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The Accidental Candidate

C. Virginia Fields is currently the Democrat with the best chance of beating Bloomberg—now she just has to figure out what she stands for.


It is another good day in a good week in a good two months for C. Virginia Fields. Her streak started in mid-March, when Freddy Ferrer, the prohibitive front-runner for the Democratic mayoral nomination, made his infamous comments about the death of Amadou Diallo. Suddenly, Fields, who hadn’t been taken seriously as a candidate, was handed an opening as Ferrer hemorrhaged support. Yesterday came the most startling confirmation yet of her newfound stature: a Quinnipiac poll showing Fields running stronger than Ferrer against Mayor Michael Bloomberg (never mind that the poll showed Bloomberg beating them both). Today Fields is on her way to a staff meeting at her 125th Street office when word arrives of a landslide on the Henry Hudson Parkway. Lights blazing and sirens howling on her official car, Fields, mostly invisible during her eight years as Manhattan borough president, manages to be the first elected official to appear in front of dozens of microphones assembled at the scene, long before Bloomberg speaks, instantly gaining the kind of citywide radio and TV exposure she desperately needs.

The detour to the disaster makes Fields late for a speech to the legendary McManus Democratic Association in Hell’s Kitchen, but no matter. When she strides past the vintage Bobby Kennedy campaign posters and walks to the front of a sweltering conference room, the audience greets the 58-year-old Fields with enthusiastic applause. Members of the standing-room-only crowd aren’t just politely watching a candidate; they’re trying on the freshly plausible vision of Fields’s representing them against Bloomberg in November, and their eagerness to hear what she has to say is palpable. One man, a crusty former leader of the stagehands union, can’t contain himself, springing up to shout an unscripted endorsement. “She’d be a mayor whose heart is attached to her brain!” gushes Edward McConway.

Faced with adoration, Fields does a curious thing: She retreats. The room is certainly small, but there’s a sizable clearing serving as the stage, and people in the friendly crowd stay attentively in their chairs. Anthony Weiner, speaking first this evening, before Fields, dispenses with the handheld microphone and strolls up the center aisle, mixing with the questioners. Fields shouts into the mike, producing a painful echo from an ancient amp. And she keeps edging backward.

The club president, Carlos Manzano, is seated in a folding chair against the wall behind Fields, and as she closes in, Manzano tries to flatten and contort himself to avoid a collision. Eventually, as Fields continues backing up, Manzano is peering around the side of her skirt, like an oversize child hiding behind Mom. The image would be pure comedy if it didn’t suggest a serious question: Can Virginia Fields handle being the star of the show?

No politician exists in a vacuum. It’s impossible to imagine, for instance, Jimmy Carter’s winning without the lingering stench of Richard Nixon. Or Bloomberg without the blessing of Rudy Giuliani. Yet Fields owes so much of her political career to the needs and actions of other pols that her holding office is practically an accident. And now Fields is a coincidence who could actually become mayor.

She grew up in Alabama and earned a master’s in social work at Indiana University, then moved to New York in 1971 when her husband got a job in the city (Fields is now divorced). Fields likes to cast herself as an outsider who got her start in politics independent of the powerful seventies Harlem Democratic machine of Rangel, Farrell, Paterson, and Sutton, which is true. She was hardly an insurgent, however. Fields was a protégée of Harlem pol Frederick E. Samuel, who steered her to a series of local political posts. In 1989, Harlem city councilman Hilton Clark angered City Council president Andrew Stein by leading efforts to strip power from Stein’s office. Stein backed Fields against Clark, in her first run for office, as payback.

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