Liberal Crack-Up

New York City has recently seen more casualties than we'd ever imagined possible. There is one casualty, however, that lies buried not under the rubble of lower Manhattan but beneath the acrid smoke that has blanketed this strangest of mayoral elections; and this loss may well have a more enduring effect on the city's politics than the September 11 attack itself. In the October 11 Democratic runoff between Mark Green and Fernando Ferrer, the coalition that has sustained the city's liberal-reform movement since the 1960s (a coalition between blacks and Latinos on the one hand and white liberals on the other) fell to pieces.

Green won that runoff by around 19,000 votes; and after a rancorous week in which Ferrer's backers threatened to challenge the outcome, Ferrer finally endorsed him. Green, who has been running for one office or another in New York for two decades, moves now to the November 6 general-election match against billionaire Mike Bloomberg, who has already dropped nearly $30 million of his own money on the race and is expected--in a campaign period that spans a mere 26 days owing to the abbreviated post-attack election calendar--to spend another $15 million or more. But in a city where voter enrollment runs five-to-one Democratic, Green remains the odds-on favorite.

His victory, if it happens, will arrive at a steep price. The runoff vote was badly divided along racial lines: Green got 84 percent of the white vote; Ferrer, 84 percent of the Latino vote and 71 percent of the black vote. Moreover, Green's bare-knuckled tactics in the campaign's closing days left many blacks and Latinos shouting racism--not at a conservative Republican, but at the ur-liberal who'd gone to the mat more than once against Rudy Giuliani on racial issues like police brutality.

What's the beef? Green, who promised "a positive campaign" the day after the first round of voting on September 26, started to go after Ferrer about six days before the runoff. But what he said was entirely defensible. Ferrer had indeed flip-flopped on abortion and the death penalty over the years. The theme on which Ferrer had campaigned all year--speaking for "the other New York"--was intended to galvanize blacks and Latinos and surely carried the racial subtext that Green suggested it did. Finally, Ferrer's prescriptions for the city's rebuilding after September 11 were found by many observers to be either wanting in specifics or unrealistic. The New York Times was forecasting a $4-billion budget gap (a sizable chunk of the city's annual budget of $40 billion and an obvious harbinger of massive spending cuts to come). Meanwhile, in the face of what every fiscal expert agrees will be an economic calamity on the order of the financial crisis of the 1970s, Ferrer--who had proposed a 30 percent pay increase for teachers--kept saying things like, "The towers may have crumbled, but our commitments have not." Green hit Ferrer on all these points.

But when Green's campaign unveiled a hard-charging television ad three days before the voting, the attacks achieved a kind of qualitative newness. In part it was the grainy, malevolent-looking footage of Ferrer; in part, the phrase "borderline irresponsible," which the ad lifted from a Times editorial about Ferrer's 9-11 response plans; in part, the ad's tag line, "Can we afford to take a chance?" (The "we" did seem to introduce a note of racial divisiveness.) And then, the night before the election, some white voters reported getting calls urging them to get out and vote because the Reverend Al Sharpton "cannot be given the keys to City Hall." There were also flyers reproducing New York Post cartoons that used various disagreeable metaphors to describe Ferrer's dependence on Sharpton.

The response of Ferrer's black and Latino backers was sulfurous. In an interview on runoff night at Ferrer headquarters, Dennis Rivera, the president of the health and hospital workers' local, accused Green of "using code words" to divide the city. Harlem Congressman Charlie Rangel, the ranking Democrat on the House Ways and Means Committee, and Ferrer's get-out-the-vote specialist Bill Lynch, an admired old hand in New York progressive politics, immediately set up a meeting with Bloomberg. Rangel even called for a federal investigation of possible voter fraud, and Lynch was said to be so angry that he was thinking about quitting as vice chair of the Democratic National Committee.

It's hard to see what the justification was for all this anger. True, Green had taken a look at his tracking polls and decided to break his promise to play nice, but he was hardly the first politician to do that. On substance, everything Green attacked in those last days was fair game. As to race, the Green ad's offenses were negligible--not even in the same ballpark as what James Hahn did to Antonio Villaraigosa in the Los Angeles mayoral race earlier this year. Certainly, the flyers and phone calls were a dirty trick that treated Ferrer as if he'd fully morphed into Sharpton, but there's no evidence that Green's campaign was behind them, and it's unlikely that this careful and politically correct pol would allow such a thing.

Besides, Sharpton did back Ferrer. Indeed, he provided the endorsement around which Ferrer's campaign was functionally built. Although Ferrer also had the backing of Pat Moynihan and Geraldine Ferraro and a few other white leaders, it was Sharpton whom he and his campaign guru, Bronx County Democratic Chairman Roberto Ramirez, courted most assiduously. And it was Sharpton, not the others, with whom Ferrer campaigned most often. If that made 16 percent of voters more likely to support Ferrer, as exit polls showed, and 36 percent less likely to do so, that is less a function of some election-day phone calls than of Sharpton's controversial history.

But overreaction or not, we are where we are. And the implications for New York liberal politics are enormous. Over the years, African Americans and (more gradually) Latinos in the city have joined forces with white liberals to re-elect John Lindsay against two white-backlash candidates in 1969, to oppose Ed Koch in the 1970s, and to elect Mario Cuomo governor in the 1980s. White liberals, blacks, and Latinos in New York voted for Jesse Jackson in such numbers in the 1988 Democratic presidential primary that Jackson carried the city vote. That outcome, in turn, laid the groundwork for David Dinkins's mayoral victory in 1989. And while the 1990s saw a significant chunk of white liberals vote for Giuliani as mayor (although not for George Pataki as governor), it's also the case that the old coalition worked hard and turned out in very large numbers both for Chuck Schumer (in 1998) and for Hillary Clinton (in 2000) in the state's U.S. Senate races. And those are just the major contests. The coalition has elected lots more Democrats down-ticket.

This mayoral election could be the beginning of the end of all that. The two factions have patched things up for now. All of Ferrer's major backers--save Ramirez and Sharpton, who seem stubbornly determined to marginalize their influence in city affairs--have followed the borough president in endorsing Green. But the resulting peace doesn't mean that the two sides like each other (Green is not exactly known for his humility); and the relationship, if Green is elected, will probably remain very rocky. Meanwhile, the lesson that Ferrer and his partisans will take away from the election is clear: Ferrer may have lost this time, but he proved that the next black or Latino candidate could run for mayor of New York and win without even seeking white liberal votes. Unless both camps see the danger in such a schism, New York's racial divide 10 and 20 years from now will make the current political split look like amity.