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Four Donkeys on a Trail

They plod on in the heat of the summer. Given the difficulties of retail politics, can one of them break out of the pack?


Fernando Ferrer (left) and Manhattan Borough President C. Virginia Fields.  

It’s a classic of city political campaigning, virtually unchanged since the subway opened in 1904: The candidate stands at an entrance and shakes hands while nearby volunteers thrust literature into the hands of commuters. Yet this year’s mayoral contenders are confronting a fresh menace.

“The iPod,” Gifford Miller says, smiling and remaining resolutely upbeat. “This is a whole new hazard in campaigning. We have to come up with something to jam the iPods!” The fresh-faced, shirt-sleeved speaker of the City Council is standing at the corner of Smith and President Streets in Carroll Gardens at 8 A.M. on a cloudy Thursday morning, shaking hands with air. Another wearer of white earphones blows past Miller, probably the tenth in the past five minutes, and descends into the F-train station. “You learn very fast not to let being ignored bother you,” Miller says, “or you can’t run for office.”

Nothing stops these four from running. Gifford Miller, C. Virginia Fields, Fernando Ferrer, and Anthony Weiner are out there every day of the week, relentlessly crisscrossing the city and often each other. They appear together at dozens of “mayoral forums,” and those can be revealing. But in group appearances, the candidates often come across as two-dimensional characters in the Democratic Four, an overage pop band: the boyish one, the black one, the serious one, and the funny one.

To get a distilled sense of the candidates’ strengths and weaknesses—and an appreciation for the stamina and the intellectual dexterity necessary to run for office in New York—you need to see each one grappling with the summer heat and cranky voters. In a couple of months, the Dems will turn to the deadening intermediaries of modern politics: direct mail, TV ads, union endorsements. Yet to win September’s primary, when a mere 700,000 are likely to vote, Miller, Fields, Ferrer, and Weiner are trying to make literal contact with as many people as possible. And no matter who wins the primary, a grassroots foundation, laid during grueling midsummer days, may be the Democrats’ only real November hope against Michael Bloomberg’s $100 million onslaught.

Gifford Miller
Hi, i’m Gifford Miller, I’m running for mayor,” he says over and over for more than an hour, thrusting out his right hand. “Sorry—I have a life!” one woman snarls, not breaking stride. When people say, “Good luck!” but keep moving, Miller shouts to the back of their heads, “You’re my luck!” It’s corny, earnest, and it always gets a laugh.

One married couple stops for a chat and mentions a recent stabbing in Carroll Park. Policy opening! “The Police Department has all these statistics,” Miller says, “but they don’t break down the numbers for crime in parks. As mayor, I’d have a CompStat for parks, so you’d know what was happening and the police would be put on notice.”

“The police have been great, actually,” the husband and wife say instantly and nearly at the same time. “They responded right away.” Miller doesn’t have a comeback. He just nods. The moment illustrates a central point that Miller, and the other Democrats, should take from their travels: I’ll be a little better than Bloomberg isn’t enough of a rallying cry.

C. Virginia Fields
Politicians? They never come to see us.”

About an hour after Miller leaves Brooklyn, a teacher is watching a high-school graduation ceremony. The school, P.S. 10X, is a special-education program that’s squeezed into a battered mobile-home-like structure hidden behind a housing project in Edenwald, a North Bronx neighborhood hard by the New England Thruway. Today’s celebration is in a slightly cheerier facility on the other side of I-95, a conference room with suburban-basement-style wood paneling, a stage, and a disco ball hanging from the ceiling, on the second floor of a strip mall in the middle of Co-op City. Kids in electric-blue caps and gowns climb the stairs past Kennedy Fried Chicken, Sheer Elegance Hair & Nail Salon, and the empty space that used to house China Boy Kitchen.

Graduation ceremonies are always fraught, but emotions are especially high today. The décor mixes the festive and the heartbreaking—gold and silver balloons are tied to each table, floating above padded helmets belonging to students. The entire senior class of fifteen kids has severe developmental disabilities, and many of the students have been at P.S. 10X since kindergarten. This is to be the school’s final graduating class: The Department of Education has decided to shrink the school and scatter many of its teachers to other programs. Some of the staff learned of the decision just last week, adding anger to the sense of loss.

The teacher in the back of the room doesn’t want her name used, for fear of bureaucratic retribution. But she is surprised and thrilled when the graduation’s guest speaker strides to the podium. It’s C. Virginia Fields, the Manhattan borough president, wearing a light-blue pantsuit. Fields mentions her pre-political career as a social worker, but otherwise—wisely and gracefully—stays away from the overtly political. Instead, she keeps the spotlight on the graduating class. “Let’s give these wonderful students a rousing round of applause!” she says, clapping loudest herself. “They did not get here without lots of love, care, and support from the community. You never gave up, so they never gave up! We must never give up on anyone in our community! I’m committed that we will never overlook or deny the opportunities that our graduates deserve.”

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