The Case for Ferrer

Yesterday Fernando Ferrer was in Los Angeles, the beneficiary of a fund-raising luncheon at the swank City Club. The trip brought in thousands for Ferrer’s mayoral campaign. Yet it was also a bittersweet excursion: The star attraction was Ferrer’s longtime friend Antonio Villaraigosa, who not only won the L.A. mayor’s race in his first try but, by doing so, became the national Democratic Party’s Latino poster boy. Ferrer has tried to cast his third run for mayor as the next chapter in the rise of Latino political power, but in the days before the event he had to endure the humiliating spectacle of Villaraigosa’s spokeswoman correcting stories in New York’s newspapers—no, Villaraigosa has not endorsed Ferrer, and he wouldn’t be doing so at the luncheon.

Now, just off the red-eye, on the last Tuesday morning in August, Ferrer is in a sweltering fourth-floor apartment in Hamilton Heights, staring at a gaping four-foot hole in a bedroom wall. Roaches scurry on the floor. Rats have kept a 3-month-old baby from sleeping in her crib. There’s a pervasive odor, a nasty admixture of mildew, sweat, and fried food.

This is the final stop in a tour of buildings owned by notorious slumlords, a tour organized by a tenants’-rights group for the four Democratic mayoral candidates. “Look, I grew up in conditions such as this,” he says. “It isn’t another slogan.” Ferrer begins to reel off some standard and useful government correctives—more building inspectors, stiffer fines—but then something surprising happens. His cheeks redden, his jaw tightens, and Ferrer drops the numbingly cautious tone he usually wears like a shield. “You get angry when you see kids having to grow up in a condition like this,” he says. “With vermin! With mice! With rats! With leaking plumbing! With paint falling on the floor! With sagging floors! With no electrical—with no heat and hot water in the wintertime!” He’s spluttering. After months of bland, dispassionate appearances, this is a good thing.

Ferrer, shaking his head in disgust, walks to a black car waiting near the corner of West 150th Street and Bradhurst Avenue. Suddenly there are happy shouts. “Ferrer! Ferrer!” yells a woman from a second-story fire escape. “We love you!” Latisha Ozuna says in Spanish. “We need you!” Ferrer stops, waves, and nods gratefully. “¡Dos semanas más!” he answers, referring to the time left until the September 13 Democratic primary. “Dos semanas más.” Two more weeks and maybe he will finally reach the goal he’s been chasing since 1997.

Ferrer’s campaign has alternated between stumbling and defensive. Lately, he’s started to find his voice, sharpening his attacks on Mayor Michael Bloomberg as an elitist. Mostly, though, Ferrer is still trying to run out the clock. His one major economic proposal has been an unimaginative tax on stock transfers that would likely be shot down by the State Legislature. With ordinary voters, Ferrer often appears as if he resents having to handshake and backslap yet again. The lack of enthusiasm runs both ways: Ferrer’s poll numbers have barely budged in nine months, stuck in the low thirties. He needs 40 percent to avoid a runoff.

Yet if Democrats care about the future of the party, and want to ever regain City Hall, they need to vote for Freddy Ferrer next week.

Some of the case for Ferrer is conventional. He’s paid his dues, rising through the ranks of mainstream Democratic and Bronx politics. He compiled a solid, if unspectacular, progressive record in the City Council and as Bronx borough president. He is an earnest policy wonk who is most at home discussing arcana such as “community-based facilitated enrollment” for children’s health insurance. And a Ferrer-Bloomberg matchup would provide hope of real debates about poverty and the strains on the middle class.

Part of the case for Ferrer is a case against his Democratic rivals. C. Virginia Fields has never moved beyond the platitudinous. Gifford Miller, while a nimble City Council speaker, hasn’t, as a mayoral candidate, been able to take a decisive stand on anything, from the West Side stadium to his sons’ preschool education.

The toughest lever to bypass in the voting booth will be the one next to the name of Anthony Weiner. He has the intellectual dexterity to give Bloomberg a workout, and he’s tried to sell himself as the candidate who will move beyond traditional Democratic thinking. “If Weiner gets into the runoff, it suggests there’s clearly a constituency for a message that Democrats have been screwing up and we need to do something differently,” says a consultant not affiliated with any candidate. But Weiner, a 40-year-old congressman from Brooklyn and Queens who has spent his entire adult life in politics, needs to run something—a congressional committee, a think tank, a minor-league hockey team—before being put in charge of an entity as clamorous as New York, and his agenda needs four more years of baking.

Bloomberg is not unbeatable, but all the challengers are prohibitive long shots in November. So a Democratic voter who wants to see his party retake City Hall someday needs to make a calculation that’s as much karmic as strategic: Nominating Ferrer—outright, without a runoff—gives Democrats their best opportunity to move forward. For four years, Ferrer and his advisers have nursed a grievance: that the reason he lost the 2001 Democratic runoff to Mark Green, after winning more votes in the first round than three other contenders, was a racial dirty trick. Giving Ferrer the chance to win or lose on his own against Bloomberg this time would exorcise those ghosts.

Nominating Ferrer takes race off the table, helping Democrats hold on to the emerging nonwhite majority.

A Ferrer nomination would also reduce the risk of the Democrats’ splintering in 2006, when Hillary Clinton (U.S. senate) and Eliot Spitzer (governor) are running. “It’s important that Democrats emerge from the primary unbloodied,” says party strategist Howard Wolfson (who’s endorsing fair play, not any particular candidate). “A nasty, divisive primary could have ripples beyond this election, just like the nasty, divisive primary we had in ’01.” The greatest benefits would come in four years. Because next week’s primary turnout is likely to be low, it won’t tell us much about the changing shape of the Democratic electorate. “This primary might look more like an election from 1985 than 2005,” says Norman Adler, a political consultant. But clearly the party is growing younger, more conservative, and less white—and also more independent-minded. “There’s this statistic I keep hearing that one-third of new black registration is registering as independent,” says Basil Smikle, another consultant. “I’m not sure it’s true. But the 21-to-40-year-old African-American voters who are more wealthy and have more stuff and live in Harlem, Park Slope, Fort Greene—they’re really up for grabs.” A clean Ferrer nomination takes race off the table, internally, for the short term, and gives Democrats a greater chance of holding on to the emerging nonwhite majority, particularly Latinos.

National Democrats have been healthily shaken by John Kerry’s defeat, and a local version is past due. “Last night I spent almost an hour surfing the Manhattan Institute Website,” says a veteran New York Democrat. “While there’s much I don’t agree with, it’s the only place I know of that’s generating new policy ideas for the city. It’s not unimportant for there to be a progressive-policy infrastructure supporting an urban agenda. That’s something I hope we will see at some point. And it’s more likely to happen if we lose than if we win.”

Not that he’s rooting for a loss. But here’s the realist Democratic slogan for you: Freddy Ferrer and honorable defeat in ’05. And Anthony Weiner all the way in ’09.

The Case for Ferrer