La Victoria de Freddy


The problem, at last, was that there were no hands to shake. Fernando Ferrer had made it to the Parkchester stop of the No. 6 train for his last event of the 2005 race—uncharacteristically close to the 5:30 p.m. start time—and Comptroller Bill Thompson was with him, as were Bronx Borough President Adolfo Carrión, the TV cameras, and exhausted campaign staffers. But no commuters were coming down the steps to meet the candidate, so Ferrer could only stand next to the Rose Bengal Newsstand (“Foxwood Tickets Sold Here”) and wait. “We need a train,” lamented Assemblyman Ruben Diaz Jr. “We need a train now. Where’s a train?”

It might have seemed like the last failed battle in Ferrer’s losing war, were it not for the rhythmic, desperate chanting down the line of supporters who stretched toward Metropolitan Avenue. “Fernando! Alcalde! Fernando! Alcalde!” they cried. “Fernando, tranquilo! El pueblo está contigo!” they shouted earnestly into the megaphone as salsa clanged from the sound trucks and a woman with a Puerto Rican–flag handbag danced, a friend shook maracas, and everyone laughed.

It was a party out there in the east Bronx, noisy and furious, just hours before their man was going to concede a 20-point loss.

The lesson of the 2005 mayoral campaign, according to conventional wisdom, is that Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s victory marks a triumph of non-ideological competence over old-fashioned ethnic appeal. This conclusion is curious, because before the last few days of the race Ferrer made no such appeal. He was a pioneer who never talked about his pioneering, and neither did anyone else.

The Ferrer campaign consisted mostly of appearances with big-name Democrats and policy announcements, not storm-the-barricades speeches in the streets of El Barrio. He ran commercials in Spanish, sure, but so did Bloomberg. The most forceful bid Ferrer made to any sort of identity politics was about party identity, namely his effort to depict Bloomberg as a true-red Republican in a city that’s five-to-one Democratic. As for Ferrer’s late-stage resurrection of the “other New York” theme, it referred to class differences. But you wouldn’t know that from talking to his opponents.

“It was clearly about race,” Herman Badillo, a four-time mayoral hopeful who switched from Democrat to Republican and backed Bloomberg, tells the Voice. “He could have said, ‘It’s blacks, Latinos, people from all over the world.’ He never made that distinction clear at all. And I think that most people in the city considered that to be an ethnic appeal.”

But if anything, some Latinos think Ferrer neglected their community. “The year before this election there should have been . . . posters in Queens. There should have been a lot more activity. There was not,” journalist and unsuccessful City Council candidate Felipe Luciano told WBAI last week. “Many Puerto Ricans in East Harlem, which is where I live, criticized Freddy’s lack of appearances here, lack of appearances in the Puerto Rican community, and his lack of real fundraising efforts on a grassroots level.”

It’s interesting that Latinos—and Luciano’s not the only one to make the complaint—thought Ferrer had abandoned them, while the white establishment thought Freddy was counting too exclusively on the ethnic vote. It’s also strange that Freddy’s talk of “the other New York” was seen as ethnic code when the perennial campaign mantra about middle-class New Yorkers is usually treated as color-blind. And it’s very curious that despite getting roughly 70 percent of the Latino vote (reducing Bloomberg’s share from four years ago), The New York Times dubbed Freddy’s unstated ethnic appeal a failure.

“It’s not monolithic,” says El Diario columnist Gerson Borrero, often a critic of Ferrer, about the losing candidate’s support from Latinos, “but who the hell is monolithic in the face of the millions of dollars spent by Mayor Bloomberg?”

Ferrer’s flaws were obvious, and his campaign’s mistakes were legion. Never a great orator, he stuck stubbornly to scripted answers, read his speeches instead of delivering them, and sometimes sounded rather bored by what he said. Some of the Democrats who endorsed Ferrer delivered such lukewarm praise that their backing may have hurt more than helped. Ferrer developed more policy ideas than he got credit for, but he was never able to make them stick in people’s minds. Sometimes his positions were contradictory—he pressed for affordable housing but opposed the mayor’s push for more residential space at ground zero. The Diallo remark was overhyped, but deeply dumb; the Bloomberg/GOP ties were valid targets, but overdone.

And Bloomberg, despite being an incumbent mayor, spent nearly $70 million. According to the latest financial tallies by the Campaign Finance Board, Bloomberg dished out about $90 a vote this year, and Ferrer a bargain-basement $16.27. The mayor spent four times more on ads than Ferrer spent on everything. Despite all that, the turnout was so low that Bloomberg re
ceived fewer votes citywide in 2005 than in 2001. On the other hand, between the September 13 primary and the November 8 general election, Ferrer doubled his vote count in the Bronx and more than doubled it citywide.

Hours before the votes were in on Election Day, as volunteers milled around Bronx County Democratic headquarters at Westchester Square, Ferrer’s people were mostly resigned to defeat but thought the real story of this race was how well their candidate did, all things considered: He arguably won both debates, he moved affordable housing to the forefront of the race, and he pulled in almost every big-name Democrat—the Clintons, Kerry, Dean, Edwards, Obama, Spitzer, Sharpton, et al.—to campaign with him.

And yeah, he got spanked. “What we did with what we had?” said one campaign worker. “It was amazing.”

As Freddy Ferrer grasped hands at the last stop on election night, the men standing around him begged the question of who’ll be next. Thompson’s considered a strong candidate for 2009. Carrión’s also a likely mayoral hopeful. City Councilman Joel Rivera, whose father runs the Bronx Democrats, is making a play now for Speaker; only 26, he could have longer-term plans. But since they’re all black or Hispanic, they’ll have to figure out what Ferrer did wrong that made the newspapers think he highlighted an ethnic appeal despite his never really uttering one.

The closest Ferrer came to an explicit bid to Latinos was during the second and final debate with the mayor, when the Democrat quoted his mother’s saying, in Spanish, “Tell me who you walk with, I’ll tell you who you are.” It might have been the strongest line of the campaign, and it was adopted by the band of supporters from Puerto Rico who joined his campaign for the last few days and infused it with an energy that had been sorely missing.

It all made one wonder: Maybe Ferrer should have emphasized his ethnic roots from the beginning, since the establishment assumed he would anyway. But that would have been an awkward move for Ferrer because he’s never been a radical trailblazer. Raised by the clubhouse, taught to play his hand carefully, and a moderate at heart, Ferrer couldn’t break the rules that had governed his political life.

That made the dancing and singing at the Parkchester stop that much stranger. It continued even after Ferrer slipped away in his campaign SUV. It went on even when the arrival of commuters ebbed to a trickle and the nearby polling place saw the evening rush come and go. The sound trucks, bearing giant-sized photos of Ferrer, kept blasting the salsa, and the volunteers shuffled and spun along the sidewalk.

“Forward always, never backward,” said Minerva Solla. She’d been marching and hollering for days since returning to the city from the island. “The only thing that divides us is the water.”

There’s no way to sugarcoat Ferrer’s stumbles or his massive defeat. But the newspapers’ post-election tale about somber Democrats diagnosing their latest failure is only the story downtown. On Westchester Square, they celebrated.

“Those that you saw dancing, they’re not crazy, they’re not stupid, they knew what the reality was. But they saw one of their own stand up in the belly of the monster and say, ‘You have to respect me. I have the cojones to take this on,’ ” says Borrero. “That’s what they were celebrating. You’ve got to understand, in the eyes of his people, Freddy didn’t lose.”