88 Minutes With Mark Green

Photo: Bryan Bedder/Getty Images

Mark Green stands alone in the back room of Evolve, a generically slick club on East 58th Street, scribbling a few last-minute changes to his runoff kickoff speech. It’s Primary Day, and he’d not won the 40 percent necessary to become the Democratic candidate for public advocate—a job he’d held for eight years, ending eight years ago. Instead, he’s just clearing 30 percent and coming in second to City Councilman Bill de Blasio.

An aide pops into the room, gives Green the look—ready, it’s time—and now Green is on the dais, the lights in his face. He says, “And now … as expected … it’s overtime!”

For the past month or so, Green and his staff knew that it would be nearly impossible to avoid a runoff with de Blasio, who had raised nearly three times as much money and corralled the support of the major unions and elected officials and newspaper endorsements. He was the candidate that had, above all the things, the “best temperament,” the Times said.

Three years ago, Green had vowed that he would never run again for office. And yet, somehow, he couldn’t resist this twilight adventure in electoral opportunism. The chance to get out and hit the ball.

“I’m a competitive tennis player,” Green says, speaking in metaphor about his campaign. “I used to love it when I was down 4-2 in the third set. And I feel completely energized by being in the final set in the Public Advocate Open.”

The trouble is that Green, a youthful 64, may be playing the last set in a career that some say has been defined by his inability to win these types of matches.

“It’s not that I can’t close the deal—hey, I won a hard-fought runoff” against Fernando Ferrer in 2001, though Bloomberg beat him in the general election; five years later, he lost to Andrew Cuomo, for attorney general. (“I lost to a billionaire and a brand.”) He’s also run for Congress and the U.S. Senate (twice). As a pol, he’s stubbornly stuck to the questionable formula that winning a race is about good ideas—not making deals—and aiming a sharp tongue at your opponent. But after the attorney-general race, he’d seemingly given up all that and was working as a commentator, author, and executive for the lefty radio station Air America. He could work from his remodeled loft near Union Square. His study has one of those rolling library ladders for Green to fetch all his books. Then he decided to run again. In one of the debates, the candidates were asked to define themselves in a word. De Blasio? “Inclusive.” Green? “Persistent.”

Above all, Green is also the type who relishes the chance to answer a good question, or to hold your arm at an event and not let go until he has punched out the punch line to an anecdote about, say, hiking in the mountains of Aspen lugging around a copy of one of Arthur Schlesinger’s books. He is not concerned that some think he has run for office too many times or that it’s all about him. “The insiders will say, ‘Green, he’s lost so many times, why should I vote for him again?’ I don’t hear that. I hear, ‘I don’t want a new guy. I want the guy with experience.’ ”

At one point, not too long ago, this campaign was a winning idea. Last May, the polls had Green floating above 40 percent, enjoying the spoils of his own name recognition. Of course, few who knew him thought being public advocate was really his goal: This was supposed to be an easy match, getting him back in training to possibly run for mayor.

Now that Green is the underdog in a runoff, the mayoral aspirants like Christine Quinn can feel a bit less nervous. Bloomberg can, too, since even as public advocate, Green could be a mighty nuisance. In any case, the mayor already gutted the office, cutting its budget 40 percent. Others on the City Council want to get rid of it altogether.

All of which Green is trying to fight too. “Some well-intentioned but misguided critics attack the entire concept of this ombudsman office,” Green says. The crowd is elbow to elbow in the overheated nightclub. Outside, his aides stand huddled on the sidewalk, wondering what it will take to beat de Blasio. They were two points away once. Green could have been mayor. It’s not revenge he’s after now.

“Redemption,” says his campaign lawyer Jerry Goldfeder. “Redemption, redemption, redemption ….”

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88 Minutes With Mark Green