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Endorsement Tango

With the mayoral race fully under way, the Democratic hopefuls are courting partners who can deliver votes and support. Here are the ones to watch.

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The Saturday before he left for his unexpected Puerto Rico-cum-Sunset Park vacation, Al Sharpton met with his confreres at the National Action Network to decide on his mayoral endorsement. He'd be announcing the decision Monday or Tuesday, he told me; call him.

I called Monday. No decision. Call me around 2:30. Still no decision. Try me tomorrow morning. Nothing. This went on for a few days until he failed to return the last message I left on his cell phone because, as I learned that afternoon, by the rather capricious fiat of a federal judge Sharpton had more immediate concerns on his mind.

This story is telling, for political purposes, because it shows us that the Sharpton endorsement, which most insiders figured to be a slam-dunk for Bronx borough president Fernando Ferrer, was evidently anything but. There is, I'm told, a Mark Green contingent within the NAN, as well as one urging the Rev to wait until the runoff (it will take place on September 25 if no candidate gets 40 percent in the September 11 primary), see who the top two finishers are, and choose one. And with Sharpton perhaps stuck in jail until August 21, you begin to see how murky these endorsement waters are this year.

There's a reason they are: with no clear front-runner, and no great ideological differences among the four major Democrats, the big players are hedging their bets. But this week marks the beginning of the petitioning period, when campaigns send their minions out to gather voters' signatures in support of their nominations. And just as bears know when to emerge from their caves, and snakes know when to molt, so too do politicos intuit that the petition period is the time to start making moves. Herewith, then, five endorsements to watch, and their ramifications.

1. The Liberal Party. If all went as expected June 2, the Libs sent up their puff of white smoke from the Intercontinental Hotel and chose Alan Hevesi. Two thoughts: First, this decision is potentially rather hard cheese, as Waugh might have put it, for Michael Bloomberg, who's set to announce his candidacy this week. Bloomberg, a Democrat running as a Republican, could have used that Liberal designation (the votes Rudy Giuliani received on the Liberal line provided his margin of victory over David Dinkins in 1993). That he didn't get it tells us that Giuliani did not lean on his friend, Lib jefe Ray Harding, to deliver the line to Bloomberg. In fact, a source says, Giuliani called Harding to urge consideration of Peter Vallone. But Rudy's a lame duck, and lately more concerned with ensuring that his children pass many future hours on some shrink's couch, and Ray is on to the next phase.

Second thought: This designation means Hevesi will be on the ballot in November even if he doesn't win the Democratic primary. This, in turn, means he could run full-steam as a Liberal, stealing votes from the Democrat and thereby helping Bloomberg. A source close to Hevesi says that the comptroller made no such commitment to Harding. In any event, watch for Mark Green to announce this week that he'll support the Democratic nominee, and that he expects all his Democratic opponents to do the same.

2. The United Federation of Teachers. UFT head Randi Weingarten is lukewarm on Ferrer and Vallone and regards Green (who backs various measures the UFT hates, like transferring teachers) as the moral equivalent of, if not Hitler and Stalin, at least Walter O'Malley. She will probably endorse Hevesi. "I think she'd like to do something by late June," a union source says, "but I'm not absolutely positive it's going to happen. It's certainly better for us if we see some movement." That is, movement by Hevesi in polls, which so far has been halting. The UFT has muscle -- in 1989, it was vital to Dinkins's victory, and in '93, it ran TV ads criticizing Dinkins's handling of contract negotiations. The extent to which its 70,000 voting members do so en bloc is not clear, but that's actually less important than the phone banks and other efforts the union makes on behalf of its candidate.

3. Dennis Rivera. The hospital workers' union chief has been all over the lot: Ferrer, his fellow Latino; Hevesi, who has worked on health-care issues with Rivera since the eighties. Most recently, he's been having meetings, through an intermediary close to both men, with Green. The general feeling on Rivera is that he'd probably like to go with his landsman, all things being equal, except that all things aren't equal: There is a growing sense among insiders that Ferrer's campaign is faltering, and an accompanying notion that the marbles may be moving in Green's direction. Dinkins's endorsement of Green, which came three weeks ago, is influencing Rivera's calculations, because Dinkins remains immensely popular among his membership. Rivera probably faces his Vieques-protest sentencing this week, so he, like Sharpton, may have a lot of time on his hands to mull all this.

4. District Council 37. The leader of this union, Lee Saunders, has yet to establish himself as the formidable power player his two predecessors, Victor Gotbaum and the pre-scandal Stanley Hill, once were. This primary presents Saunders with an opportunity to pick a horse and ride him to victory, cementing a reputation as someone who can deliver. But that's risky, too; if his horse loses, he's got presidents of his 56 union locals griping that he made the wrong choice and cost them influence. Bets are that Saunders waits for a runoff.

5. Charlie Rangel. Ah, Charlie. A game theorist's dream, Rangel has been a master at playing the tease, appearing with this candidate and then that one, driving up the value of his endorsement like a hotly anticipated stock offering. Ferrer needs Rangel; if this black-Latino coalition is going to happen, Ferrer will need some major black support, and he's already lost Dinkins (he has Carl McCall, but McCall is running for governor and won't risk offending the others -- whose support he'll need -- by going too far out for Ferrer). Most insiders think Rangel's leaning toward Hevesi, but no one knows. I think even Rangel doesn't know. It's a fitting symbol of an election that, for the city's political mandarins, is less about great issues and New York's future than about what they can get out of it.

E-mail: tomasky@aol.com


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