al Sharpton run their usual Election Day get-out-the-vote operations, Cunningham said he might not have, wisely limiting his praise to Ramirez and Rivera (Sharpton has no GOTV operation).
In a Voice interview, Schrader wouldn’t say much about Rivera, who put 8000 troops into the field for Ferrer but only 300 for Green, as small an army as he sometimes dispatches for school-district elections. “Dennis could have been a great asset” is all Schrader will say. But he denounced Ramirez and Sharpton, accusing them of “sabotaging the Democratic team” and suggesting that “every time this Republican mayor lays off city workers, people should go to Sharpton and Ramirez and ask why they helped elect him.” No one, he says, “should take Al Sharpton seriously again.”
Of course, in the final days, these three, as well as Ferrer, boycotted Green because of the flap over the runoff leafleting tactics that linked Sharpton and Ferrer in ways Green conceded were “racist and despicable.” Green denied any role in the leafleting, but a Daily News story four days before the election indicated that his field director, John Kest, did know about it, placing him and three others from the campaign at a meeting with white elected officials where the leaflets were discussed. Ferrer, who had endorsed Green at a major unity press conference, told the Voice that he “knew about that meeting” before the News story appeared, but that when it did, he sent word to Green that they had “a problem.”
Green and Ferrer talked four times that Friday—the same day that Ferrer was slated to appear at a Sheraton Hotel Unity Dinner for Green. “I said, ‘Four members of your staff were there. You can’t claim ignorance,’ ” Ferrer recalls. “But he refused to fire or even discipline anyone. If he had fired the secretary, it would have satisfied me. No one walked out of the meeting. No one said, ‘This is over.’ He said he wouldn’t act against anyone without a process. He said he and I would appoint a commission, a task force to investigate it. I said, ‘It’s not like no one knows what happened; it’s all out there.’ I said, ‘Just make a gesture that shows you’ll keep your word to dismiss anybody who knew.’ I even suggested, ‘How about suspending Kest? Wouldn’t that do it?’ ”
When Ferrer’s failure to appear at the dinner became the next day’s embarrassing banner headline, he and Green talked twice again on Saturday, with both taking the same positions. “I had been willing to go along with the fiction, but now, with the News story, something different was happening,” says Ferrer. “They were worried I was going to withdraw the endorsement, but I wasn’t. I was just avoiding everybody. I was telling him he had to do something—not for me, but for him.” Asked if he didn’t realize that “bigger issues” were at stake the closer it got to Election Day, Ferrer said: “Yes, the bigger issue was believability—mine and Mark’s.” He said he could not leave the impression that “you can snow me” by appearing with Green without securing any concessions.
Schrader acknowledges that Green put a task force on the table and insists that’s as far as he could go. “All Freddy wanted was blood,” he says. “He wasn’t thinking with his head. Freddy shouldn’t have asked for it, and we couldn’t give it.” Schrader insists that Kest said at the meeting that the campaign “would have nothing to do” with the leafleting tactics and that Green could not “let some machine hack like Ramirez dictate that he fire someone.” In fact, the Green camp so detested Ramirez that in the final days Green would not talk to him one-on-one about the leafleting issues.
Clearly, once the firing became a Sharpton-Ramirez-Ferrer public demand, Green could not cave to it without hurting himself among white voters, who were already leaving him in droves. The question is why Green didn’t suspend Kest—who does not even claim he told the elected officials not to do the leafleting on their own—when called by the News before publication, as Bloomberg later did with a Staten Island staffer caught in a similar controversy.
But just as tellingly, the other question is whether Ferrer, Sharpton, and Ramirez, who had their own celebratory Election Day party in the Bronx that night, thought only a gray-haired scalp could establish their renegade clout. Ferrer, who repeatedly called it “a stretch” to suggest that his actions accounted for the 40,000-vote margin, seems to want to be seen as having punished Green without simultaneously being viewed as having elected the man he had breakfast with the next morning. “Did I put a gun to their heads?” Ferrer asks about the 40 percent of his voters who told exit pollsters they’d switched to Bloomberg.
Mark Green was a principled progressive leader who remained true to core beliefs in a 20-year public career, a rarity in this business. He has been driven from the city stage by Bloomberg’s billions, his own blunders, and backstabbers as petty as he sometimes was. As consistent a liberal as he was on issues that matter in black and Latino life, he could not, in the dying days of his career, hear their voices or respond to their anguish. He could not get outside a cocoon of color and class that was his Seinfeld world. The very quality that made him admirable—his strong-willed independence—became his undoing, preventing him from finding a deal that would have put Ferrer at his side by Election Day.
No one, not even Bloomberg, knows what kind of a mayor he will be. Garth cannot say if Bloomberg will be more like Lindsay, Koch, or Giuliani. The new mayor is being praised for sitting with Ferrer, Rivera, and Sharpton, but these visits were more thank-yous than reaches across a divide. He is faced with a challenge that makes us all want him to be as good as his business success promises, transcending Giuliani mythology and truly leading a city as wounded as it is wonderful.
Research assistance: Sam Dolnick, Jeffrey Herman, Whitney Kassel, Jill Nawrocki, Lisa Marie Williams, Katie Worth