The Domino Theory

Having to compete with war, Anthrax, the Yankees, a 79 percent approval rating for Rudy, and a death-pile of lower-Manhattan rubble still burning itself out is probably not how Mark Green imagined it those many months ago when he lost the 1998 Senate primary and turned his sights to the mayoralty. And it’s certainly not how Mike Bloomberg imagined it last year, when he began dropping hints about running and when the mention of his name still inspired respectful curiosity, instead of the current rolling of the eyes. In this context, and save another “startling revelation” about Green’s past – This just in! New York has learned that Green once shook hands with Pete Seeger! – it’s hard to see what can change an outcome that seems increasingly foregone.

Actually, four things can. But they all have to happen, and they have to happen with a Fosse-esque synchronicity that to this point has proved well beyond either the terpsichorean talents of Team Bloomberg or the design of our mercurial municipal gods. That said, we have learned in the past two months that anything can happen, so here they are, along with odds.

First, Green has to make a major blunder. Maybe a mishandling of the Gramercy Park building collapse – the building was managed by Green’s brother, Stephen, a major commercial landlord who hasn’t been blamed for the collapse in any way but whose role in his brother’s campaign has attracted watchful eyes. Otherwise, a Gerald Fordian debate blooper, a statement that reminds the business lobby of its jitteriness about him, or a sudden, inexplicable lurch to the left that would permit his newly won and grudging admirers of the center and right to declaim that he has shown his “true colors.” Any of these things could happen. But Green is a skilled debater, soothed the business elite with a thoughtful performance at a Crain’s breakfast last week, and shows no signs of veering from the center-left playbook that has brought him this far. Odds: 4 to 1.

Second, the Bloomberg people have to capitalize on that mistake effectively. Since they haven’t done anything remotely like that so far, the odds on this one would seem pretty long. Still, a campaign’s final week does have a way of making operatives focus. I was hearing last week that Bloomberg’s media team was preparing an attack ad appropriating the tag line Green appended to his controversial Ferrer attack ads – “Can we afford to take a chance?” – for use against Green. That’s nothing more than a clever tweak, really, but it’s the kind of thing that can get bored reporters and insiders chattering and create a Green-on-the-defensive aroma that could change the way the story is reported in the papers. Odds: 5 to 1.

Third, Rudy needs to get involved in a big way. It’s believed the mayor will endorse Bloomberg, and he may have done it by the time you read this, although Bloomberg’s performance at George Pataki’s side last week didn’t help matters: How clueless do you have to be to receive a Republican governor’s endorsement, identify yourself as “a liberal,” and then walk off leaving the governor – the governor, for gosh sakes – standing alone at the podium?

I have two theories about Giuliani here. The first is based on the very old fact of political life that pols don’t jump on sinking ships. I figure Rudy is thinking that, if he backs Bloomberg and really gets into this thing, firing shots at Green for four or five days straight, he can probably swing eight points or so, shaving four off Green’s total and padding Bloomberg’s by four. He’d love to swing the election. But he’s not stupid, and he will not do it until there’s evidence that Bloomberg is within eight points or so in the polls, and that may never happen.

The second Rudy theory is even more persuasive. Many people think Giuliani will want to run for mayor again in 2005. If that’s the case, then it makes a very strong argument for his staying out of this race altogether. From an emotional if not tactical standpoint, he’d rather run against Green, so maybe he’d rather Green win this one. Furthermore, as one insider put it to me last week, “How does he endorse Bloomberg this time and then, if Bloomberg wins, run against him the next time?” Good question. And by the way, even if Giuliani does dive in, Green can answer with his own heavy artillery in the person of one recently retired Chappaqua memoirist. Odds: 4 to 1.

Finally, the first three ingredients would have to combine to create an atmosphere that makes voters decide to move away from Green en masse. Green’s support is somewhat soft and always has been. There may be a lot of voters out there who, not being wild for Green, are willing to vote for Bloomberg and might do so if they felt he had a chance to win. It’s a game of electoral chicken, or a version of what the political scientists call game theory. There may be, say, 200,000 voters around the city who are willing to drop Green and move to Bloomberg – Upper East Side Democrats, outer-borough Jews and Catholics, some blacks and Latinos who are angry at Green about his runoff tactics. But groups tend to follow a vanguard, which means that the 200,000 won’t budge until they see the first 20,000 go, and no one sees a good reason to make the first move.

One area of the city to watch for this effect is the 45th Assembly district in southern Brooklyn, which includes Sheepshead Bay and Manhattan Beach. In the runoff, says Assemblyman Mike Geller, the district went for Green over Ferrer by nine to one. Geller backed Giuliani in 1997 but was an early Green supporter in this election. He thinks “it’ll be a close race” in the 45th next Tuesday, but he says Green’s experience with governance will put him over the top. “He was a heartbeat away from the mayoralty for eight years,” Geller says, “and regardless of whether he and Giuliani liked each other or not, people out here will go toward Green because of that experience.” Odds: 7 to 1.

So there you are. Will all this happen? Staggeringly unlikely would be one way to put it, but we do have to play these things out. I mean, there’s always 1982, when Mario Cuomo overcame a 22-point Ed Koch lead in two weeks and won the gubernatorial primary.

But that was Mario Cuomo, one of the innately brilliant pols of our time. Bloomberg ain’t that. Some have argued that the World Trade Center attack proved to us that we have to take government seriously again. Bloomberg, for whom this campaign still seems a bored rich guy’s hobby, demonstrates that we should take seriously the question of who governs us. Mark Green may not be FDR, but at least he’s on more than a vanity mission.


The Domino Theory