The Accidental Candidate

It is another good day in a good week in a good two months for C. Virginia Fields. Her streak started in mid-March, when Freddy Ferrer, the prohibitive front-runner for the Democratic mayoral nomination, made his infamous comments about the death of Amadou Diallo. Suddenly, Fields, who hadn’t been taken seriously as a candidate, was handed an opening as Ferrer hemorrhaged support. Yesterday came the most startling confirmation yet of her newfound stature: a Quinnipiac poll showing Fields running stronger than Ferrer against Mayor Michael Bloomberg (never mind that the poll showed Bloomberg beating them both). Today Fields is on her way to a staff meeting at her 125th Street office when word arrives of a landslide on the Henry Hudson Parkway. Lights blazing and sirens howling on her official car, Fields, mostly invisible during her eight years as Manhattan borough president, manages to be the first elected official to appear in front of dozens of microphones assembled at the scene, long before Bloomberg speaks, instantly gaining the kind of citywide radio and TV exposure she desperately needs.

The detour to the disaster makes Fields late for a speech to the legendary McManus Democratic Association in Hell’s Kitchen, but no matter. When she strides past the vintage Bobby Kennedy campaign posters and walks to the front of a sweltering conference room, the audience greets the 58-year-old Fields with enthusiastic applause. Members of the standing-room-only crowd aren’t just politely watching a candidate; they’re trying on the freshly plausible vision of Fields’s representing them against Bloomberg in November, and their eagerness to hear what she has to say is palpable. One man, a crusty former leader of the stagehands union, can’t contain himself, springing up to shout an unscripted endorsement. “She’d be a mayor whose heart is attached to her brain!” gushes Edward McConway.

Faced with adoration, Fields does a curious thing: She retreats. The room is certainly small, but there’s a sizable clearing serving as the stage, and people in the friendly crowd stay attentively in their chairs. Anthony Weiner, speaking first this evening, before Fields, dispenses with the handheld microphone and strolls up the center aisle, mixing with the questioners. Fields shouts into the mike, producing a painful echo from an ancient amp. And she keeps edging backward.

The club president, Carlos Manzano, is seated in a folding chair against the wall behind Fields, and as she closes in, Manzano tries to flatten and contort himself to avoid a collision. Eventually, as Fields continues backing up, Manzano is peering around the side of her skirt, like an oversize child hiding behind Mom. The image would be pure comedy if it didn’t suggest a serious question: Can Virginia Fields handle being the star of the show?

No politician exists in a vacuum. It’s impossible to imagine, for instance, Jimmy Carter’s winning without the lingering stench of Richard Nixon. Or Bloomberg without the blessing of Rudy Giuliani. Yet Fields owes so much of her political career to the needs and actions of other pols that her holding office is practically an accident. And now Fields is a coincidence who could actually become mayor.

She grew up in Alabama and earned a master’s in social work at Indiana University, then moved to New York in 1971 when her husband got a job in the city (Fields is now divorced). Fields likes to cast herself as an outsider who got her start in politics independent of the powerful seventies Harlem Democratic machine of Rangel, Farrell, Paterson, and Sutton, which is true. She was hardly an insurgent, however. Fields was a protégée of Harlem pol Frederick E. Samuel, who steered her to a series of local political posts. In 1989, Harlem city councilman Hilton Clark angered City Council president Andrew Stein by leading efforts to strip power from Stein’s office. Stein backed Fields against Clark, in her first run for office, as payback.

In 1997, Ruth Messinger stepped down as Manhattan borough president to run for mayor. Looking for black support to ward off Al Sharpton in the Democratic primary, Messinger endorsed Fields as her replacement. Last year, term limits forced Fields to consider her next move, and until November 2004, she was angling for a position in the Kerry administration. Running for mayor is Fields’s fallback position. And even that decision was conditional on the city comptroller’s declining to run, leaving the role of mainstream black Democratic challenger open.

She hasn’t yet figured out how to truly capitalize on her latest bit of good fortune. After a jump in the immediate aftermath of Ferrer’s Diallo stumble, Fields’s Democratic-primary poll numbers haven’t budged from the underwhelming low twenties or thirties, depending on the polling institute you believe. On the stump, Fields frequently lapses into narcotizing progressive-bureaucratic verbiage. Confronted with a specific issue, she’s a great fan of appointing commissions to study the subject. Her policy themes so far are worthy and numbingly predictable: more affordable housing, more attention to the plight of average New Yorkers, more “inclusiveness” in decision-making about the public schools. When the Fields campaign did introduce a more specific education-reform proposal last week at a Park Slope forum, the idea was debuted by an aide appearing in place of the no-show candidate.

Fields radiates genuine decency. But she has a long way to go to show there’s substance beneath the pleasant surface.

Fields’s stagnant poll numbers aren’t crippling, considering that it’s May and that her name usually elicits blank stares outside of Manhattan. After finishing in Hell’s Kitchen, Fields races to a sparsely attended Asian Democratic club meeting in Flushing, then to a Jewish center in Jackson Heights, where the crowd is more plentiful and gloriously polyglot: black, Bangladeshi, Puerto Rican, Jewish, and other. “I didn’t know much about Virginia before hearing her speak,” says Larisa Ortiz, a 30-year-old urban planner who works for a small, socially conscious real-estate developer in midtown. “I haven’t liked any of the Democrats, and I thought I’d wind up voting for Bloomberg. But I liked Virginia. She was articulate, poised, impressive. Yet while Ferrer is talking about policy and solutions, Fields is more into ‘we need to come together’ platitudes. I want to hear meat.”

The image might be imperfect, but it speaks to Fields’s central problem. In person, she comes across as a warm presence, radiating genuine decency. Yet Fields has a long way to go to convince voters that there’s substance beneath the pleasant surface, that she has the hunger to seriously challenge Bloomberg, and that she’s her own woman. Fields’s advisers are counting on a low turnout in the Democratic primary, believing she can triumph by scoring well with female and black voters. The Bloomberg campaign, which for months had been polling only Ferrer as a general-election opponent, has recently begun preparing for the possibility that the mayor could face one of the other Democrats. Sexism and racism are still significant political obstacles, not to mention being deeply offensive. But if Virginia Fields is the Democratic nominee in November, she’ll need to show that accidents of birth aren’t her only strengths.

The Accidental Candidate