Roberto Ramirez, the Democratic leader of the Bronx and one of the three or four most powerful Democrats in the city, told me last week that he doesn't want to do this politics thing for the rest of his life. He desperately wants to teach. He wants to drink more amply from life's vast cup. He would like, for example, to try skydiving. "I have always wanted," he said, in that voice of his that explodes out from deep in his diaphragm, "to jump out of an airplane."
And maybe he just has.
For five years, Ramirez has been known, and widely admired, as the guy who made the Bronx matter again. When he became chairman of the Bronx Democratic Party, he took over an organization that wasn't paying its rent and couldn't deliver enough votes to fill a laptop case. Ramirez turned it around. Ruth Messinger may have been creamed everywhere else, but she carried the Bronx. Eliot Spitzer, who won the attorney general's race by a mere 25,000 votes (out of 4 million cast), may have triumphed precisely because of the massive get-out-the-vote operation Ramirez put together in his borough in 1998.
Ramirez worked hard. Ramirez was smart. Ramirez enforced party loyalty -- in the good way, mostly, the way political bosses are supposed to if they wish to do any honor at all to their title. Ramirez did not make mistakes.
Then, two weeks ago, he called Bronx congressman Eliot Engel -- a six-term incumbent with a respectable enough record of service -- and told him that he, Ramirez, would be working against Engel this fall, and for a Democratic state senator who was challenging him.
So what, you say? So this: This sort of thing never happens. I mean ever. So when it does, people who track such exchanges of small-arms fire naturally wonder why. The why, in this case, seems mainly to be that Ramirez and Engel detest each other. But this is local politics, and local politics is never quite that simple, especially in New York City, especially when the story involves a Puerto Rican, a Jew, an African-American, a nascent mayoral candidacy, and, at bottom, the central and ever-looming question of the soon-to-arrive post-Giuliani era. Namely: When Democrats get their hands on the throttle of power again, will things just go back to being the way they were?
First, let's establish that Ramirez and Engel don't like each other.
"Eliot Engel is my own congressman," Ramirez says. "I spent six years working my heart out for this man. But now I believe Congressman Engel has no connection to that district. He has forfeited his right to my support."
"I'm a reform Democrat," says Engel. "I did not go into politics to kiss the ring of the county leader. I have found Roberto to be the most autocratic county leader during my 24 years in public office." Then: "Roberto has conducted a reign of terror in the Bronx."
There's more. Ramirez: "Do you know that for the ten years he has been my congressman, he has never once been to a school in the district?"
Engel: "Not only have I been to schools, but I went to P.S. 86, which is in Roberto's district, and I brought Education Secretary Richard Riley there for an event. Roberto wasn't there."
Ramirez: "In a district like his, with such a large immigrant population, he has shown no interest in the problems of immigrants or immigrant legislation."
Engel: "I can document hundreds of cases where Roberto's office has referred immigration cases to my office, even when the people lived in José Serrano's neighboring district."
Ramirez has thrown in with Larry Seabrook, the aforementioned state senator. State senators, as any of them will be quick to tell you, have a hard time making the papers. Seabrook, though, has shown an unusual talent for getting press: first, for funneling almost $400,000 into a community-development agency that the Daily News documented beyond argument did not produce a lick of work; second, for being the first elected official to align himself with the Reverend Al Sharpton; third, and most impressive, for requesting -- and getting -- more than $25,000 in per diem expenses, putting in for 479 days of travel and meals over a two-year period during which the legislature actually worked only 131 days.
On top of all that, when Ramirez first ran for the county-leader position, Seabrook was against him! And Engel was for him. Love that Bronx.
Now to the big picture.
Ramirez wants desperately to elect Bronx borough president Fernando Ferrer mayor in 2001. For that to happen -- and right now, people generally regard Mark Green and Alan Hevesi as the favorites -- Ferrer has to build a coalition that can get him a lot of votes in a Democratic primary. So when Ramirez ditched the Jewish incumbent in favor of the black challenger, not a few observers wondered if Ramirez wasn't telegraphing that Ferrer's campaign -- which Ramirez will in all likelihood be running -- would be, you know, a Rainbow Coalition II kind of thing. "This was the talk of the breakfast before the Israel Day parade," says one insider. "People were saying, 'Will this be the mark of his administration? Will the Jews be shunned?' "
This sort of talk is unfair to Ramirez, who has usually been ethnically fair-minded in the awarding of judgeships and so forth. And in Ferrer's case, it borders on egregious. First of all, he has not endorsed Seabrook. He's neutral in the race and says he told Ramirez that "I am not on this page" with him, but he and Ramirez are so close that anything one of them does is usually imputed to both.
Second, Ferrer doesn't think in racial categories in that way. I know this personally, as Ferrer was the only politician in town to read my book -- which consisted in large part of a critique of racial and ethnic identity politics -- and ask me out to dinner to talk about it and say he agreed with a lot of it. I also know it because it's not the way he has ever governed, and he deeply resents the idea that people would put aside his years-long record of not throwing gasoline on racial fires and decide that this one episode has turned him into Sister Souljah. "If that is what this is, and it's rearing its ugly head, then that's sad," Ferrer says. "Because I have never behaved that way. If you have even one colleague who can say that I ever, even off the record, engaged in that kind of discourse or thinking, I would consider myself unfit for office. Unfit! Do you hear me?"
I believe him. But people will talk. State Senator Eric Schneiderman, who represents Riverdale, was quoted in the Riverdale Press saying that Ramirez's endorsement of Seabrook would not be a good thing for Ferrer with Jewish voters, which led to a "testy" (Schneiderman's word) phone conversation between the two men that Ferrer says he terminated abruptly after lecturing "young Eric Schneiderman" (Ferrer's phrase) about the responsibility of public office and choosing words with care. And a Ferrer aide acknowledged that "some of our Jewish supporters are pissed as hell at Roberto."
Ferrer is no racialist, and he has no truck with racialists. But his friend and ally has made an odd miscalculation, and in doing so put Ferrer in a bit of a box. If Ramirez hated Engel that much, he could have simply told him, "You're on your own this time," which wouldn't have attracted the attention he drew by endorsing an opponent whose career has been distinguished for all the wrong reasons. And Ferrer could have stuck by Engel publicly. Now they have the most prominent Jewish pol in their borough calling donors, many of whom Ferrer might be calling on himself next year, and saying, I need your help because my own party's against me. Besides, Engel will probably win.
All of this just in time for this Wednesday's Bronx Democratic dinner. Maybe Ramirez can parachute in.