Six years after the killing of Amadou Diallo in a hail of 41 bullets, Fernando Ferrer managed to get winged. Ferrer’s self-inflicted wound on March 15, when he told a police union audience that the Diallo shooting was not a crime, dented his front-runner status. This was good news for C. Virginia Fields, the Manhattan borough president running a distant second and taken seriously by few. Suddenly, she was a hot commodity in the race. But the good news for Fields could be bad news for Democrats.
Five months before the primary, it’s silly to predict whether or not the Diallo debacle will doom Ferrer. Fields is still well behind in the polls, getting about 20 percent, while Ferrer pulls well into the 30s. If the vote were held today, however, the surveys say Freddy wouldn’t win outright. He’d have to face Fields in a runoff, and as Fields’s strategy man Joseph Mercurio notes, “Once you’re in a runoff, anything can happen.”
In other words, Fields could actually win—the Democratic nomination, at least. But the last three mayoral races prove that winning the primary doesn’t get you the keys to Gracie Mansion. The very qualities that Fields’s campaign hypes—that she is the only African American in the race, the only woman, and a progressive with a bio that includes marching with Martin Luther King Jr.—play better to loyal Democratic primary voters than to the general electorate. Therein lies the potential bad news about Fields’s rise: She’s the perfect candidate to edge out a fellow Democrat who’d have a better shot at winning City Hall. Right now, Ferrer is the only candidate who beats Mike Bloomberg head to head in all three main polls.
Of course, most people—62 percent in the most recent Marist poll—simply aren’t paying much attention to the race. That’s welcome news for Fields, who is just now getting in gear. Until Election Day 2004, she had been hoping for a post in the Kerry administration. When Ohio voters nixed that plan, Fields—term-limited from running for beep again—began seriously weighing a run for mayor, and only entered the fray in January.
As of last week, she had yet to hire a campaign manager, and her press secretary hadn’t started on the job yet, leaving Mercurio to multitask those roles. The late start may explain why she trails the pack in fundraising, with $1.2 million collected. Ferrer has raised $3 million, City Council Speaker Gifford Miller $4.5 million, and Congressman Anthony Weiner $1.6 million. Fields’s campaign website went up only two weeks ago. It’s called newyorkers4fields.com.
A catchier name would be nice, say “virginiafields.com.” Trouble is, that name’s been taken by a group of activists who are deeply opposed to Fields’s candidacy. While neither wanted to be named in print, two members of this group told the Voice that their complaints about Fields concern her land-use decisions—one of the few policy areas where borough presidents actually have a role. They cite Fields’s support for development along Eighth Avenue, which some community activists opposed. They criticize the amount of contributions she has accepted from real estate interests (at least seven of her top 13 contributors are linked to real estate). And they claim that her views on the defining issue of the campaign so far—the West Side stadium—have shifted.
Last month, Fields told WNBC’s Gabe Pressman in an interview, “When we started talking about a stadium almost three or four years ago, I was then and I still am opposed to a stadium on the West Side of Manhattan.” But a statement from Fields’s office in September 2000 said she opposed a “stand-alone” stadium, “but would support the construction of a stadium for the 2012 Olympics if it were built as part of other structures that would ultimately benefit New York City.” The current stadium deal includes such structures, like the expanded Javits Center. By March 2001, however, Fields was saying that she opposed linking the stadium plan to the Javits work.
Mercurio doesn’t think policy issues like the stadium will decide the Democratic race. It’ll be about style and presentation, he says—how voters’ buttons are pushed. Fields has an advantage there, he boasts. Where her male rivals sound like technocrats or bullies, Mercurio says, “you get from her that she’s actually interested in making people’s lives better.” That emphasis on the touchy-feely was on display last week at an LGBT candidates’ forum at NYU, at which Fields referred more than once to the importance of “attitudes,” and when discussing hate crimes opined that “tolerance can be taught.”
Fields’s internal polling apparently shows that she and Ferrer pull even as people learn more about the candidates. Getting her word out is pricey in New York, and Fields has spent most of her money already. According to campaign records through March 15, she has less than half a million in the bank. But her sudden transformation into a serious challenger could convince more donors to open checkbooks. “Nothing succeeds in politics like success,” veteran political guru Norman Adler tells the Voice.
No matter what dough Fields raises, she’ll never outspend Bloomberg, who dished out at least $72 million last time around. For all the buzz about the mayor’s bucks, though, it’s important to remember that most of his 2001 candidacy looked like the political equivalent of Steve Fossett’s early balloon trips: a rich man’s folly, doomed to failure. That all changed after Ferrer and Mark Green fought their nasty duel, and 9-11 turned Giuliani’s endorsement of Bloomberg into electoral gold.
Even with Sir Rudy’s imprimatur, Bloomberg won by a mere 35,000 votes—about 2 percent of ballots cast. That’s something to keep in mind if the current Democratic field seems weak. Whoever wins the party banner is staked—theoretically at least—to a 5-1 registration advantage over the GOP mayor. And while having the mayor’s billions would be a plus, there could also be advantages to not being Mike.
“It might very well be that by the time we get to November it could be ‘Anybody but Bloomberg,’ ” Adler says. “New York’s a funny place.”