Four Donkeys on a Trail

Fernando Ferrer (left) and Manhattan Borough President C. Virginia Fields.Photo: Bruce Gilden/Magnum

It’s a classic of city political campaigning, virtually unchanged since the subway opened in 1904: The candidate stands at an entrance and shakes hands while nearby volunteers thrust literature into the hands of commuters. Yet this year’s mayoral contenders are confronting a fresh menace.

“The iPod,” Gifford Miller says, smiling and remaining resolutely upbeat. “This is a whole new hazard in campaigning. We have to come up with something to jam the iPods!” The fresh-faced, shirt-sleeved speaker of the City Council is standing at the corner of Smith and President Streets in Carroll Gardens at 8 A.M. on a cloudy Thursday morning, shaking hands with air. Another wearer of white earphones blows past Miller, probably the tenth in the past five minutes, and descends into the F-train station. “You learn very fast not to let being ignored bother you,” Miller says, “or you can’t run for office.”

Nothing stops these four from running. Gifford Miller, C. Virginia Fields, Fernando Ferrer, and Anthony Weiner are out there every day of the week, relentlessly crisscrossing the city and often each other. They appear together at dozens of “mayoral forums,” and those can be revealing. But in group appearances, the candidates often come across as two-dimensional characters in the Democratic Four, an overage pop band: the boyish one, the black one, the serious one, and the funny one.

To get a distilled sense of the candidates’ strengths and weaknesses—and an appreciation for the stamina and the intellectual dexterity necessary to run for office in New York—you need to see each one grappling with the summer heat and cranky voters. In a couple of months, the Dems will turn to the deadening intermediaries of modern politics: direct mail, TV ads, union endorsements. Yet to win September’s primary, when a mere 700,000 are likely to vote, Miller, Fields, Ferrer, and Weiner are trying to make literal contact with as many people as possible. And no matter who wins the primary, a grassroots foundation, laid during grueling midsummer days, may be the Democrats’ only real November hope against Michael Bloomberg’s $100 million onslaught.

Gifford Miller
Hi, i’m Gifford Miller, I’m running for mayor,” he says over and over for more than an hour, thrusting out his right hand. “Sorry—I have a life!” one woman snarls, not breaking stride. When people say, “Good luck!” but keep moving, Miller shouts to the back of their heads, “You’re my luck!” It’s corny, earnest, and it always gets a laugh.

One married couple stops for a chat and mentions a recent stabbing in Carroll Park. Policy opening! “The Police Department has all these statistics,” Miller says, “but they don’t break down the numbers for crime in parks. As mayor, I’d have a CompStat for parks, so you’d know what was happening and the police would be put on notice.”

“The police have been great, actually,” the husband and wife say instantly and nearly at the same time. “They responded right away.” Miller doesn’t have a comeback. He just nods. The moment illustrates a central point that Miller, and the other Democrats, should take from their travels: I’ll be a little better than Bloomberg isn’t enough of a rallying cry.

C. Virginia Fields
Politicians? They never come to see us.”

About an hour after Miller leaves Brooklyn, a teacher is watching a high-school graduation ceremony. The school, P.S. 10X, is a special-education program that’s squeezed into a battered mobile-home-like structure hidden behind a housing project in Edenwald, a North Bronx neighborhood hard by the New England Thruway. Today’s celebration is in a slightly cheerier facility on the other side of I-95, a conference room with suburban-basement-style wood paneling, a stage, and a disco ball hanging from the ceiling, on the second floor of a strip mall in the middle of Co-op City. Kids in electric-blue caps and gowns climb the stairs past Kennedy Fried Chicken, Sheer Elegance Hair & Nail Salon, and the empty space that used to house China Boy Kitchen.

Graduation ceremonies are always fraught, but emotions are especially high today. The décor mixes the festive and the heartbreaking—gold and silver balloons are tied to each table, floating above padded helmets belonging to students. The entire senior class of fifteen kids has severe developmental disabilities, and many of the students have been at P.S. 10X since kindergarten. This is to be the school’s final graduating class: The Department of Education has decided to shrink the school and scatter many of its teachers to other programs. Some of the staff learned of the decision just last week, adding anger to the sense of loss.

The teacher in the back of the room doesn’t want her name used, for fear of bureaucratic retribution. But she is surprised and thrilled when the graduation’s guest speaker strides to the podium. It’s C. Virginia Fields, the Manhattan borough president, wearing a light-blue pantsuit. Fields mentions her pre-political career as a social worker, but otherwise—wisely and gracefully—stays away from the overtly political. Instead, she keeps the spotlight on the graduating class. “Let’s give these wonderful students a rousing round of applause!” she says, clapping loudest herself. “They did not get here without lots of love, care, and support from the community. You never gave up, so they never gave up! We must never give up on anyone in our community! I’m committed that we will never overlook or deny the opportunities that our graduates deserve.”

Many voters remain unhappy with the substance of the public schools, and the style with which Bloomberg has made changes. And the city’s many unglamorous neighborhoods feel a particular distance from the billionaire mayor. These are two openings for the Democrats, Fields in particular, because her up-from-segregation life story and record as borough president give her a genuine rapport with the disenfranchised. As Fields leaves, the young teacher in the back of the room intercepts the mayoral candidate and wraps her in a hug. “It’s so important that she came here today,” the teacher says later. “We’re not a high priority at all in this city. Somebody finally came and recognized us! Certainly Mayor Bloomberg hasn’t.”

Fernando Ferrer
Ninety minutes later and 260 blocks south, on the top floor of the NYU student center, Fernando Ferrer takes to a podium high above Washington Square Park to address 200 senior citizens gathered for lunch and a mayoral forum. Floor-to-ceiling windows offer glorious views of the sun-drenched city. Ferrer looks impressively, credibly mayoral in a navy-blue suit. Yet things get off to a testy start.

There’s an undertow of chatter and clinking silverware as Ferrer begins his remarks. He stops and stares at a noisy table to his left. “Talk all you want,” he says. “I’ll have another sip of my coffee.” Which he does, slowly, until the room quiets.

Nevertheless, Ferrer’s remarks about the city’s “crisis of affordability” go over well, and he finishes to loud applause. Ferrer, say the polls, is the Democratic front-runner by a double-digit margin, and after a couple of months of fumbling and staff changes, he’s back to resolutely acting the part of top dog, exuding confidence and gravity. Yet in trying to project himself as Bloomberg’s only worthy adversary, Ferrer sometimes struggles to connect with voters. Today, after his speech, the former Bronx borough president works the room, smiling broadly as he compliments the outfits of grandmotherly audience members. All is warm and well until Ferrer reaches Table 18.

You invited me here—but you don’t want to hear my speech,” says Ferrer. “You want to make a speech!” An aide is whispering to Ferrer, “We need to go.”

“Tell me something,” says a cinder block of a man who looks to be about 75 and will give his name only as Andy. “I get a 1.7 percent raise on Social Security. I get a 7.5 percent rise on my rent. Tell me how that balances!”

“I’ll tell you how that balances,” Ferrer says, loading up what he apparently intends as street-smart banter. “You eat less.”

“Yeah, I eat less!” Andy growls back. “And all you people in government do nothing about it!”

“Then you didn’t hear what I said a minute ago—”

“Yeah, I heard what you said,” Andy says. “But I don’t see what you do! You guys come around and make all these promises, and then we don’t see you for four years!”

“Hey, you invited me,” he says to Andy. “If you want to hear my answer, I’m glad to tell you.” And he moves to shake someone else’s hand.

Andy mutters to a woman on his right, “Ah, they’re all bullshit artists.”

Ferrer wheels around. “Ahhh-ha!” he says. “Okay, thank you very much! You invited me here—but you don’t want to hear my speech. You want to make a speech!” An aide is whispering to Ferrer, “We need to go.”

“That guy had a right to be angry,” Ferrer says later. “Those are serious problems. And I was willing to listen, until he went off the deep end. I know that housing, jobs, and the quality of the schools are almost universal issues in this city. But this kind of human-scale campaigning reminds you there’s a human face in front of every problem.” Now all Ferrer needs are attractive solutions. Angry Andy isn’t the only voter unsatisfied with his answers so far—or uncharmed by Ferrer’s occasional peevishness.

Anthony Weiner
Three hours later, one candidate’s seat is empty at a forum sponsored by the National Organization for Women. The fourth person in the field, Anthony Weiner, has a day job representing a slice of Brooklyn and Queens in Congress, and often misses weekday campaign events. Tonight he’s stuck on Capitol Hill until midnight, waiting for budget votes.

Which makes Weiner’s weekends particularly frenetic. On the Saturday after Miller joked with Brooklyn commuters, Fields congratulated Bronx students, and Ferrer jousted with Greenwich Village seniors, Weiner races between three Queens high-school graduations, a Flag Day ceremony, and a Brooklyn street fair, then zips over to Staten Island. The Metropolitan Opera is presenting a concert performance of Samson et Dalila inside the minor-league baseball stadium that’s home to the Staten Island Yankees. “Beautiful night, free concert, and it’s Staten Island,” says Weiner, who is slightly more moderate on issues than his three Democratic rivals. “Should be a big crowd.”

Except he gets there too early. The ballpark is deserted when Weiner rolls up. But from the stadium steps, he can see a ferry approaching from Manhattan. Weiner’s off to the terminal, where he spends fifteen minutes intercepting ferry passengers. That crowd dissipated, Weiner jumps back in the car. He passed a Western Beef on the way here; there must be people in the supermarket! Then, 30 minutes later, it’s back to the ballpark/opera house.

Weiner is about to bound through the stadium gates when a security guard, looking very Reno 911 in shorts and badge, blocks his path. No passing out literature in the ballpark, the guard tells the congressman. “Isn’t this a city facility?” Weiner parries, before giving in: Okay, he’ll just talk to people. Which the guard doesn’t realize is a losing compromise. Literature, shmiterature: The only way to hurt Weiner is to stop him from talking.

Anthony Weiner, tied for last in the polls, is learning that there’s a fine line between cracking jokes and becoming one.

Weiner is the mayoral candidate who genuinely seems to enjoy people, and he has a quip for every moment. The congressman is a prolific proposer of new government policies, but tonight is purely for shtick. A black woman complains that, unlike free concerts in every other city park, she wasn’t allowed to bring in food. “Girlfriend, you gotta elect me mayor so I can change that!” Weiner says. A 6-year-old boy asks if Weiner is a school principal. “No, but I make a lot of rules!” Weiner says. “Tell your mom you met me and I seem like a nice fella.”

He strides down the stadium aisle to the seats behind home plate, which are shielded from the field by a net; the orchestra is set up behind second base. “Folks, we have a few safety announcements about tonight’s opera!” he yells to the patrons. “There’s a lot of foul balls in this concert!”

Two women are sitting behind Weiner, watching him tummel. “Who does he look like?” asks the first. “That guy on M*A*S*H! What’s his name? Corporal Klinger!”

“Jamie Farr!” cackles her companion. “You’re right!”

Charging back up the aisle, Weiner talks about education with a vice-principal from his alma mater, Brooklyn Tech; encounters two women who are clients of Weiner’s lawyer father; hollers “My mishpocheh!” when he sees the driver’s license of another man named Weiner. “Help me get through college!” hollers Matt, a beer vendor. “I go to Mount Saint Vincent, and I’m gonna be a teacher.”

“Dude, you don’t know how much I want a beer right now,” Weiner says, laughing and starting to walk away. Then he stops. “You’re going to be a teacher? Call me up when I’m mayor and you got a job!” Then Weiner buys a Miller Genuine Draft.

As he dashes around the five boroughs, Weiner is seeing that there’s a fine line between cracking jokes and becoming one. Unless he climbs out of a tie for last place in the polls soon, his challenge is to build name recognition and positive feeling for a possible 2009 run. The risk is that Weiner will be remembered as an also-ran whose greatest contribution this time around was comic relief.

“The four of us Democrats are going through the same things, and we’re all trying to beat Bloomberg, so we have that bond, but we’re trying to beat one another, too,” Weiner says, slowing down for one minute. “So the four people who understand best what this is like are not friends. It’s actually a lonely thing, running for mayor.”

Out past left field, the sun is setting gold and orange into New York Harbor. A tenor is gliding into a gorgeous aria. But Anthony Weiner’s beer bottle is empty. He’s off to Rockaway, searching for more hands to shake.

Four Donkeys on a Trail