Yesterday Fernando Ferrer was in Los Angeles, the beneficiary of a fund-raising luncheon at the swank City Club. The trip brought in thousands for Ferrer’s mayoral campaign. Yet it was also a bittersweet excursion: The star attraction was Ferrer’s longtime friend Antonio Villaraigosa, who not only won the L.A. mayor’s race in his first try but, by doing so, became the national Democratic Party’s Latino poster boy. Ferrer has tried to cast his third run for mayor as the next chapter in the rise of Latino political power, but in the days before the event he had to endure the humiliating spectacle of Villaraigosa’s spokeswoman correcting stories in New York’s newspapers—no, Villaraigosa has not endorsed Ferrer, and he wouldn’t be doing so at the luncheon.
Now, just off the red-eye, on the last Tuesday morning in August, Ferrer is in a sweltering fourth-floor apartment in Hamilton Heights, staring at a gaping four-foot hole in a bedroom wall. Roaches scurry on the floor. Rats have kept a 3-month-old baby from sleeping in her crib. There’s a pervasive odor, a nasty admixture of mildew, sweat, and fried food.
This is the final stop in a tour of buildings owned by notorious slumlords, a tour organized by a tenants’-rights group for the four Democratic mayoral candidates. “Look, I grew up in conditions such as this,” he says. “It isn’t another slogan.” Ferrer begins to reel off some standard and useful government correctives—more building inspectors, stiffer fines—but then something surprising happens. His cheeks redden, his jaw tightens, and Ferrer drops the numbingly cautious tone he usually wears like a shield. “You get angry when you see kids having to grow up in a condition like this,” he says. “With vermin! With mice! With rats! With leaking plumbing! With paint falling on the floor! With sagging floors! With no electrical—with no heat and hot water in the wintertime!” He’s spluttering. After months of bland, dispassionate appearances, this is a good thing.
Ferrer, shaking his head in disgust, walks to a black car waiting near the corner of West 150th Street and Bradhurst Avenue. Suddenly there are happy shouts. “Ferrer! Ferrer!” yells a woman from a second-story fire escape. “We love you!” Latisha Ozuna says in Spanish. “We need you!” Ferrer stops, waves, and nods gratefully. “ˇDos semanas más!” he answers, referring to the time left until the September 13 Democratic primary. “Dos semanas más.” Two more weeks and maybe he will finally reach the goal he’s been chasing since 1997.
Ferrer’s campaign has alternated between stumbling and defensive. Lately, he’s started to find his voice, sharpening his attacks on Mayor Michael Bloomberg as an elitist. Mostly, though, Ferrer is still trying to run out the clock. His one major economic proposal has been an unimaginative tax on stock transfers that would likely be shot down by the State Legislature. With ordinary voters, Ferrer often appears as if he resents having to handshake and backslap yet again. The lack of enthusiasm runs both ways: Ferrer’s poll numbers have barely budged in nine months, stuck in the low thirties. He needs 40 percent to avoid a runoff.
Yet if Democrats care about the future of the party, and want to ever regain City Hall, they need to vote for Freddy Ferrer next week.
Some of the case for Ferrer is conventional. He’s paid his dues, rising through the ranks of mainstream Democratic and Bronx politics. He compiled a solid, if unspectacular, progressive record in the City Council and as Bronx borough president. He is an earnest policy wonk who is most at home discussing arcana such as “community-based facilitated enrollment” for children’s health insurance. And a Ferrer-Bloomberg matchup would provide hope of real debates about poverty and the strains on the middle class.
Part of the case for Ferrer is a case against his Democratic rivals. C. Virginia Fields has never moved beyond the platitudinous. Gifford Miller, while a nimble City Council speaker, hasn’t, as a mayoral candidate, been able to take a decisive stand on anything, from the West Side stadium to his sons’ preschool education.
The toughest lever to bypass in the voting booth will be the one next to the name of Anthony Weiner. He has the intellectual dexterity to give Bloomberg a workout, and he’s tried to sell himself as the candidate who will move beyond traditional Democratic thinking. “If Weiner gets into the runoff, it suggests there’s clearly a constituency for a message that Democrats have been screwing up and we need to do something differently,” says a consultant not affiliated with any candidate. But Weiner, a 40-year-old congressman from Brooklyn and Queens who has spent his entire adult life in politics, needs to run something—a congressional committee, a think tank, a minor-league hockey team—before being put in charge of an entity as clamorous as New York, and his agenda needs four more years of baking.