Disappearing Act

On primary night, in Mark Green’s ballroom at the Sheraton, I looked around and saw congregated the better part of the city’s liberal intelligentsia. Here sat Victor and Annie Navasky, engaging as always; next to them, Sarah Kovner, former Donna Shalala aide and the Navaskys’ West 67th Street neighbor and friend (and sometimes friendly foe) in many an election scrimmage over the years; just up from Sarah, Ellen Chesler, acclaimed biographer of Margaret Sanger and, once, a longtime aide to Carol Bellamy; and Jerry Goldfeder, reform-movement election lawyer nonpareil, out of Harold Ickes’s old political club.

I thought about all the primary nights, going back to the Lindsay era, when they and the many others who, broadly speaking, share their politics must have gathered in one hotel ballroom or another. Most of those nights, in this city in this era, had to have been happy ones. But the emotional energy at the Sheraton that night was roughly that of a hospital waiting room. People tried to shrug the results off, but you could feel it: There was nervousness, even shock. Nothing in anyone’s experience had prepared people for the fact that Mark Green was actually finishing second to a guy from the Bronx. And not only that – a guy from the Bronx who didn’t even really bother to court their votes. Who said to them, essentially, I can do this without you. And guess what. It looks like maybe he can.

Everybody has an answer for the question of what’s happened to Mark Green, now facing the most important week of his political life. The first you’ll hear is that it’s his personality. Many who’ve dealt with him regard him as graceless and arrogant. He’s got a wife everyone loves and two kids who seem pretty solid, so he must be doing something right; but he has rubbed too many people the wrong way. Like Peter Vallone. The day after the primary, Vallone’s people put out word that Green had called Vallone fifteen minutes after the polls closed and urged him to concede. It apparently wasn’t true, or was at least embellished from a less noxious truth; but those who know Green had to admit that it sounded plausible. Or like Ed Koch. Whatever reasons Koch used to defend his endorsement of Fernando Ferrer, there’s really only one: He hates Mark Green.

The second is that he ran a low-risk, just-don’t-fumble campaign that didn’t counter Ferrer’s surge as well as it should have. After Al Sharpton endorsed Ferrer, Green needed something big to get the story back. A major union. A counterintuitive coup of some sort. Instead, he glided.

These reasons are real enough. But there’s a third and more historical argument as well. In the past decade, Mark Green’s New York has shrunk.

It turns out that Freddy Ferrer has understated the case. There aren’t two New Yorks; there are three. The first New York is Rudy Giuliani’s. It’s the real-estate board, the New York City Partnership (the Chamber of Commerce with a fancy name), the financial-services industry, Rupert Murdoch, Mort Zuckerman (most of the time), George Steinbrenner, the archdiocese, and the people who used to stick Bill Reel’s old Daily News columns about that retiring monsignor in Corona up on their refrigerators. This New York had been in spiritual if not actual retreat for some 30 years going back to the sixties. But it roared back to life with a vengeance when Rudy took over. Rudy gave them all new power, and a reason to reassert themselves.

The second New York – the “other New York” – is Ferrer’s. It’s health-care workers and hotel staff and unionized municipal employees, who are Latino, black, young, immigrant, poor, working-class, and basically invisible to people who never travel underground. The members of this New York grudgingly accept the existence of the first New York, but they don’t have much truck with it, and they certainly don’t like its figurehead.

And finally, there is this in-between New York. This is the New York of … well, this is the problem. It’s the New York of the Times (usually, anyway), Zabar’s and Fairway, Paul Simon, Charlie Rose’s show, what remains of the city’s Jewish intellectual tradition – in other words, of white liberalism. It’s still a powerful New York bloc. We can tell this because conservatives still expend a great deal of energy inveighing against it.

But in the past decade, it has been squeezed from both sides. Rudy’s New York has taken some of its old turf. In 1993 and 1997, Rudy gobbled up votes by the tens of thousands from this New York. And in the aftermath of the World Trade Center attack, he had a lot of this New York eating out of his hand (and lost, I think, only a small measure of goodwill as a result of his mayor-for-life shenanigans). And Freddy’s New York has horned in, too. There is, as they say, power in numbers, and Malcolm Gladwell could do this better than I can, but I’m sure there must exist a cultural tipping point at which “minorities” – maybe, come to think of it, it’s when they become the majority – say to the white comrades who once sponsored them, We can do this without your help now.

This, ultimately, is a big part of what Green is up against. A political infrastructure he had grown up with and come to count on began to crumble away on him. And then he alienated – to what degree, we won’t know until the returns come in – his New York by agreeing to Rudy’s three-month extension deal. And then he was placed in the very difficult position of fishing for votes in Rudy’s New York. He may get enough of them to squeak by Thursday, but some of them will have voted for him just to stop the other guy. Mark Green, white-backlash candidate?

In some ways, I suppose, he deserves it – as Mom said, it pays to be nice to people – but in a lot of other ways, he doesn’t. He is, of the three men standing, the most competent. He has consistently shown a creative intuition about what government can do. His capitulation to Giuliani’s deal aside, he does have a history, a longer history than Ferrer, of taking on people and interests more powerful than he and beating them. And, to tether things to our new post-September 11 reality, the argument he laid out in the recent debates for keeping the financial-services industry in lower Manhattan makes more sense than Ferrer’s idea of spreading the work around to the other boroughs.

All the above is true, but most of it has been lost in the crosstalk, shouted down by the more vocal New Yorks represented by Rudy and, in truth, not Ferrer so much as the man who made his candidacy, Sharpton. Green has a few precious hours to do some shouting of his own.

E-mail: tomasky@aol.com

Disappearing Act