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Over the Rainbow

Talk of a black-Latino coalition to put Fernando Ferrer in Gracie Mansion presumes an African-American voting bloc that may not, in fact, exist.

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I write, unfortunately, before the commencement of the Sharpton Victory Tour, but if it's anything like the buildup that percolated quietly through the city's political circles last week, it must have been quite a weekend for the vicar with the vanishing waistline. Word began to seep out early last week of supporters camping overnight in anticipation of his release from the Metropolitan Detention Center, where Al had 90 days to commune with the deeper spirits; State Assemblyman Jose Rivera's office called to make sure I knew of a major celebration in the Bronx; and news arrived of a private fund-raiser (cheapest seat: $1,000) for the National Action Network at the East Side home of Sanford Rubenstein, the lawyer who defends many of the clients on whose behalf Sharpton rabble-rouses.

Times do change. In 1963, Martin Luther King Jr. could scarcely get the media interested in his famous letter from the Birmingham jail, which was published for the first time in The New Leader, a small-circulation opinion journal, two months after he issued it publicly. On top of that, King was released to the sight of a Times editorial blaming him for helping to stir up "tensions that have grown alarmingly." I hope he fired his publicist.

Obviously, I don't know how the papers covered Sharpton over the weekend, but my bet is that they decided his release marked, at least in some implicit way, the "real start" of the mayoral campaign. This might be true, insofar as it constituted an Event in a campaign so sorely in need of one. And, in fact, it might be true in another way, which is that his renewed presence on the scene brings to the forefront consideration of the place of black New Yorkers in this election, the first without a major-party black mayoral candidate in twenty years.

Ever since Jesse Jackson's first presIdential run in 1984, the strategy of black electoral activism has been to unite behind a single candidate and push him over the top. As you might expect, this usually hasn't happened. Indeed, in 1984, Charlie Rangel backed Walter Mondale. The next year brought a mayoral election that was a disaster: The ever-elusive "black-Latino coalition" was supposed to unite behind Herman Badillo, a great progressive hope in those days. But at a meeting of Harlem and Brooklyn black officials, the Harlemites sandbagged their confrères from across the river and announced their support for Denny Farrell, then and now a Harlem assemblyman. Ed Koch was re-elected. I know people who still curse when they hear Farrell's name.

That coalition did work twice -- in 1988, when Jackson carried the city in New York's presidential primary, and the following year, when David Dinkins won the mayoralty. In 1993, Dinkins lost, and in 1997, there was Sharpton, who drew a respectable number of votes (135,000) but who is few people's idea of a coalition-builder.

Or is he? Maybe not to white people, but Hispanic voters might see him differently. The fact that he served his time over Vieques -- a Latino issue, as it were -- has not been lost on Latino media or political leadership. Such is the backdrop for his endorsement, likely to come this week, of Fernando Ferrer. In this he's expected to be joined by Rangel, Manhattan Borough President Virginia Fields, and some Harlem state legislators. My guess is you'll be reading quite a few "black-Latino coalition" stories in the papers over the next few days.

And the thing is, there just may be such a coalition this time around. Ferrer's strategy for months has been to get majorities from Latino and black voters; with that accomplished, he'd be virtually certain to qualify for a September 25 runoff. (Where he goes from there is a fundamental and probably fatal problem: He has run a campaign whose appeal to Jewish voters has been somewhat hard to detect, and Jews have been the largest voting bloc in runoffs.) The support of Sharpton, Rangel, et al., depending on how active they decide to be, might give Ferrer the momentum to substantially increase his totals among black voters.

How active they decide to be is a function in part of their motivation, which, it should be noted, is not actually to see Freddy Ferrer become mayor. It's to see Carl McCall become governor. And the thinking of several black leaders, as expressed to me in recent months, is -- well, I'll let Brooklyn congressman Ed Towns say it. "My argument," Towns told me in June, "is that if we don't get enthusiastically behind Freddy Ferrer this year, then Latinos won't get enthusiastically behind Carl next year." Towns may never be confused with Cicero, but he does have a talent for putting things plainly.

But here's the rub: While Sharpton will dominate the headlines, Ferrer is still chasing Mark Green for black votes. Green doesn't have that many elected officials, but he does have (a) David Dinkins and Calvin Butts and (b) a history of pulling a lot of black votes citywide. It's fair to say it would still register as something of a shock if, come primary night, Green did not end up leading the pack among black voters.

Alan Hevesi has the support of Floyd Flake, whose 6,000 or so parishioners are a bloc unto themselves; Congressman Major Owens; Brooklyn party boss Clarence Norman; and Abner Louima. But Hevesi embarked on this campaign with a terrible deficit among black voters that he's only now showing signs of making up. Finally, Peter Vallone has the backing of District Council 37, the powerful municipal union with a large minority membership, and a few black City Council members. Though black voters are hardly his base, he will mine his share of votes.

So black leadership is once again all over the lot. Which is neither surprising nor upsetting; it makes black leadership no different from Jewish leadership or Irish leadership or any other leadership. And maybe that's a sign not of disarray but of sophistication, or at least of a confident functioning within a political system that no longer works against black leaders simply because of the color of their skin. And no one can despair about that.

WEVD: the loss of WEVD-AM, and Bill Mazer's morning program in particular, is a devastating blow to New York's liberal community. The station has been sold and is going to an all-sports format on September 1. Hard to believe that New York City, of all places, will be home base to Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity, but no -- zero -- proudly liberal talk shows. The folks at www.saveWEVD.com are trying to organize the forces of good. Check the site for details -- and do something, dammit!

E-mail: tomasky@aol.com


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