Mark My Words

We might think of last week as the beginning of Mayor Bloomberg’s reelection campaign. The Times handed him a nice front-page piece announcing that the city was on the mend fiscally. He spent almost a full day in Queens, and he even went to the Dominican Republic, and not just to golf.

Meanwhile, Democrats are thinking about 2005, too. Chief among them is Mark Green, who led Bloomberg as late as the 8 p.m. exit polls on Election Night 2001. Green told me last week—this is the first time he’s said this—that he’s seriously considering running again.

“I’m not done,” he says. “I’m going to continue the career of public service I love.” Right now, he’s writing a book with Nation columnist Eric Alterman called The Book on Bush: How George W. (Mis)leads America, to be published in January 2004. Then, he says, “I’ll decide whether to run either for mayor in 2005 or attorney general in 2006 should Eliot Spitzer leave the office.”

There’s been a fair amount of talk among insiders about Green maybe running for attorney general. It sort of makes sense. But the money part of that quote is his interest in the mayoralty. Does that make sense?

Well, it’s too early to say, because, for Democrats, the 2001 election still isn’t over. It’s being contested right now in the pages of the New York Sun, where Jack Newfield and Colin Miner have written a series of pieces trying to nail the Green campaign on everything from alleged money-laundering to racial arson in the form of the well-known last-minute flyers distributed in white areas of Brooklyn reprinting a Post cartoon of Fernando Ferrer kissing the grotesquely corpulent backside of Al Sharpton.

If Green wants to run and win in 2005, he needs to win the “election” of 2003: Green vs. Newfield.

The Sun has reported that Brooklyn D.A. Joe Hynes is probing the Green campaign about $245,000 in payments to Brooklyn Democratic boss Clarence Norman made during the race, and to find out who paid for those flyers. With regard to the former, words like bribery have been tossed around, although what it is that might raise these payments to the level of prosecutable act isn’t clear. Major campaigns give money to local pols and clubs all the time, for get-out-the-vote efforts and such. To be sure, the Green campaign’s payments to Norman were unusually large. But knowing what I know about both Green and Norman, the payments’ size suggests to me that the Green people were more suckers than lawbreakers (for example, the News reported that over $90,000 of that money went to Norman confidante Jacqueline Ward for “consulting fees”). And even if the Green team failed to report fully how the money was spent, which is apparently true, that’s more likely a campaign-finance violation than a criminal act.

But the hot-button issue here is race: the flyers. Green is still furious that he was labeled a racist. “Let’s be fair,” he says. “There was no question about my commitment to racial inclusion and communities of color until some idiot or idiots distributed a cartoon flyer on the last day in Brooklyn that I didn’t know about and that I denounced.”

The flyers’ distributors remain unfingered, but their designer, says the Sun, is Micah Lasher. And last week, Lasher told Newfield and Miner that they were okayed by Richard Schrader, Green’s campaign manager. (Schrader’s attorney told the Sun his client played no such role.)

Now: Whether Mark Green ever becomes mayor is his concern. But an honest reckoning of events is my concern. So here goes:

The 2001 mayoral campaign was “racialized” from its inception by the Ferrer camp. The whole point of the campaign was to forge a black-Latino coalition. And the linchpin of that coalition wasn’t Derek Jeter. It was the most inflammatory figure in New York politics.

The Ferrer campaign had an explicit deal with Sharpton under which the Reverend Al agreed to back Ferrer after Roberto Ramirez, Ferrer’s campaign manager, threw his support to a Sharpton ally against a white incumbent in a Bronx congressional race in 2000. Ferrer’s campaign was built around Sharpton’s endorsement.

Sorry—you cannot do that and then make three, four, and five appearances a day with Sharpton, as Ferrer often did, and expect no blowback; and then, when the blowback arrives, turn it around on your opponent by crying “racism!” It was not racism. It was Sharptonism. Al Sharpton is not the black race. Al Sharpton is a particular guy with a particular history of deceit and incitement. Ferrer Velcroed himself to Al and expected—no, demanded—that there be no consequences. It’s an odd logic when a campaign can present itself as an explicitly racial alliance but be immune to having anyone point that out.

Green was urged repeatedly—by editorial boards, white supporters, and others—to criticize Ferrer’s reliance on Sharpton; he took the high road and refused. But then some campaign aides did something without his knowledge—and even most people who don’t like Green tend to believe his assertion that he didn’t know about the flyers—and he then immediately denounced what they did. It seems absurd for anyone to hold that against him.

Newfield insists he doesn’t. When I asked him if he believes Green when he says he didn’t know about the flyers, Jack said, “I have no reason not to believe him.” Newfield supported Ferrer in 2001, and it’s not illogical to think he’ll do so again in 2005. But he says his and Miner’s only goal was to find out who authorized the flyers. “I think we’ve made very limited claims here,” Newfield says. “We haven’t made claims about Mark. I think all we’ve said is the flyers were distributed by the campaign and paid for by the campaign, in cash.”

Miner adds: “If anyone is portraying our reporting as a defense of Freddy and an attack on Mark as being racially divisive, I think that is an inaccurate and distorted portrayal. Our reporting focuses on possible violations of campaign-finance rules and the law.”

Narrowly construed, this is true. But as Newfield and Miner surely know, the larger world doesn’t care about the image of Rich Schrader or Ralph Perfetto or Fran Miller or John Kest (the other Green aides named in Sun stories). To the extent that their stories end up doing any political damage, that damage won’t be to aides the public has never heard of. It will be to Mark Green.

“Even most people who don’t like Green tend to believe his assertion that he didn’t know about the flyers.”

“All you need to know about Jack is what Ed Koch said twenty years ago,” says Green. “He’s a politician with a press pass. Anyone who repeatedly implies that I’m a corrupt racist because of those flyers and who then uses those cartoons to justify keeping a Democrat out of City Hall doesn’t know me and doesn’t understand the stakes.”

“I think Mark has been overreacting,” Newfield says. All Green had to do, he continues, was find out who did the flyers and fire them: “Then, Ferrer would have campaigned for him in Latino neighborhoods, and he’d be mayor today.”

Well, yes. But Green did ask his people at the time who was responsible, and he got denials all around. Was he to fire people on the basis of newspaper allegations and suspicions?

Green has his own issues to sort out. “I made my share of mistakes in the campaign,” he admits. “I was too hurried, and too abrupt with people. I was too self-confident, and I lectured more than I listened.”

Okay. That’s a start. But then I asked him if he understood how his Post-9/11 claim on WLIB radio that “if, God forbid, I had been the mayor during such a calamity, I would have done as well or better than Rudy Giuliani” might have landed clumsily on the ears of many voters. He was still very hesitant to concede the point, calling it only “a temporary political mistake.”

Green’s much-discussed arrogance problem is real. He makes a joke, and I think he genuinely thinks he sounds self-deprecating. But he actually sounds self-regarding. His attempt at humor when Dennis Rivera endorsed him against Bloomberg just made everyone in the room cringe—and must have made Rivera, who was not exactly endorsing Green with bells on, livid. Green needs to ask someone he trusts to sit him down and explain this situation to him frankly.

But there are other things we need to be frank about, too. Like the fact that once Ferrer lost the runoff, he and his allies determined that Green had to lose. I have to wonder why Democrats don’t care more about this. Real Republicans hate John McCain, but McCain supported George W. Bush after Bush beat him—and believe me, compared with the whispering campaigns Bush supporters launched against McCain in the 2000 South Carolina and Michigan primaries, what the Green camp did to Ferrer was a love tap.

Conventional wisdom today seems to accept Ferrer as a victim and Green as a villain—because of something that most people agree he had no knowledge of. That’s pretty unconventional, and not very wise.

Mark My Words