The Winning Ticket that Wasn’t

Maybe it was political calculation. Or maybe it was sleep deprivation. But as the sun came up on the morning after an unexpectedly dramatic primary night, Fernando Ferrer and Anthony Weiner chose the same place, 125th Street, to shake hands with voters. As Ferrer wearily gripped and grinned outside the 6-train entrance at 125th and Lexington Avenue, he was agonizingly close to seizing the Democratic nomination for mayor, falling just 0.051 percent short of the magic number needed to win the primary outright.

Weiner, meanwhile, was outside the entrance to the 2 and 3, at 125th and Lenox Avenue, four blocks west of Ferrer. In the final two weeks before the primary, Weiner had charged from nowhere to a solid second-place finish, gaining 29 percent of the vote.

At the time, both men were planning for a runoff, so it made sense for them to head to Harlem. Voter turnout here had been slightly less pathetic than in the rest of the city, with many in the neighborhood backing third-place finisher C. Virginia Fields. So Ferrer and Weiner were doing the obvious thing, courting a reliable segment of the Democratic base, black voters, in anticipation of their rematch.

Maybe, though, there was something else drawing the two men tantalizingly close that morning, something irrational, or even subconscious. Whoever won the Democratic runoff would then face a daunting November general-election battle with Mayor Michael Bloomberg. No conventional tactic—attacking Bloomberg as a billionaire Republican, appealing to ethnic resentment or economic self-interest, claiming the city is worse off than it was four years ago—seemed to promise sufficient firepower. Innovative, even desperate measures were called for, and one such notion floated in the four blocks of air between the two contenders.

But Ferrer and Weiner remained as separate as the East and West Side subway lines. And when Weiner next popped up in public, four hours later in front of his boyhood home in Park Slope, the congressman didn’t just pull out of the race. He dashed any hope of launching a brave gamble, an idea so wacky and unprecedented that it just might have given the Democrats a chance of beating Bloomberg: a Ferrer-Weiner ticket.

[Pause for laughter.]

No, really. Consider this: The results of last week’s primary reinforce a pattern that’s been congealing during the past twenty years. New York Democrats, at least when it comes to local elections, fall into two groups. There are Dinkins Democrats (non-white Bronx and Brooklyn, plus hard-left social libs and apartment renters). They largely voted for Ferrer. Then there are Giuliani Democrats (white ethnic Queens and Staten Island, moderate-to-conservative Brooklyn and Manhattan, with an increasing Asian and homeowning component). They voted for Weiner—or they stayed home, waiting to vote for Bloomberg.

Perhaps Weiner, by conceding, really has unified the party. But think of how he and Ferrer could have instantly pulled Democrats together by pulling themselves together. They could have divided the responsibilities and the titles any way they liked: Since Freddy finished in first place, and he’s earned the nominee title by running three times, and he enjoys playing the executive, let him be the above-the-fray candidate for “mayor.” Anthony—younger, more energetic, better with the media—could have been billed as the candidate for “vice-mayor” or for “first deputy mayor,” and on the campaign trail he could have taken the lead in slashing at Bloomberg.

It would have been a bold stroke, but that’s what’s necessary when confronting a mayor with a 64 percent approval rating, a strong first-term record, and $100 million in reelection cash to burn. The best ways to mount a stiff challenge are either through a celebrity candidacy (Bob Kerrey blew that option) or by capturing the imagination of a complacent electorate.

Sadly, neither camp called to ask my advice. There were plenty of reasons—practical, egotistical, perhaps even legal—for a Ferrer-Weiner ticket not to happen. And now of course it won’t. Weiner’s withdrawal made pragmatic sense. He avoids a long-shot, probably racially charged runoff. Even if he had somehow won, his reward would have been a stomping by Bloomberg. Instead, he’s being patted on the head by Democratic Party elders for taking the high road, his congressional committee assignments are likely to improve, and he’s in fine shape to run for mayor again in ’09—or for the Senate after President Hillary is sworn in.

Still, quitting looked lame. Weiner’s weakness is his opportunism, and dropping out fed the suspicion that his campaign was always fundamentally about raising his profile, not actually winning the race for mayor.

The next two weeks are now infinitely easier for Ferrer, who can regroup and try to raise some money. Normally, a primary victor also works to win over the people who voted for his rivals. Ferrer has already made moves in that direction, starting with last week’s “unity” press conference featuring Weiner, Fields, and Gifford Miller. But between now and November 8, Ferrer won’t waste much effort chasing Weiner’s voters.

That’s because of the chief lesson Ferrer’s key strategists learned in 2001, a lesson that was driven home again in last week’s primary. Four years ago, Ferrer was languishing far behind front-runner Mark Green, trading turns in third place with Alan Hevesi and Peter Vallone. It wasn’t until Ferrer began turning up the volume on his “two New Yorks” theme late in the campaign that he moved up in the polls, eventually shooting past Green to win the primary’s first round. As an analysis of New York’s changing demographics, “two cities” is fairly accurate. Yet the media pounded the Puerto Rican Ferrer, inferring a racial appeal, and Green won the runoff.

To beat Bloomberg, Ferrer needs to learn from the 2001 campaign and appeal to class, not race.

This time around, the Ferrer campaign held off as long as possible. But with two weeks to go in the 2005 primary campaign and his poll numbers stuck in the mid-thirties, Ferrer reached into the populist bag for a modified “two cities” argument. Then Al Sharpton came aboard. The combination was barely enough.

Ferrer’s primary-night speech spoke emphatically of “all of us,” and he is not by any stretch a racial radical. Yet in the general election, Ferrer’s strategists are counting on two factors to give him a real chance against Bloomberg. The first is free media, to beat back some of the mayor’s tens of millions in advertising. More important, they’re counting on a record Latino turnout. They don’t have many other good options.

The trick will be learning from what went wrong in 2001—and generating that turnout with an appeal to class, not race. Because when it comes to electing mayors, the core problem isn’t two cities. It’s two Democratic parties.

The Winning Ticket that Wasn’t