Roberto Ramirez, the Bronx County Democratic chairman and Fernando Ferrer's campaign guru, seems to want to talk about race. Okay, then; let's talk.
The conversation begins with Eliot Engel. In June 2000, Engel was a six-term congressman who had run in the past with Ramirez's support. Engel had also backed Ramirez when the latter first ran for county leader. The two never were particularly close, but neither were they enemies. So as Engel prepared for re-election that summer, he had reason to presume that Ramirez would support his candidacy, since he always had and since county chairmen almost never oppose incumbents of their own party.
Then, out of nowhere, Ramirez announced that he would be backing State Senator Larry Seabrook against Engel in a primary. Engel is Jewish and represents a district that is mostly black and Latino. Seabrook is black.
What was the Seabrook endorsement about? It wasn't about Engel's record -- he was enmeshed in no scandal and generally regarded as at least a competent servant. It wasn't about loyalty -- indeed, while Engel backed Ramirez for county leader, Seabrook had voted against him. Nor was it based on any unusual promise shown by Seabrook, who, at that point, was best known for funneling nearly $400,000 into a community-development agency that the Daily News documented beyond argument did not produce a lick of work.
There was only one reason for the endorsement, and that reason was race. Actually, it was something much more specific than race. It was this: to firm up the support of Al Sharpton for Freddy Ferrer's mayoral run.
It was entirely fair for white voters, or any voters, to wonder just what sort of influence Sharpton would have around a Ferrer City Hall.
How do I know this? Well, Sharpton and Seabrook are close; when Sharpton ran for mayor in 1997, Seabrook was the first elected official in the city to endorse him. But I don't make this blunt assertion on the basis of conjecture about a relationship. I make it because Sharpton admitted as much. In September 2000, he told the Village Voice's Wayne Barrett and Tom Robbins the following: "If I do not run myself, it is highly likely that I will be for Ferrer. Freddy fulfilled his obligations on the Seabrook race through Roberto. I have no complaints."
There is absolutely nothing about that quote that lends itself to ambiguous interpretation. The two men had a deal: Roberto backs Larry, Al backs Freddy.
Did Ramirez make similar overtures to other black pols? Certainly, he had discussions with Charles Rangel, David Dinkins, and other black leaders as he built his black-Latino coalition. But he made no highly visible overtures to them; only for Sharpton did Ramirez feel the need to prove himself with a dramatic gesture. Clearly, Ramirez considered Sharpton the most important black figure to have onboard, which leads us to blunt assertion No. 2: Ferrer's candidacy was functionally built around Al Sharpton's support.
When I wrote about the Seabrook-Engel controversy at the time, I knew that Ramirez had made a tactless move and a miscalculation (Engel clobbered Seabrook), and I knew that white politicians from Riverdale were fuming. But I wanted to give Ferrer the benefit of the doubt. I'd known him for years and liked him; I'd never seen him play a race card, and in several private conversations over the years he'd expressed aversion to such tactics. Naïvely, I held out hope that the pressure on him from Riverdale, where he'd always been popular and where I felt he would surely want support for his candidacy, might lead to his endorsing Engel. More important, I hoped that he would act the way I knew he had it in him to act and reject sending the signal that his mayoral candidacy would be a racial crusade. Instead, he stayed neutral, giving himself plausible deniability but making it clear, through his silence, where he really stood.
I thought back to the Ferrer I once knew on the morning of August 17, when I was in Sunset Park for Sharpton's release from jail. Alone among the mayoral candidates, Ferrer was there. He stood onstage behind Sharpton, grinning in rapturous disbelief at his good fortune, like a 6-year-old on Christmas morning who's just discovered that the biggest box under the tree has his name on it. Well, the box did have his name on it. Sharpton soon endorsed him; Ferrer shot up in the polls and overtook Mark Green among black voters.
But you can't expect you're going to get the good of Sharpton without having to endure the bad. I don't condone eleventh-hour dirty tricks, and I don't think it's fair to morph Ferrer into Sharpton, as those last-minute phone calls did. But let's face it: Given Sharpton's history and his centrality to this campaign, it was entirely fair for white voters, or any voters, to wonder just what sort of influence Sharpton would have around a Ferrer City Hall. Ferrer himself put this into high relief by making an issue of Green's key supporter, Bill Bratton. As if there is equivalency between a man who cut homicides in this city in half and a man whose first loyalty is not to his city but to his race; as if it's okay for Ferrer to question Bratton's role, but not for Green to question Sharpton's. And anyway -- and note this -- he never did. The tabloids and some of his advisers were pushing Green to make Sharpton an issue. A hanging curveball of a question at the final debate invited him to swing for the fence. He refused.
That said, Green's comportment during his first week as his party's nominee was lacking. Sure, he'll have to mend fences with Ramirez et al., and that will happen, however rancorously; at the end of the day, they're pols, and they'll make their deals. But more important than those guys are the thousands of Latino and black voters who were anguished by the outcome. However phony Ramirez's pirouettes, that anguish is real, and Green must address it with sympathy. If he becomes mayor, it will be his responsibility to put all these pieces back together.
But history should record that the damage didn't begin in this campaign's final 48 hours. It started eighteen months ago, when Ramirez chose Sharpton over Riverdale (by the way, Green carried Riverdale with 80 percent of the vote on October 11, and he won the election district where Ferrer lives 382 votes to 119); and when Ferrer, thinking that "he could dance through the raindrops and avoid the ramifications," as Engel put it to me last week, let it happen.
At the time, when I asked Ferrer about the suspicions that there was a racial element to Ramirez's move, he upshifted into high-dudgeon gear, disavowed racial politics, and said that if anyone could produce proof that he'd "engaged in that kind of discourse or thinking, I would consider myself unfit for office. Unfit! Do you hear me?"
All too well.