Three-Legged Race

Given what’s going on in Washington, Democrats would probably like nothing more than a little peace and quiet right now. And while it may not have the drama of an impeachment proceeding, a race like this year’s Senate campaign doesn’t roll around very often. For color, ambition, and the size of the personalities involved, you have to go back to the 1980 Democratic primary for U.S. Senate, when the combatants included Bess Myerson, John Lindsay, and Elizabeth Holtzman (and, oh, yeah, John Santucci).

This year’s model features three contestants every bit as well known – a history- and soda-commercial-making woman, the city’s most effective and cash-flush member of Congress, and a liberal consumer activist with friends like Carly Simon and Al Franken who’s become a New York fixture.

Great political races are all too rare these days – witness last year’s lugubrious mayoral election. But the Democratic senate primary, though months away, already has the makings of a drama worthy of the pen of a Carlyle. It’s not merely that the candidates are three of New York’s top politicians. They’re also three of the hungriest, each intensely motivated for his or her own reasons. This much collective ambition hasn’t landed in one place since Bill and Hillary met in the law-school library.

And it will all be played out against the backdrop of a 1992 race that was the slummiest in New York’s recent history. The candidates vow that it won’t be repeated; the press, of course, hopes it will be. So, naturally, does the man waiting in the wings to take on the winner. Democrats worry that this election will leave their beleaguered party in worse shape than it’s in now, but at least the next eight months should make being a Democrat fun again.

Perhaps understandably, Geraldine Ferraro looks at the 1992 senate primary and sees theft, victory stolen from her by foes who did her dirt. And that race appears to provide Ferraro’s chief rationale for running this time: I wuz robbed and I wants me revenge.

From the point of view of Ferraro partisans, her political career is a series of bleak calumnies and indignities – the charges hurled at her in 1984, in part because she was a woman and because it’s so hard to be The First anything, and the attack ads of 1992. We might call this the Woman Wronged by History school, which holds further that if she keeps trying, the gods are bound to do right by her.

But there’s another way to look at Ferraro’s career: the How Did She Get Here Anyway? school. A three-term member of Congress without any major legislative coups to her credit, Ferraro had nothing except her sex to recommend her as a vice-presidential candidate. There is a suspicion among the city’s political insiders that someone who hasn’t held office since 1984, and didn’t accomplish a great deal when she did, doesn’t have much of a rationale for being a senator, either. It might wash if she were running against a rich businessman and a leftie insurgent, whose qualifications she would easily match. But she’s facing two smart, experienced candidates who can tick off accomplishments the way waiters at pricey restaurants recite the specials.

The suspicion has defined Ferraro’s early coverage. Everything looked great – for about 48 hours. Ferraro and her family met at their Forest Hills home on January 4 with advisers Robert Shrum, David Eichenbaum, and Kate Lacey, and, by phone, pollster Celinda Lake. And the following day, before a frantic skein of local and national media in a ballroom at the Sheraton New York, she announced that she’d give it one last shot. The timing was perfect, and Ferraro surely thought things would be different this time, that the ghosts of the 1992 campaign would not rise up.

By the next morning, though, those ghosts were making noises. In the Daily News, columnist Jim Dwyer scorched Ferraro. Two days later, Bob Herbert wrote in the Times that she had everything – except an actual record of achievement. Later, a Times editorial knocked her. Then Maureen Dowd took the scalpel to her on the Times op-ed page. Last Sunday, Herbert was back into her again. And the Post, in the service of its man D’Amato, did its bit, tying her to a union leader suspected of mob connections.

Not even two weeks in the race, Ferraro had managed a rare trifecta: slammed in all three papers, from left, right, and center. This was indeed different from 1992: For all the nastiness Ferraro was subjected to that year, it didn’t start until late August, just three weeks before the primary. This time, she’s being hammered before she even gets her shoes laced up.

Eichenbaum argues that this is just the press correcting itself. The media studied the announcement coverage, he says, and thought, “ ‘Oh, my God, look at all the attention and all the positive press. That’s crazy. We’ve got to bring her down a little bit.’ That’s primarily what it’s been.”

Ferraro, as you might guess, doesn’t see things so negatively. “No, on the contrary,” she says, “if you take a look at the press we’ve been getting since before the announcement, it’s been mind-boggling. I really didn’t expect this kind of enthusiasm.” She got a couple of favorable columns, but in general, either she’s spinning or she hasn’t been reading.

It’s true that any front-runner, which Ferraro has more or less been declared on the basis of early and meaningless polls that measure recognition only, will take more hits than the opposition. But there’s more at work here. Time may prove that the people feel differently, but many who make politics their business don’t trust her motives and just seem a little … tired of her. “She’s already made major mistakes,” says NYU’s Mitchell Moss. “ ‘I don’t want to debate, I got tired making phone calls.’ She’s looking more and more like Arthur Goldberg,” the once-front-running gubernatorial candidate of 1962 whose name is now synonymous with political immolation.

Ferraro’s fortunes can change – campaigns are long. And she insists that she has a strong record of achievement, highlighted by a pension-equity bill that Ronald Reagan signed into law in 1984. “We did a lot of good things in the short time we were down there,” she says. “If I had not been picked to run in 1984 – and it was a wonderful experience, and I was very happy to be able to open doors for women – I would probably still be in Congress.”

In the end, what she’s got that Green and Schumer don’t is, simply, who she is – Ferraro can be very charming, and as a woman who has had to stand in the fire, she can make appeals to emotion and our common fallibility that her brainiac opponents can’t. But “what have you done?” and “Why, exactly, are you running?” are questions she’ll find it tough to shake.

Whether Ferraro does indeed fall depends on whether Green or Schumer can rise.

Green, the old Nader’s Raider with his long history of consumer and cause-connected warfare, has lusted after the senate most of his adult life, and it would fulfill his greatest dream to get there by beating D’Amato. Today the conventional wisdom has him finishing third, behind Ferraro’s fame and Schumer’s fortune. “Good,” he says. “Been there. Done that. Since the conventional wisdom said that Hugh Carey, Liz Holtzman, Mario Cuomo, Mark Green, and Bob Abrams wouldn’t win their primaries, I couldn’t be happier.”

His case is as follows: He’s won citywide office twice in recent years, both times with more votes than Rudy Giuliani had. Nearly 60 percent of a statewide primary electorate is from New York City. He’s the only one of the three to have won a statewide primary – he beat John Dyson in the senate primary in 1986, when Dyson and his millions were heavily favored. If he’s a touch more liberal than the other two – he’s the only one against the death penalty, for example – that’s just fine to primary voters, a highly self-selecting, overeducated, overopinionated vanguard for whom Green is a good fit.

“Watch Green,” says consultant Hank Sheinkopf. “Look at ‘86. He did it in the same kind of setting. Outspent ten to one, understands Democratic primaries.”

Right now, Green’s playing a little game, testing the limits of legitimate attack. This, of course, will be the race’s Big Question: What’s legitimate criticism of Ferraro, and what isn’t? Green says that “recycling a slander about an opponent’s family member is a late hit, out of bounds, wrong, and it won’t happen, but clearly we should contrast voting records, positions, histories.” Sounds benign enough. But there are ethics questions from Ferraro’s past that she hasn’t answered fully. Green sounds as though he might be more likely to raise them than Schumer, who hasn’t even mentioned Ferraro’s name yet. Depending on the circumstances, it might be entirely right and necessary to raise such questions, but there’s political risk involved, too. Green can be too cutesy sometimes with his sound-bite-speak. If a pro-Ferraro backlash hits, it might hit him harder than Schumer.

For Schumer, the strategy is straightforward. Not many voters know much about him, and he’s never sought votes beyond a single congressional district, but $8 million finds a way of taking care of those problems. “When Schumer went on TV,” says consultant Dick Morris, “that was the beginning of the end for Ferraro and D’Amato. He’s buying 500 points a week, which means the average person sees five commercials a week. With $8 million, he can keep it up straight through November. While free media focuses on Ferraro, nobody focuses on Schumer, and he advertises his way to a win.”

Money isn’t Schumer’s sole qualification. He’s passed several pieces of major legislation, notably the Brady gun-control bill. He’s sure that once people know these things, he’ll vault. “I’ve done it the right way,” he says. “I’ve worked hard. I’ve legislated. I’ve done things that have improved people’s lives, and that’s what a senator should do.”

About this time last year, Schumer was talking to reporters about the things a governor should do. Early in 1994, the late Saul Weprin, then the assembly speaker, called Schumer and asked him to think about running for governor if Mario Cuomo didn’t. Cuomo did, but Schumer kept thinking. He finally decided, he says, to do what he knows, but his dance has led some insiders to wonder about his commitment to this race; rumors persist that if he doesn’t gain ground by the summer, he’ll drop out. “Not possible,” he says – for better or worse, this is his shot.

Whoever wins, two long careers will probably end here. Ferraro will be finished if she loses; Schumer will do something he’s never done, i.e., find a job in the private sector; only Green might carry on.

Of course, three might end. The question of D’Amato’s vulnerability is very much an open one, but he does seem to find a way. He will benefit, again, from the calendar – with a September 15 primary, the Democratic winner will have seven brief weeks.

But what happens after September 15 will be very much a function of what’s gone down before. This could be a clean race. As the summer winds down, though, someone’s going to be in third place. And given how badly all three ache for this job, whoever that someone is may be reaching for some mud to sling.

Three-Legged Race