Field Memo: Mean Mark Green

It’s a big day for Mark Green, the moment he will throw caution to the wind and rip into his Democratic opponents in the U.S. Senate race. For the occasion, he has chosen safe territory, the offices of the Nation, where the fatherly Victor Navasky and a conference room filled with bright young summer interns greet him like a favorite son.

Green instantly tries to make everyone feel at home by encouraging his young supporters to take out their sandwiches and eat while he talks. Then, peering out on the room through his baby-blue eyes, his silver hair glistening like a halo, the fair-haired kid of New York City politics launches into his attack. “A New York senator has to be able to independently challenge donors, not just call them for money,” he says. He goes on to accuse Chuck Schumer of raising funds from the same people he’s supposed to regulate, and charges that Geraldine Ferraro has “disavowed her voting record.”

In a campaign in which the front-runner, Ferraro, is incredibly cautious and the top challenger, Schumer, is tirelessly blasting his résumé of legislative accomplishments to all corners of the state, the impecunious Green is the King of Free Media. He feeds the press a healthy diet of quips and zingers, and seizes any opportunity to stage a City Hall press conference, like the recent one to announce an endorsement from an obscure Asian-American group from Queens. “This won’t interest you,” he warned a group of beat reporters beforehand. Then, addressing a writer from the Post, he said, “Maybe I’ll get some coverage from you when Farrakhan endorses me.”

Green has a whole bag full of novelty one-liners that he reaches into for every audience. “Al D’Amato votes like Jesse Helms and campaigns like Jesse Jackson” – that’s one of Green’s staples. Unfortunately for him, the same sound bites that help him get on TV and in the newspapers often leave audiences cold.

Now, as the primary campaign nears the stretch run, Green is turning to harsher rhetoric – and directing it less at D’Amato and more at his Democratic rivals. The idealist has become the most ruthless candidate in the race. It’s something he knows how to do. In his famous 1986 Senate primary fight against millionaire John Dyson, Green generated free press by disclosing Dyson’s investments in companies doing business in South Africa. By the end of the campaign, Green’s quips had turned his hapless opponent into a poster boy for the aristocracy. “I’m the working Democrat versus the rich conservative,” Green said on numerous occasions.

“He got his training as a Nader acolyte, and Nader is the original attack dog,” says a former Dyson aide. “Nader had very little money but an ability to turn a phrase and turn an opponent’s size and wealth against him. To Mark Green, an opponent’s just another Pinto – find a flaw, call them a danger to the public, and create a sensation, or even a scandal.”

But Green maintains the moral high ground because his record has been so spotless. David Paterson says that when he ran against Green for public advocate in 1993, he looked in vain for some dirt on him. “I felt Mark is like a freshly painted room – if you dump a bucket of mud on him, it’ll stand out more than on anyone else,” he recalls.

Opposing strategists dismiss Green as too glib, too negative, too “snipey,” in the words of one. Widely considered a possible mayoral contender in 2001, he risks the fate that greeted Bella Abzug in 1976, when her combative Senate campaign soured voters on her 1977 mayoral campaign. “It takes some courage to do what he’s doing, because your Establishment colleagues consider you shrill,” says Paterson. “But if he didn’t do it, he’d wind up fourth, hoping he hadn’t offended anyone.”

Field Memo: Mean Mark Green