Is Freddy Ready?

Freddy Ferrer smiles broadly as he waits his turn to speak. He’s the closer in a CUNY forum for the four Democratic mayoral candidates, and both his abundant confidence and his place in the lineup seem entirely appropriate. In the previous two days, new polls not only had confirmed Ferrer’s status as front-runner in the Democratic primary, but they showed Ferrer ahead of Michael Bloomberg—in the survey by NY1 and Newsday, he led by an astounding margin of fourteen points.

Tonight, Ferrer follows the handbook for early favorites in a political race: He plays it safe, saying nothing remotely radical or especially memorable. His delivery is fluid, his tone studiously grave, but his digressions are surprisingly wonky. Still, the core points in his speech are likely to be the ones he repeats through November: He’d spend taxpayer money on education and public housing, not a football stadium; the city is gripped by a “crisis of affordability,” with a majority of residents pummeled by the rising cost of living; and billionaire Bloomberg doesn’t share the values of regular people, like Ferrer does.

Ferrer’s remarks are well tailored to his audience. This is a union-proud, racially diverse, stone-liberal crowd of academics and students, about half of whom wear anti-Bush buttons on their lapels. In other words, a strong sampling of the city’s leftish Democratic base. Topics in the Q&A period—aside from whether a Mayor Ferrer would pay CUNY staff more fairly than Bloomberg has—include a proposal to extend voting rights to noncitizens (Ferrer doesn’t commit one way or the other, but praises a paper promoting the idea that was written by a CUNY professor and published by the think tank Ferrer headed for three years). When a working mother and student asks what he’d do to provide cheaper housing, Ferrer turns up the volume.

“This mayor, who wrote a $7.5 million check to the Republican National Convention,” Ferrer thunders, “this mayor, who made a $1 million personal contribution to the New York State Republican Party; this mayor, who has thrown fund-raisers in his townhouse and personally supported Republican members of the Senate and Congress, should at least screw it up enough to go to Washington and say, ‘Don’t cheat New York on Section Eight vouchers!’”

The crowd cheers, and Ferrer exits to a receiving line of hugs. By running against George Bush as much as Mike Bloomberg, he’s riding high. Certainly it’s better for any politician to be loved by the electorate and ahead in the polls. But if Ferrer truly believes he’s in good shape, and that selling a traditional Democratic line from now until November is going to keep him ahead of Bloomberg, then he’s actually in deep trouble.

When it comes to electing Democratic mayors, New York is lately as bad as San Diego. Of America’s ten most populous cities, only New York and its sun-kissed cousin have failed to elect at least one Democrat since 1993, when Rudy Giuliani began the local Republican winning streak. And New York’s Democratic mayoral candidates start with a whopping six-to-one registration advantage.

Most Democratic regulars want to believe that the recent Republican victories are the products of some weird, quadrennial voodoo temporarily mesmerizing an otherwise rational Democratic city. In ’93, they say, Giuliani won because crime was booming; in ’97, crime had collapsed and Rudy happened to be in the right place to take credit; in ’01, a terrorist attack allowed Giuliani to share his halo with Bloomberg, a fake Republican who spent an unprecedented and unfair $75 million to make sure voters heard about the blessing.

Ferrer needs boldness as much as he needs a black-Latino coalition.

“But in normal times, this city will want a Democratic mayor who reflects their views and values,” says Mark Green, who narrowly lost to Bloomberg in the wake of September 11.

Maybe. Or maybe something is shifting beneath the traditional New York Dems. David Dinkins, Ruth Messinger, and Mark Green are different people, with widely different personalities and life stories. Yet politically and ideologically, they all come from the same place. All of them could or should have won, given the city’s supposed liberalism. And they all lost. Unlike national Democrats, however, city pols haven’t spent any time arguing about what it means—or should mean—to be a Democrat in 2005.

Ferrer comes out of the long-established progressive Democratic pipeline: a childhood in a humble neighborhood; a career politician who’s paid his dues in lower offices, including fourteen years as Bronx borough president; a friend of the unions; a member of an ascendant ethnic group. Ferrer’s campaign advisers are rightly fearful of Bloomberg’s bottomless campaign spending. And at the moment, they seem to think that their best hope for overcoming the $100 million onslaught is by playing to their only numerical advantage. By revving up the liberal Democratic base, sheer turnout can beat incumbency and a gargantuan campaign budget.

Assembling only a textbook New York coalition of unions and racial special interests actually does Bloomberg a favor, however: It allows the mayor to spin his wealth as a positive, declaring himself unbought and unbossed, a plutocrat channeling Shirley Chisholm. And Bloomberg won in 2001 because of something beyond Rudy and money: Enough middle- and upper-middle-class voters bought what Bloomberg was selling. Many of those voters are people in their thirties and forties who aren’t beholden to the old Democratic orthodoxy. “They’re not necessarily black or white or Latino or anything predictable,” says City Councilman David Yassky, a Democrat from Brooklyn. “They’re common-sense Democrats. For instance, they believe a principal should have the power to run a school. Unless we start having mayoral candidates who speak the truth to those voters, we’re gonna keep losing.”

There’s another reason Ferrer stuck to the predictable at CUNY. He’d spent much of the previous week doing damage control after attempting to say something interesting, something that wasn’t Democratic dogma. Ferrer fumbled his response to a question about the police shooting of Amadou Diallo, and he’s paying the price with black voters, at least in the short term. But the episode’s larger significance is in the audience Ferrer was addressing: a meeting of the Sergeants Benevolent Association. Ferrer appeared because he stood a good chance of winning the SBA’s endorsement, and, subsequently and more powerfully, that of the PBA.

The real loss for Ferrer, more than any possible missed endorsement opportunity, would be if the flap makes him too scared to take other chances at shaking his image as one more New York liberal Democrat. He needs boldness as much as he needs a black-Latino coalition. Because if Ferrer succeeds in reaching out to voters who are weary of doctrine, he’ll give the mayor a tough contest. If he doesn’t, Freddy Ferrer’s third run for City Hall will become a test of whether representing the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party is enough anymore. Even in allegedly Democratic New York.

Is Freddy Ready?