Dialing Hillary


By any objective measure, Fernando Ferrer looks to be sinking—fast.

Last week’s polls had the Democratic mayoral candidate 27 points under incumbent Michael Bloomberg. Democratic city officials have been defecting to the side of his Republican opponent. And then there are the money woes. Ferrer has managed to raise just $4.5 million to date. Bloomberg, by contrast, has spent 10 times that, out of his own very deep pockets.

But as if to prove a lost cause can still float, an armada of big-name Democrats have lately shown up in the city, one by one, to tout Ferrer. Democratic national chair Howard Dean hosted a $1,000-a-head fundraiser on October 10. Former vice presidential hopeful—and putative 2008 presidential contender—John Edwards followed suit 24 hours later, sending an e-mail to his donors and headlining a 200-person event. Senator John Kerry, eyeing another presidential bid, is expected to arrive soon, Ferrer advisers say, hitting the campaign trail on October 23 and 24, and good old Bill Clinton is supposedly just waiting for the right moment to pitch in.

That manifest of luminaries leaves out one big, big name: Hillary Clinton. Four weeks after she lavished praise on Ferrer in a high-profile endorsement, New York’s junior senator and the Democratic Party’s sole rock star has finally gotten involved again. On Monday, she appeared with Ferrer at a private luncheon in Manhattan attended by some 800 women. This Friday, she serves as his featured guest at a $250-a-head fundraiser.

Clinton spokesperson Ann Lewis says the senator and her campaign staff are “helping fundraising in every way we can permitted by law.” That includes e-mail solicitations of Hillary fans, on Ferrer’s behalf. Clinton’s political action committee, HillPAC, will also give him a maximum contribution of $4,950. “We’ll be doing as much as possible for his candidacy up until the election,” Lewis adds.

That Clinton is again offering up her name and Rolodex is good news for the floundering Ferrer. But what she ends up doing—or not—for the Democratic challenger in the weeks ahead may serve as a bellwether of what remains of his candidacy’s viability.

On one hand, political analysts say, Clinton cannot afford to give him the cold shoulder. As the standard-bearer for the Latino community, Ferrer represents a powerful voting bloc not just in the state, but in the nation. Alienating Hispanic support could only harm her re-election bid next year, and beyond. On the other hand, Clinton, like any politician, wants to side with the winner, and conventional wisdom says Ferrer won’t be it.

Douglas Muzzio, who teaches political science at Baruch College, explains that Mayor Bloomberg has won over a fair share of the Democratic vote—50 percent, as compared to Ferrer’s 42 percent. He attributes this kind of popularity to one thing: “Bloomberg is a RINO,” he says, meaning a Republican in name only. The mayor has governed like a moderate Democrat—raising taxes and preserving programs—courting “the same Democratic voters that Senator Clinton courts.”

What that means for the senator is simple. Do what politicos call the “classic maneuver”—i.e., endorse early, fade until the final weeks, then do enough to cover your bets. As Democratic consultant Hank Sheinkopf puts it: “She’s doing more than just enough so as not to piss anybody off.”

To hear some observers tell it, Ferrer is lucky to be getting help at all. One Democratic operative who has ties to the party’s various power brokers believes Clinton would be sitting out of the race entirely if another Democrat had won the primary—say, Anthony Weiner or Gifford Miller, both of whom are young, ambitious, and close to competing power bases.

“I would say she is astutely aware that the more Democrats in high positions in this state, the less oxygen there is for her,” says the operative, adding, “Freddy is a non-ego person. He is not a problem.”

Egos and power trips aside, Clinton would have endorsed any Democratic nominee, at the very least, out of party loyalty. Those who know her say she will go out of her way to assist a fellow Democrat, hitting the campaign trail and raising money whenever possible. In 2002, she worked hard for Carl McCall, the former state comptroller who ran for governor. She crisscrossed the state with him, collected cash for him, even moved staff to his headquarters.

“Just by the nature of who she is,” says Basil Smikle, a former Hillary Clinton staffer turned political consultant, “she would want to be a stand-up Democrat.”

This time, her aides suggest more than partisanship is at play. Lewis says that Clinton and Ferrer “are not new friends,” adding, “She has known him for a long time and so is taking a special interest in his candidacy.”

Clinton first met Ferrer back in 1992, when the former Bronx borough president embraced her husband, Bill, in his presidential bid. Seven years later, in 1999, he emerged as a key ally for Hillary. At the time, she was the little candidate; he, the big elected official. President Clinton had offered clemency to 16 Puerto Rican freedom fighters, and his wife, in the midst of a campaign swing, objected. She soon found herself in trouble with local Latinos. Many of the city’s leaders criticized her stance; some threatened to abandon her.

A former campaign staffer remembers some conversations between the Clinton and Ferrer teams. The Bronx politician not only advised the candidate on how to navigate the fallout, but refrained from publicly denouncing her. Once, during a private meeting, he voiced his frustrations. “Freddy
said, ‘Look, I’m taking it up the ass for you,’ ” says another source with knowledge of the meeting. Clinton apologized. “She said, ‘I need you to stay with me.’ ”

And he did, giving her political cover, defusing the crisis. Says the former staffer, “He helped her through a rough patch.”

Fast-forward six years to today, and Ferrer’s rough patch. Yet what have we seen from Clinton so far? On September 16, just three days after the Democratic primary, she and her colleague Senator Chuck Schumer gave their glowing endorsement at a staged function in Long Island City. Ferrer stood, beaming by their sides as they praised his devotion to the party’s values.

What seemed notable to politicos, though, was what the senators did not say. They failed not only to criticize Mayor Bloomberg, but to articulate a single reason Ferrer should replace his Republican opponent. That, says Muzzio of Baruch College, “tells me they recognize [the mayor] is a 500-pound gorilla. For strategic reasons they have decided he could be problematic if they offend him.”

Senator Clinton hasn’t exactly shied from appearing with the mayor. Last month, she attended a ribbon-cutting ceremony for a housing initiative at Fort Hamilton, in Brooklyn, which happened to be Bloomberg’s featured event of the day. A photo of the two officials, smiling side by side, wound up on the city’s website hours later.

Her aides say the senator was simply doing her job—she’d kicked off the initiative herself 18 months earlier. As one aide poses, “Why wouldn’t she go? It’s an accomplishment.”

Lewis puts it more bluntly: “She has said she will enthusiastically campaign for Freddy and she is.”

But that effort hasn’t been so apparent to some Ferrer fans. Bronx assemblyman Peter Rivera, for one, the head of the Assembly’s Puerto Rican/Hispanic Task Force, wishes the senator would take a more prominent role in the Ferrer campaign. “I’d like to see the senator all through the city campaigning with Freddy,” he says, not to mention appearing in TV commercials, in campaign literature, in voter-drive calls. “It’s important that people not only support him at a photo op,” Rivera says, “but [that] they go the extra mile for him.”

Other Ferrer supporters sound a similar note. After all, as one longtime observer points out, “Latino Americans are an important base of support for any presidential candidate.” If Clinton worked aggressively for Ferrer today, she could call on him to make the case for her among Latinos in 2008, sending him to swing states like New Mexico, Arizona, and Colorado.

“Personally,” the observer says, “I’d have thought she would be out with the nominee once or twice a week.”

The Ferrer campaign isn’t about to complain. If anything, his advisers say they’re getting all they could ever want from Clinton. For weeks, the teams have been negotiating over ways the senator can help the candidate. Advisers say they’re planning several “message events” to highlight Ferrer’s policy proposals. No dates have been set yet, largely because the Senate remains in session. But Ferrer, Clinton’s aides make a point to note, is one of the few in the state for whom the senator has agreed to stump.

Says Bill Lynch, an informal Ferrer adviser, “Having her support is very important to the campaign. She’s a big draw.”

The campaign is cultivating its ties to big-name Democrats—Clinton, Dean, Edwards, and Kerry—as part of a strategy to remind liberal-leaning voters of their party loyalty. The idea is to get city Democrats to remember why they registered Democrat in the first place, and to contrast those values with Bloomberg’s record. So Edwards campaigns with the Democratic challenger, talking about the city’s economic disparity. And Dean hits the trail, bemoaning the plight of the uninsured.

“These swings will remind voters who Bloomberg is connected to—Bush,” says a member of Ferrer’s inner circle. Every week, the adviser says, “we’ll have a national Democrat here, laying out this argument.”

But can this strategy really work? To be sure, tapping into these leading Democrats to raise money for the cash-strapped Ferrer makes sense—Clinton remains in a fundraising league all her own, with tens of thousands of donors. Her firepower, celebrity, and operation can only help Ferrer. And if she shows her face with him, she could help rally crucial voting blocs, such as the city’s African Americans.

“We do think these national Democrats can boost Freddy over the top,” says the adviser.

But others aren’t so convinced. Lee Miringoff, of the Marist College Institute for Public Opinion, finds the whole strategy “a card you can play,” but that’s about it. As he sees it, it may represent the only game plan left for the Ferrer camp to pursue. “Bloomberg probably would have won the Democratic primary if he had run,” he points out. His popularity has dried up local Democratic money. Many of the city’s wealthiest donors—including a fair number of Hillary fans—have trumpeted their cross-party support for a Republican and formed Democrats for Bloomberg. Even donors who supported Ferrer’s 2001 mayoral run have backed away from him. For all of Clinton’s star quality, Miringoff says, “candidates win it on their own.”

Then again, it is an election. Things can happen. Momentum can change. Ferrer allies insist the race remains tighter than the polls would have you believe. Their man, they say, is up to the task, as long as he gets his message across. “I want to underscore that Freddy will do the job on his own. He will woo voters,” Lynch says.

And if the dynamics shift, Senator Clinton—and every key Democrat—might be seen working it for Ferrer. Clinton, after all, has been known to bust her butt for a chosen candidate. Remember her Herculean efforts on behalf of Schumer in 1998, when he took on her Whitewater nemesis, Senator Al D’Amato? Politicos still remember how the then first lady flew to New York four times just to stump for Schumer—how she made a special trip for a Manhattan get-out-the-vote rally the day before the elections. Ferrer could be next. “She could spend the last weekend campaigning and become a political kingmaker,” says the veteran operative. “But I don’t see it happening.”