Mark Green Exits, Stage Left


In between stops on the last day of his last campaign, Mark Green scribbled notes on a long yellow pad for a seminar that he teaches at New York University for freshmen enrolled in an honors class on politics. Although most people might take the day off after suffering a somewhat humiliating end to a long political career, the morning after giving his concession speech, Green showed up for work at his second job, at an NYU classroom on East 14th Street. He had taught the seminar’s first class—two and a half hours long—on the Wednesday prior, interrupting a final, desperate push to become the Democratic nominee for state attorney general, a last gasp fueled by endorsements from The New York Times and Daily News—along with a ruckus stirred by a Village Voice report on the business dealings of his chief rival, Andrew Cuomo. But the professor never mentioned that he was running to become the state’s highest law enforcement officer, or that he had five years earlier narrowly lost a race for mayor. “All he said was that he had an ‘interesting relationship’ with Michael Bloomberg,” whispered one student during a brief break.

The title of Green’s seminar is “Behind Government: Personality as Policy,” and the assigned reading for the day was Joe Klein’s admiring portrait of Bill Clinton’s presidency, The Natural.

“This is a little pop psychology, I admit,” Green told the class a few minutes into his lecture. “But we all understand what IQ is—some people are pretty smart. And other people have high EQs. And what’s an EQ?” he asked the class. A young man with curly hair raised his hand and gave the correct answer. Emotional quotient, he said, “is when you connect with people on a gut level.”

“That’s exactly right,” said the pleased professor, explaining to them
that connecting with people is something very, very valuable in politics.

Mark Green’s many campaigns came to a close on primary night last week in a cramped and narrow tavern on Murray Street in Lower Manhattan. Decorated with ale signs, a Van Morrison poster, and a dartboard next to the door, the spot had been chosen in hopes that a small crowd would look bigger to the cameras. While the election ended a 25-year career in politics, the decision itself didn’t take long. Less than an hour after the polls closed, with about half the votes counted, the Associated Press declared Cuomo the winner with 52 percent of the vote to Green’s 33 percent. A short while later, Green arrived on Murray Street, where his diehard fans were gathered, pulling up in a white van. He conferred briefly with campaign manager Mark Benoit and election lawyer Jerry Goldfeder and then pulled out a cell phone and called Cuomo with his congratulations.

Green stood on the sidewalk under a street lamp in a dark suit, his head bent to the phone and his ever recognizable shock of white hair glowing in the light. Behind him, a half-block away, was City Hall, where five years before he had fully expected to serve as mayor until the September 11 attacks turned the city and its politics upside down. Before that, he had served two terms as the city’s Public Advocate, and he had also come close in elections for the U.S. Senate and Congress. The races had made him one of the city’s best-known politicians. Maybe too well-known. For in spite of his much acknowledged energy, intelligence, and accomplishments—he is the author or editor of 21 books, as he has often noted, their subjects ranging from business monopolies to consumer rights—there is something about Mark Green that never clicked with the voters of New York. Worse, there is something that really ticked them off.

That held true among liberals as well, even though, since the death of Bella Abzug, Green has been the city’s leading progressive figure. His most recent book, written and pub-lished as he waged his last campaign, was called Losing Our Democracy: How Bush, the Far Right and Big Business Are Betraying Americans for Power and Profit. That had been preceded by a 2004 bestseller, The Book on Bush: How George W. (Mis)leads America, co-authored with Nation columnist Eric Alterman.

Mark Green: still youthful at 61 years old, ever upbeat despite his many losses, always thinking ahead of the curve. Mark Green: as incorruptible as any politician of his time; willing to take on any issue he believed in, be it police brutality, mob garbage haulers, or big tobacco; ready to battle bullies far bigger than himself, from Al D’Amato to Rudy Giuliani. Mark Green. There was something about him voters didn’t like. Sometimes it wasn’t hard to figure out why.

Earlier on primary evening, Green had stood at a subway entrance on 9th Street in Park Slope, trolling for a last few votes in a bright white shirt with rolled-up sleeves and a loosened tie.

“You’ve always reminded me of Bobby Kennedy,” an awestruck middle-aged man said as he stuck out his hand.

Green beamed. “I used to be called the Jewish Bobby Kennedy,” he replied.

Another commuter shook Green’s hand and said shyly that he had met with the candidate some 30 years ago, when Green was running one of Ralph Nader’s advocacy organizations in Washington. He assured Green that he had his vote, but at the corner the voter paused. “I agree with his politics,” he told a reporter. “But what I remember about that meeting was that he seemed most interested in showing me this book he had just written. It’s too bad. He’s just a little too full of himself.”

It’s more than too bad. Of all the offices Mark Green sought during his political career, the one he lost last week was probably the one he was born to hold. He dubbed himself “the people’s lawyer” during his campaign, and it wasn’t far from the truth. As outgoing attorney general and incoming governor Eliot Spitzer demonstrated, the job can be a freewheeling one, a Public Advocate with subpoena power. As the city’s commissioner for consumer affairs under David Dinkins, Green got federal regulators to shut down clever tobacco ads like “Joe Camel” aimed at hooking a new generation of smokers, removed cigarette vending machines from public places, pushed to get the morning-after pill tested, and even spotlighted how the advertising industry stereotyped minorities as athletes or musicians. Later, as the city’s first Public Advocate, he defined what the office could be, despite its thin resources. He got hospitals to adhere to new rules for rape victims, used the courts to force Giuliani’s police chiefs to give up disciplinary files on problem cops, and fine-tuned the city’s cam
paign finance laws.

Green’s watchwords, he wrote in an introduction to a compendium of accomplishments compiled for the campaign, were that of a former professor at his alma mater, Harvard Law School, that “those less favored in life should be favored in law.”

Another commuter who encountered Green’s outstretched hand on his way home said that was the approach that drew him, as a college student, to volunteer in Green’s 1980 congressional race. “He was one of those Nader Raiders, smart, passionate, articulate. He had this dry wit that got him in trouble sometimes,” said Dan Katz, now a college history teacher. “He can rub people the wrong way, but the good work he does outweighs all that.”

Those with a direct stake in this year’s race appeared to think so as well. A woman emerged from the subway wearing an ID tag identifying her as an employee of the New York State attorney general’s office. “I’m for you,” she murmured to Green. How many in your department feel the same way, the candidate couldn’t help asking. “Everyone,” she answered. “Everyone I know in my bureau is hoping you’ll win.”

The funny thing—comical really, even though it’s sad—is that the joke is on us. Nobody likes the smartest kid in the class who’s always reminding you of the fact, and there’s a natural suspicion of someone like Green who manages to maintain his tan no matter the season. But ultra-sophisticated New Yorkers, who sneer at red-state simpletons gulled into voting against their own interests and for the likes of George W. Bush because of that earnest and macho thing he’s mastered, just as quickly fall victim to the same inclin- ation to choose form over substance in their own voting booths. When it comes to matching Andrew Cuomo’s everyday-guy persona against Green’s wonky achievements and often lonely stands, there’s no contest.

“Mark Green? Yeccch! Do I have to?” read an e-mail last month from an ultra-liberal friend seeking advice on how to vote in the
primary. “I get it all the time,” said a West Side activist who has been with Green in every election. “People say—and these are smart, involved people—’Enough of him, already.’ ”

There are, of course, the principled opponents, those who cite the Green campaign’s use of an incendiary flyer circulated in white Brooklyn neighborhoods in the tense 2001 mayoral primary runoff as the main reason they can never support him. Green quickly denounced the flyers, publicly calling them racist, even though they consisted of a reprint of an offensive New York Post cartoon depicting rival Fernando Ferrer kissing the butt of a balloon-sized Al Sharpton. The cartoon was the kind of thing the Post regularly delights in, suffering no apparent backlash as a result.

Green has always denied any knowledge or involvement in that scheme, but Cuomo’s troops, according to reporters in the city’s newsrooms, did all they could to spark a new round of media inquiries.

In an NY1 interview this summer, Green was foolish enough to say that he believed a criminal inquiry into the matter by the office of Brooklyn District Attorney Joe Hynes—allegedly concerning campaign misexpenditures—was over. The last public reference to the investigation by Hynes was in 2004, when his office said it would await the outcome of a campaign finance board audit of Green’s spending (the audit was issued early this year, without mention of outstanding issues).

But no sooner had Green said he thought the probe was finished than the Post reignited
the story. “Not so fast,” wrote state political reporter Fred Dicker, citing Hynes sources that the investigation was still under way.

If the probe had been dormant for years, it got busy again very quickly. Several workers
in Green’s 2001 campaign, who had talked to Hynes’s probers years earlier, reported a
sudden new round of calls asking them to come in to rediscuss the matter. “I said, ‘I told your office all this three years ago,’ ” said one former Green campaign worker who long ago recounted how he had been asked to have his political club cash a check that he believed might have been used to pay for the flyers.

Like many other Democrats, Hynes has a complicated relationship with the Cuomo family: He owed his 1989 election as D.A. to the favorable publicity he earned as then governor Mario Cuomo’s special prosecutor in the Howard Beach racial-attack case, a relationship that later soured when Cuomo—who burned up the phones helping his son this summer—refused to support Hynes’s own ill-fated bids for higher office, including a 1994 run for attorney general. But after the Dicker story ran, Hynes gave his old pal’s son a huge boost by allowing a spokesman to confirm that his office had a continuing and “uninterrupted investigation” into Green’s old political committee.

The announcement, of course, was a potential campaign killer. A would-be attorney general under active criminal investigation? Forget about it. Green’s response was to go for broke. He agreed to sit with a battery of assistant district attorneys and answer all of their questions. When the two-hour session was over, Hynes issued a rare public exoneration. He not only stated that Green was “not a target”—the lethal term of art used by prosecutors—but said his office had “confirmed that Green had no knowledge of these events.” (The campaign itself was still under suspicion, Hynes said.)

Yet even that statement didn’t cut it for some. Harlem’s aging Democratic lion, congressman Charles Rangel, let it be known he would “never forgive” Green’s alleged antics in 2001. Rangel endorsed front-runner Andrew Cuomo, even though he had bitterly denounced him in 2002 for Cuomo’s attempts to derail the gubernatorial candidacy of H. Carl McCall, the first African American to seek the office. The same logic worked for Al Sharpton, who found it in his heart to forgive Cuomo, bestowing a vital endorsement late in the primary, while at the same time taking a swipe at Green.

Oddly, the most disappointing performance by Green in the tumultuous 2001 campaign, a deed that can’t be laid at anyone’s door but his own, was never even raised this year. That was his startling agreement to Rudy Giuliani’s post–9-11 demand for an extra 90 days in office to deal with the recovery from the terrorist attack. Green’s decision went counter to everything he had ever preached, a jarring break with the most fundamental premise of elected democracy. Ferrer, a product of the Bronx clubhouse, seemed to understand the stakes better than the Nader-trained Democrat. Ferrer called Giuliani’s bluff, and the matter was soon quietly dropped.

But if that lapse opened a window into Green’s overwhelming ambition for higher office, it wasn’t the one people were looking through this time around. Instead, the sum and substance of most media reports were echoes of the Cuomo camp’s mantra that Green was a “perennial candidate” who always ran “nasty” campaigns. When Green questioned Cuomo’s failure as a Clinton cabinet secretary to enforce a federal law on pesticide use in public housing—an issue that later led to a 2004 lawsuit against HUD by Spitzer and other state AGs—it was the tone of the allegation, not the specifics, that most media covered. Only the Associated Press and Newsday bothered to detail the merits of the charge.

Nasty? Even though the event was featured on tabloid front pages for days back in 2003, there has barely been a mention this year of Andrew Cuomo’s angry split with ex-wife Kerry Kennedy Cuomo, the mother of his three kids and daughter of Bobby. You want nasty? A 2004 follow-up story in the Daily News asserted that Kennedy Cuomo had been forced to go to court to collect child support payments from her ex-husband, a claim Cuomo’s lawyers chalked up to a quickly resolved “misunderstanding.” No one breathed a word about that, either. (Any bets that Kieran Mahoney, the rough-and-tumble political adviser to Republican attorney general candidate Jeanine Pirro—who has her own heavy marital baggage to overcome—won’t find a way to get that subject rehashed in the general election?)

For whatever reasons, the topic never tempted Mark Green. In an interview the
night after his defeat, Green ducked questions about what went wrong in this campaign, or the last one. “I’ll leave that to smarter, more objective people to figure that out,” he said.

Two days later Green called back, asking “for a do-over,” as he put it.

“What I wish I’d said was this: I could beat Andrew, but I couldn’t beat Cuomo.” He had no regrets about having aggressively questioned Andrew Cuomo’s public record. He added, “It was always substantive and never personal.”

That line could serve as Green’s own political obituary.