Race will determine the winner of the 2005 campaign, as it has in every mayoral contest over the last 40 years—virtually ever since John Lindsay became the only Republican elected by a black majority in 1965.
It has already been the convulsive theme of most electoral media coverage, with Fernando Ferrer’s comments about a 1999 police shooting now in their fifth month of inexplicable controversy, the latest manifestation of the city’s craving for divisive distraction. The Bloomberg camp and its media allies still hope that the endless retelling of Ferrer’s Diallo gaffe will force a runoff between Ferrer and Virginia Fields, the black borough president of Manhattan, poisoning the well just as an ugly leaflet depicting Ferrer kissing Al Sharpton’s butt did in 2001. Acting as a surrogate for Bloomberg and Fields, Reverend Calvin Butts tried to revive the Diallo theme on NY1 last week, though he never so much as appeared at the 1999 protests. His blast fell so flat no daily wrote about it.
If, as polls suggest, November becomes a choice between Mike Bloomberg and Ferrer, the city may wind up gripped by a racial whirlwind it has not experienced since 1989, when David Dinkins won City Hall in an unprecedented burst of pride and promise. In a Voice interview, Ferrer said that the “it’s-our-time” undercurrent of the 1989 campaign wasn’t Dinkins’s “reason for running,” nor is it “mine now,” but asked: “Did it help David? Yes.” There are people, Ferrer concluded, “who are rightly concerned” that all New Yorkers “have their day in the sun,” and while he doesn’t know “if people look at it in the same terms as they did” in 1989, he is certainly well aware of this year’s historic opportunity.
Though the multinational Latino community is the city’s largest ethnic group, no one from it has ever held any position of citywide power, and no pollster has any real idea how many Latinos will vote when they finally have an opportunity to collectively claim the top prize. No insider has any idea either how many black voters, 71 percent of whom supported Ferrer in the 2001 runoff, will conclude that their own fortunes are inextricably tied to their economic and ethnic neighbors. And as 16 point wide as Bloomberg’s lead is, even his campaign could provide no evidence that, in an actual election, saturation advertising moves minority voters—as it demonstrably does white voters—especially when there is a minority alternative on the ballot.
It’s these unknowns that haunt Bloomberg’s money machine. He has a record that commands multiracial respect in public polls, with the overwhelming majority of blacks and Latinos joining whites in seeing him as “a strong leader” who has managed the city’s budget and services with competence. Unlike his two white predecessors, Ed Koch and Rudy Giuliani, whose five combined terms reach back nearly three decades, Mayor Mike has never played the race card and hopes to win as a crossover candidate, albeit one with virtually monolithic white support.
The likelihood of his garnering significant minority support against a minority candidate is, however, another great unknown, never achieved in a citywide primary or general election that has pitted white candidates against blacks or Latinos. Can Bloomberg, running as a Republican in a Bush era without the spark of racial insult that consumed Mark Green four years ago, win enough of the minority vote simply by being evenhanded and capable? Or will he become an incidental casualty of the rising tide of empowering history?
The power of race in New York politics is axiomatic. Ed Koch was the last white Democrat to win an open mayoral election—i.e., one without an incumbent—and he did it way back in 1977. That year was also a watershed in black/Latino political relations, with Congressman Herman Badillo belatedly entering the race and submarining Percy Sutton, the first black with a real shot at winning. Ask David Dinkins today and he will tell you exactly which month Sutton and Badillo announced 28 years ago, a tit-for-tat obstacle to coalition still alive an era later. Koch won a third term in 1985 after Harlem’s black leadership repaid Badillo by blocking his candidacy in a subterranean deal that catapulted Dinkins to the Manhattan borough presidency and, ultimately, the mayoralty. In 1993, though, Dinkins became the only incumbent in the 20th century to lose a general election, defeated by Giuliani’s “One City, One Standard” racial theme.
The last three prominent white Democratic liberals to run—City Council President Carol Bellamy in 1985, Manhattan Borough President Ruth Messinger in 1997, and Public Advocate Mark Green in 2001—have lost, two of them to Republicans in general elections. White mayoral wannabes in 2001, like Council Speaker Peter Vallone and City Comptroller Alan Hevesi, repeated this pattern, as Speaker Gifford Miller and Congressman Anthony Weiner appear to be doing this year. Even though Miller has the support of many minority councilmembers, he has been unable so far to break Ferrer and Fields’s hold on Latino and black voters.
These past and anticipated results, sometimes by crushing margins, have established that minority voters will turn out in large numbers only for minority candidates, as blacks did for Dinkins in 1989 and, to a lesser degree, 1993, and as Latinos did for Ferrer in 2001. No matter how much they disliked Koch in 1985 and Giuliani in 1997, as the polls showed, they were not driven to vote against a white candidate as much as they were to vote for one of their own.
Similarly, when Bloomberg snared 25 percent of the black vote and 47 percent of Hispanics in 2001, the general-election turnout in some minority districts was actually lower than in the primary or runoff, an unheard-of indication of how disaffected voters were by Green’s alleged leaflet race-baiting. The chances of Bloomberg finding a way to either deflate minority turnout to 2001 levels or win similar percentages of it are at least as slim as Ferrer’s chances of getting near Green’s 38 percent of the white vote.
While the pollsters and media are depicting this election as a yawn, here are the historical numbers that guide Ferrer’s hopes:
The Bloomberg model for victory, though no one will acknowledge it, is Giuliani 1997. Bloomberg is trying, on at least two levels, to morph Ferrer into Messinger. Ferrer’s early endorsement of a stock-transfer tax gave the mayor the ammunition he needed to depict Ferrer as an ideologue with no grasp of what makes the New York economic engine purr, just as Giuliani did with Messinger.
As well as this has worked so far, Ferrer’s willingness to face up to the reality that the city will have to identify new revenue sources to pry loose from Albany additional billions in court-mandated state aid is appreciated by many with real stakes in our schools.
Bloomberg tried last week to do much the same with Ferrer’s affordable housing plan, taking shots at the side effects of its financing. But, as right as Bloomberg may be about Ferrer’s vacant-property tax hike on the $400 rebates, he is nibbling at the edges. Ferrer’s 167,000-unit, $8.5 billion program is still almost three times Bloomberg’s otherwise solid program and, with 30 to 50 percent affordable apartments, Freddy is now reaching out to every living-space-starved New Yorker in a way that resonates. By November, unless the mayor steps forward with a plan to make the school-aid billions doable, Ferrer may capture the education high ground even though Mike Bloomberg has done more to change schools than any mayor in modern times.
But if Bloomberg is failing in his attempt to stereotype Ferrer as a free-taxing lefty, he is succeeding at the much more subtle game of compromising Big Dems. He’s got the largest municipal union, DC 37, to endorse him, just as Giuliani did in 1997; he has at least temporarily neutralized the other big unions—Dennis Rivera’s hospital workers and Randi Weingarten’s teachers, with powerful Election Day field and phone operations—like Giuliani did. Chuck Schumer and Comptroller Bill Thompson refuse to utter a single critical word about him, as Schumer and Thompson’s predecessor Hevesi did when Rudy was seeking re-election.
There’s an “absolute parallel,” Messinger told the Voice, recounting the ways Rivera, Hevesi, Schumer, and others undercut her. When asked after her 1997 loss to rate Big Dems on how helpful they were, she gave Ferrer the only 10 and Schumer and Hevesi bottom-trawling scores. Of course, Thompson and Hevesi sent mixed signals for precisely the same reason—Thompson is planning to run in four years and can only do so if the Democratic challenger loses. Hevesi was dialing up donors for his 2001 mayoral run even before he squeezed himself onstage with Messinger the night she lost, striking the pose, as even Hillary Clinton may do this year, of a loyal Democrat. Not only was Schumer’s wife working for Giuliani in 1997, she’s now a Bloomberg commissioner, and the mayor’s campaign employs Schumer’s former spokesman and the brother of his chief of staff.
The only way Ferrer can combat these covert Big Dem compromises is by rattling his Latino base. Bronx Democratic boss José Rivera’s quotes in El Diario threatening Thompson about 2009 may have forced his endorsement last week, as tepid as it was. No Big Dems will take a Ferrer nosedive if they fear they will pay a Latino price. Gail Collins wrote an Editorial Notebook column in the Times early in 1997 about the sexist underside of the Big Dem abandonment of Messinger—accusing them of “edging away from her and sidling up to Giuliani”—but the boys went on being boys and were never held to account.
Ferrer isn’t the candidate yet, though the endorsements of Albany’s two top legislative Democrats, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and Senate leader David Paterson, appear imminent. Virginia Fields is still competitive and could go negative, though her spokeswoman insisted Monday that she wouldn’t echo her pastor Butts’s complaint about Diallo, a wise position since she stayed upstairs in her office overlooking the 1 Police Plaza demonstrations while Ferrer was getting arrested. Miller can afford a bigger TV blitz than his $1.6 million publicly subsidized campaign mailing and increasingly appears to be the Democrat most likely to force a runoff.
But barring a transforming event, Fernando Ferrer, 55, who has found a new measured and inclusive campaign tone, will soon be the first Latino Democrat ever nominated for a citywide office. Should it happen, it will be the dawning of a new age in the endlessly racial politics of New York.
Research assistance: Nicole D’Andrea, Bryan Farrell, Alex Gecan, Leslie Kaufmann, Ian Kriegish, and Stephen Stirling