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The Baron of the Bronx

Don't think of Fernando Ferrer as the Latino candidate for mayor. Think of him as the one who's overseen the rebirth of New York City's toughest borough.

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So is 2001 the year?

New York has never elected a Latino mayor. For that matter, New York has never elected a Latino anything, as far as citywide office goes. "That is going to change," says Dennis Rivera, head of 1199 Service Employees International Union. "When? I think it's going to be soon. The sheer numbers demonstrate the Latino community's power, even with the limited resources that have been put into bringing people into the process. But it's a steady climb."

The next mayoral election could bring them to the mountaintop. As Rivera suggests, the numbers are there, or getting there; Latinos make up the city's fastest-growing voting bloc. And there's a clear-cut candidate: Bronx borough president Fernando Ferrer, who ran -- for a while, at least -- in 1997, and who's gearing up for next time. What there isn't is a track record of flexing political muscle. "Freddy's got to turn a traditionally low-turnout voting segment into a high-turnout one," says NYU's Mitchell Moss.

The numbers. There are roughly 2 million Latinos in New York City. Of those, about 1.1 million are eligible to vote. Of those eligible, about 450,000 are registered Democrats. That's about 20 percent of all registered Democrats. If they turn out, they're a pretty hefty base.

The candidate has had his ups and downs. The upside is the fact that he's presided over an astonishing rebirth of his borough, and even if some credit for that rebirth belongs elsewhere -- federal dollars, Ed Koch's housing program, Rudy Giuliani's crime-fighting -- Ferrer has been there seeing to it that the money wasn't squandered and serving as the borough's relentless cheerleader. He's also led the keep-the-Yankees-here charge, offering up a smart proposal for a stadium redesign.

The downside? First, shaking the memory of his none-too-impressive 1997 attempt at running for mayor, when he dropped out in May. "The biggest thing I learned?" he says. "Trust my instincts. Everybody has a formula for winning to peddle to you. It's the recipe du jour. But if it's not compelling to you, it sure isn't going to be compelling to anyone else."

Perhaps because he wasn't able to sell a compelling formula, opinion is divided, among the city's heavy players, about Ferrer's seriousness and capacity for leadership. In fact, he's been struggling in a thoughtful way with what went wrong with the local Democratic Establishment in the early nineties and how to fix it. But he didn't articulate that in '97.

Of course, in 1997 there was also an incumbent named Giuliani. In 2001, the field will be open. Really open. There could be as many as eight candidates; at the very least, eliminating the semi-dark horses, there'll be five. Four of those five will be white guys -- two Jewish (Mark Green and Alan Hevesi) and two Italian (Peter Vallone and Sal Albanese). If you want to say that one Puerto Rican running against that field should at least be able to finish in the top two and force a runoff, well, sillier things have been said.

Ferrer doesn't want to be known as the Latino candidate. "Sure it's gonna be the tag," he says. "It's an easy way to dismiss. But I'm not so easy to dismiss, because for the last twelve years, I've run probably the most difficult 20 percent of this city. And I have something to show for it." He does, but simultaneously firing up his base and reaching beyond it will be a challenge.

Aside from Ferrer's shot at the mayoralty, though, Latino politics in New York is still in the construction phase. Why, for example, shouldn't there be Latino candidates for, say, two of the three citywide offices? Or all three? Part of the reason is that as a voting bloc, Latinos don't have that much power yet; but there isn't all that much young talent. "Remember, there'll be a whole new City Council after 2001," says political consultant Hank Sheinkopf. "What the council elections will do is create a generation of new Latino leadership." Even if Ferrer does move into Gracie Mansion, as big a moment for Latino New York as that will be, it will still be part of a work in progress.


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