Clips from Jonah Green's 2003 documentary Off the Record, about the 2001 mayoral race.
Mark Green, then in his second term as public advocate, had the distinction of facing the voters four times during the 2001 mayor’s race: Once as a candidate in the Democratic primary that was halted because of the 9/11 attacks; a second time in the rescheduled primary on September 25; then a third time in a Democratic runoff with Fernando Ferrer; and finally on November 6, when Green [G4] lost the general election by two points, the closest in a century, to the suddenly surging Michael Bloomberg. Keep reading below for Green’s inside account of the decisive weeks of his campaign.
“Looks like I’ll be running for mayor.” It’s September 24, 1999, and I’m sitting in my living room overlooking the East River at 90th Street, breaking some news gently to my wife. “But what if you lose?” asks Deni, wary of my irrational confidence that critics call arrogance. “How would that affect us?”
Lose? What does lose mean? “Okay, there are no guarantees in politics. I think I’ll win unless there’s some big, unexpected event that changes everything, like that racial killing in Bensonhurst during the Dinkins-Koch race in August of ‘89.”
So begins two years of glad-handing, fund-raising, and speeches, as Deni and I confide privately (away from the kids, staff, and journalists), “Can’t wait till September 11!"—anticipating the scheduled date of the 2001 Democratic Primary.
Fast-forward to the evening of September 10, 2001. Polls show me ahead in the four-way Democratic primary and trouncing Republican multi-billionaire Michael Bloomberg in a general election matchup. In the same living room, I announce, as any vindicated husband would, “Well, honey, there was no big unexpected event—it has all gone as planned.” We hug, kiss, and sit motionless for several moments. “Can’t wait till September 11,” she giggles, for the last time.
The next morning, a video shot by our son Jonah shows us walking through a clutch of journalists and passersby in front of our residential building only 100 yards north of Gracie Mansion. The time stamp at the bottom of the frame read “7:45 a.m., 9/11, 2001.”*
I vote and then hurry to a grade school at Sixth Avenue and 11th Street to greet parents and fidgety kids on the first day of class. I bellow my final “Don’t forget to vote today!” to a young couple walking west and, at 8:46 a.m., turn with satisfaction to deputy campaign manager Jeremy Ben-Ami. “That was the last handshake! Primary’s over! Let’s go back to the apartment.” Then I hear someone blurt out an “oh” in a way that sounds as if something unusual has happened. On a completely blue, clear, and sunny day, I look up toward downtown…
* * * *
Staring at the flame and smoke billowing out of the first World Trade Center building, without any commentators to first contextualize what’s going on, I can’t compute anything beyond Where’s Bruce Willis? and How could this happen on Election Day? Someone shrieks, “A plane accidentally hit the World Trade Center!” Based on the perfect visibility and the site, I murmur, “That was no accident.”
Our apartment of stunned staff and family is sitting shiva. Like everyone around the city, we’re mesmerized by the sickening images of the collapsing towers on TV—but unlike everyone, I get a call after 11 a.m. from the governor’s office saying that the election is postponed and will be rescheduled at a later date. Like a rained-out baseball game? That night, my Harvard Law School roommate, Sandy Berger, who became President Clinton’s national security advisor, stays over since he can’t get out of town after a speech. Eating leftovers while watching Charlie Rose, I ask, “You guys ever anticipate a terrorist attack by plane?” “Nope,” he says, adding that in his last briefing of the incoming Condi Rice, he told her that terrorism would be Bush’s No. 1 foreign-policy problem.
“Can’t wait till September 11” has a new meaning.
* * * *
I visit ground zero on Thursday to thank emergency personnel and see the wreckage firsthand. Smelling the sulfurous air and seeing the mountains of twisted steel are scenes from postwar Dresden. On that Friday, with a friend who owns an Outback franchise, we organize a tent along the East River under FDR Drive to serve steaks and burgers to exhausted (and contaminated) emergency personnel. They are surprised to see a politician with an apron handing out the food, with no cameras or media. It feels satisfying… until I remember why we’re there at all.
Later that day I visit one of the few injured survivors at New York Hospital. A building had fallen on him and crushed his legs. “Don’t worry, Mr. Green. I’ll be back up—and so will the city,” he says in a strong voice.
*This article has been corrected to show that the film clip of the Greens on the morning of 9/11 was taken at 7:45 a.m.