Just before he delivered a speech on crime-prevention measures last Wednesday afternoon at Pace University, Mark Green walked over to where a handful of us Fourth Estaters were sitting. He went up to New York 1's Andrew Kirtzman, who had celebrated a birthday the day before, which as it happened was the day Green formally announced his candidacy for mayor at the Prospect Park picnic house.
"You disappointed me yesterday," the candidate told the anchorman; Green went on to explain that he was all set to bound up on the stage on the most important day of the most important race of his life and, facing 300 supporters and the television cameras of every news organization in New York, wish Kirtzman happy birthday. Now, I don't know for a fact that leading the crowd in a round of "Happy Birthday" ever crossed Green's mind, but I know Mark, and I'd be willing to bet that it did.
Green has no idea what a favor Kirtzman did him by taking his birthday off from work. It's not that it would have been inappropriate or downright embarrassing. But it's the sort of thing Green does sometimes that makes it hard for his constituents to take him as seriously as, given his actual record of accomplishments, they should. Too cute. A little smarmy. Anyone who's watched him operate at all over the years is well aware of the stockpile of puns and metaphors and turns of phrase with which he evidently amuses himself but that tend to make all the others in the room roll their eyes (one that sticks with me is his assertion, in an old Nation article, that under Reagan, "laissez hasn't been very faire"). As one reporter joshed last week, he's the only candidate who comes with a laugh track.
But hey: He didn't do his birthday shtick, and as it turned out the announcement event worked. I mean, Russell Simmons introducing -- and embracing -- William Bratton is a moment that ranks right up there in the cross-cultural Olympics with Hillary's morning-drive-time interview last fall with Isaac Hayes on KISS-FM. Bratton's presence added gravitas, which wasn't surprising, and even a bit of levity, which was. ("I'm a New Yah-kah," he said; then, quickly picking up on the awkwardness with which that fell on New York ears, adding, "I may tahk with a Boston accent, but I'm one of you!")
Green's speech, if a tad overlong for a record-setting 87-degree day, for the most part found that elusive but necessary pitch for which the candidates, the anti-Rudy Fernando Ferrer excepted, are straining this year. He twice doffed his cap to Rudy Giuliani, crediting him (though never only him) with reducing crime, while insisting, in the civil-libertarian fashion required of candidates in a Democratic primary, that "we can have civil order and civil rights, not one at the expense of the other." And most of all, he kept the smarm eruptions to the barest minimum. The fact that he delivered his memorized, 39-minute address with a handheld mike, and without a podium, might have given him the unfortunate aspect of a stand-up comic, but he successfully fought the image off by refraining from the one-liners for which he is known and delivering a serious and substantive address.
In other words, Mark Green may have finally grown up. It may be unfair to talk that way of a 56-year-old man with his record. Green did get a tobacco company to stop using a wildly successful logo (Joe Camel), and he did as much as anyone to de-cartelize the local carting industry. But he can still come across as the striving arriviste who has not quite matured. Some of it hasn't been his fault (boyish face); some of it has (seriatim quipsterizing, gadflyish press conferences). But it has been a widely held perception. My friends outside the realms of local politics and journalism all know Mark Green. They respect his intellect, they're fine with his politics, and they're more or less comfortable with him as the Ur-representative, in local politics, of their class and its mores. They just want him to stop being too clever by half. It's a habit that tends to remind hypereducated, liberal boomers of things they don't like about themselves, or, to put it another way, things they know the rest of the world doesn't like about them. It is not so different in this regard from Hillary's humorless moralizing about television violence, or Bill's contradictory desires to lead the generation that fought for equality of the sexes while at the same time chasing skirts from one end of America to the other. Green's dilemma isn't as fraught as all that, but he does need to show his intellectual cohort -- which votes in very large numbers in New York City Democratic primaries -- that he can lead it.
And up to this point he's doing a pretty good job. The media love to pin the local-genius label on Hank Morris, the consultant who's running Alan Hevesi's campaign. Nothing against Morris, but it's Green's campaign that so far this year has been unquestionably the best. It's been a fairly conservative campaign, in the risk-averse rather than the ideological sense. But he's made no mistakes and has done most things right. The Bratton endorsement was a major coup. Not bad, either, the support from Amadou Diallo's father for his police-misconduct plan. Even the slightly gimmicky media things have worked. A few weeks ago, Green and his wife, Deni Frand, invited Al and Kathy Sharpton to go see Judgment at Nuremberg on Broadway. Green's camp made the invitation known, which put Sharpton in a position where he had to say yes, because how could Al Sharpton say publicly that he wouldn't go see a play that dealt with the persecution of the Jews? Green got a Sharpton photo op backlit by Jewish suffering. Think about that.
The surest sign that someone is a front-runner -- and that other candidates are starting to worry -- comes when the others start attacking him, which Peter Vallone did clunkily last Wednesday during Green's crime-prevention speech. As Green spoke, Vallone's camp e-mailed reporters, accusing Green of being soft on crime. While Green was taking questions from the audience, aide Joe DePlasco went up and handed him a note telling him about the parry, which Green batted away casually, referring to "my anxious opponents."
It's early. As I wrote a few weeks ago, and as can't be stressed enough, odds are that nearly half the primary voters will make up their minds in the last week, which comes in September. The unions haven't committed, and Green, who's never been a clubhouse man, doesn't have a great deal of organizational support. But right now, Ferrer seems too much the protest candidate, Hevesi's big media buy isn't doing a lot, Vallone can't get traction, and George Spitz, the fifth Democrat, is in it mostly to make a point. Green is ahead because of name recognition, but also because, at this point, he deserves to be. If he would just can the laugh track for good.