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The Union Label

Mark Green won the runoff without the support of the city's Big Three unions, leaving both the candidate and labor in an unfamiliar posture come Election Day.

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To the list of reasons you've already read that explain why Mark Green beat Fernando Ferrer last Thursday, add this seemingly improbable one: He didn't have union support.

In fact, he had the backing of many unions, including the heretofore very unGreenish PBA and the firefighters. But what I mean is that he didn't have the Big Three, which historically have been the Democratic kingmakers: the teachers, the municipal employees, and the health and hospital workers. Their support for Ferrer helped Green.

Why? Two reasons. First, the knowledge that he had all this machinery churning against him made Green get out and work for his win. No candidate is so unappealing as the one who seems to be coasting, which is what Green was doing until September 11. But after the United Federation of Teachers came out for Ferrer a week before the runoff, Green had to get aggressive and creative.

And so came the offensive. First, the assaults -- fair and accurate, even if not especially germane to the position of mayor -- on Ferrer's flips on abortion and the death penalty. Then the heat-seeking posture Green assumed during last Sunday's two debates. Next the endorsement from Mario Cuomo, which I believe made a huge difference. And finally the last-minute attack ad, whose substance was fair but whose portentous closing line ("Can we afford to take a chance?") had a slight whiff -- not a redolent odor, mind you, just a slight whiff -- of Bernard Epton, the white Chicago mayoral candidate who lost to Harold Washington and whose motto was "Epton -- Before It's Too Late."

The second reason the labor-free approach worked for Green lay in the way it koshered him up with the city's Establishment. Ferrer had a lock on the left, which we take to mean the major unions, the bulk of the black and Latino votes, and the smattering of whites who voted for Nader or side with Chomsky on the war. Green had his more mainstream white liberals, but there weren't enough of them for him to carry the day. If he was going to win, Green had to go to the center.

And what he found when he started looking there, no doubt to his great surprise, was a receptivity to him that never would have prevailed under normal circumstances. A vigorous endorsement from the Daily News, and even a backhanded one from the Post. Some of this "enthusiasm" for Green was, of course, really distaste for Ferrer; or, by another interpretation, white fear of Al Sharpton. The Sharpton factor undoubtedly played some role in the minds of many white Green voters (by the way, is that so irrational?). But Green himself walked the racial razor-wire carefully. Yes, his commercial was a little overcharged. But it's worth remembering that the tabloids were begging him to pounce on Sharpton, and to his credit -- we might have had a racial free-for-all on our hands -- he didn't do it.

Green never presented himself as the poster-candidate of white anxiety. He did, however, present himself as independent of all the usual liberal special interests. That is what won him Establishment support, and it would have been much slower in coming if he'd had the backing of the three major unions. With them, Mark Green would have been just the same old Mark Green. Without them, he was, however temporarily, this new guy, who wasn't leveraged in the way the Democratic nominee usually is.

So now we begin to see, I think, the effects of September 11 on this election. The effect we all reflexively thought the attack would have, that it would unite the city and kill Ferrer's "two New Yorks" candidacy, didn't happen. Sure, Ferrer lost, ultimately, but not before he proved the point that his theme was meaningful to a lot of people. Instead, the effect was something else, something less immediately graspable, and in some ways much more pedestrian: The tragedy made voters mindful of the basic things that a city does. Its impact was not highfalutin or moral; it was down-to-earth and practical.

There's a Fire Department that needs to be refunded, remanned, rebuilt. There's a Police Department that's been shaken. There's a financial-services industry that needs help. There's a looming fiscal crisis, and, finally, there is a rather large hole in lower Manhattan. It's on those basic service and management questions that Ferrer presented an inferior vision and that Green finally won. "I had these wrenching conversations with police captains and fire officers," says Richard Schrader, Green's campaign manager. "These guys cared about what Mark was going to do to rebuild the Police Department, the Fire Department, how we were going to strengthen security. My feeling was we were the ones talking to these guys about sketching out the future."

Now, Bloomberg. The temptation is to dismiss him, but everything I laid out above suggests a difficult problem for Green. He is inheriting a racially split Democratic electorate, with many blacks and Latinos quietly burning about what they perceive as white New York having circled its wagons to stop their man. Green will get flak from his left flank, which he'll have to respond to. He'll have to work to reel in Charlie Rangel and other Ferrer supporters who don't like him to begin with.

And what of those unions, which seem, for now, so anachronistic? They'll be trying to make nice with Green, but it's not clear he'll play. "Here's a guy who's got a better memory than any elephant known to mankind," says one Democratic insider. "He'll remember it all." Given how well this no-union thing worked for him, he might not even want their endorsements. But then what if one or two of them actually cut a deal with Bloomberg? If Bloomberg, being a Republican, gets a union or two, the Establishment would regard that as novel and shrewd. But if Green lines them up, especially if he does so by changing the "no promises" tack he's taken since the catastrophe, he's back to being old, uninteresting Mark Green.

Green won the Democratic runoff with a coalition that is unnatural to him and is unlikely to hold for the general election. And yet, if he gallops back to the left too quickly, he'll lose credibility. Bloomberg isn't politically savvy enough to figure out how to exploit that conundrum. But David Garth and Bloomberg's other pricey handlers may be.

E-mail: tomasky@aol.com


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