Crashing Green’s Party

Photo: AP/Wide World

On the most important day of his political life, Mark Green was, understandably, a little distracted. Sitting on a burgundy Art Deco-style sofa in the living room of his Upper East Side apartment, the usually relaxed, even cocky candidate was uneasy. He shuffled his feet. He rubbed his hands on his legs. And every time the phone rang, he looked up expectantly as a young aide took messages. * It was the middle of the afternoon on primary day – still too early for the first exit polls, when he would learn that Fernando Ferrer was running a couple of points ahead of him. Visible through the window were ominous clouds that hung low over the East River.

For months, Green had campaigned with a comfortable lead in a race no one seemed to care much about. But in the last week before the primary, Green could see Fernando Ferrer gaining on him. And then, on the morning of September 11, everything changed.

The sleepy race was transformed into probably the most important – and certainly the most bizarre – moment in the history of New York politics. The primary was postponed. Campaigning was suspended. Mayor Giuliani, nearly killed in the first hour after the attack when the south tower came down, took charge completely (no surprise). But he also showed remarkable (this raised eyebrows) compassion, sympathy, and powers of unification.

Throughout the difficult weeks, Giuliani flourished, seeming to have perfect emotional pitch. Perhaps not unexpectedly, the city wanted him to stay. Slowly, he warmed to the idea. Even as the mayor was exhorting people to return to their normal lives and routines – go to work, go to the movies, go out to eat – his aides searched for ways to manipulate the rules and enable him to stay in office. Apparently the return to normal didn’t include the democratic process. (At his press briefing the day before the primary, the mayor actually said, “People should go to the polls and vote. If they want to.”)

Then things got stranger. Governor Pataki, who handled himself nicely during the crisis but never achieved the folk-hero status of Giuliani, did an astonishing double reverse. According to a source close to the mayor, the governor told the mayor’s people when the issue first came up that he would support a move in the State Legislature to enable the mayor to stay on.

Then, perhaps after speaking with some key people in Albany, he changed his mind. Finally, possibly trying to look like a good guy or to make up for going back on his word to the mayor’s people, he said just before the primary that if he were voting in the city, he’d write in Mayor Giuliani. Which he knew, of course, would be a wasted vote.

In this extraordinary atmosphere, it wasn’t hard to understand Mark Green’s uneasiness on primary day. And this was before he knew he’d finish an embarrassing second behind the surging Ferrer. But when I asked him whether he felt put upon, or as if he’d had some extraordinarily bad luck, he understandably refused to complain.

“The people who have been put upon are the families who lost loved ones,” he said. “I feel very calm and focused about what I have to do, which is prepare for leadership and prepare to unite and rebuild this city.”

Still, Green would have to be a saint not to feel that, as the world has been shaken, he’s been knocked off balance, too. Put yourself in his shoes. You’re a youthful 56-year-old politician, a Democrat who has spent several decades building an impressive résumé. You have a smart, attractive wife of 24 years whom you met (where else?) at a political fund-raiser during the Democratic convention in New York when you were both young activists, and two well-adjusted, photogenic kids.

You’re a graduate of Cornell and Harvard Law School, where you were resourceful enough to be the editor-in-chief of an alternative publication called the Harvard Civil Rights-Civil Liberties Law Review, which is still going strong. You interned for Jacob Javits. But instead of showing your appreciation by unobtrusively doing a good job, you drafted a petition against the Vietnam War, got several hundred other Washington interns to sign it, and sent it to the president. Lyndon Johnson was so angry he actually defunded the intern program for three years.

Then you went out into the world, and instead of grabbing the big bucks (as your parents told you to), you signed on with Ralph Nader as an $11,000-a-year public-interest lawyer. You wrote books. You founded a liberal think tank. You worked as a policy adviser and speechwriter for Gary Hart. In 1980, you ran for Congress and lost. In 1986, you ran for Senate (as a “noble underdog,” you like to say) and were crushed by Al D’Amato. You worked on the issues for Dukakis and Clinton. You mentored other bright young Democrats like Michael Waldman, who would go on to become Bill Clinton’s chief speechwriter and the author of the book potus Speaks.

David Dinkins named you consumer-affairs commissioner. In 1993, you won a gimme election and became public advocate. Four years later, you were easily re-elected. And in 1998, you got hammered in the Democratic primary for Senate by Charles Schumer. Still, you never gave up. You never let down.

As public advocate, you continued to fight the good fight, tackling mob control of the trash-hauling business. The tobacco manufacturers. Police misconduct. Campaign-finance reform. Domestic abuse, child welfare, and a host of other populist issues. Cleverly, you also banged heads with Rudy Giuliani, becoming one of his favorite targets and keeping your name in the papers.

And now here you are, the loner of New York politics, the man with few political friends because you’ve spent the past ten years poking your finger in everyone’s eye as the city’s official public pest, about to get the big prize. But as you stood (as you love to say) “on the brink of becoming New York’s 108th mayor,” the favorite in the Democratic primary, with likely Republican opponent Michael Bloomberg reeling, the world turned upside down.

And the mayor, who had cast a long shadow over the race even before the Trade Center attack, now threatens to occupy the entire public stage. Even if he ends up not running, he has, at the eleventh hour, set a standard of leadership that may be impossible for anyone to live up to.

“People who are taken to be great leaders are almost always given the opportunity by history to deal with a crisis,” says former governor Mario Cuomo. “Rudy said what he had to say and he said it perfectly. He did everything he could possibly do to give hope, to give reassurance, and to give some sense that this government knew what was happening and was doing everything it possibly could.

“So whether he’s there or not, voters will be looking for Rudy. He’s defined leadership, at least for the foreseeable future. And that means the candidates suffer.”

Then there’s the actual suffering of having to agree, as Green did last week, to let Giuliani – a man he’s often fought with bitterly over the past eight years – stay on for an extra three months. (Michael Bloomberg also agreed. But Ferrer called the mayor’s bluff, rejecting the proposal.)

Out of the blue, Green received a call last Wednesday afternoon asking if he’d come to the command center for a meeting with the mayor. With sundown and the start of Yom Kippur rapidly approaching, Green talked with the mayor in what one of his aides describes as a “very brief but cordial” sitdown in which the mayor asked for three additional months on the job to deal with the cleanup downtown.

There was an implicit threat built into the proposal: If you don’t agree to this, I can and perhaps will cause a constitutional crisis in New York. I’ll screw up the election in a way that didn’t happen during the Civil War, World War I, or World War II. I’ll make what should have been your big moment a nightmare.

This was power politics at its most naked. “Rudy is like a master chess player,” says one insider who knows him well. “He’s the best I’ve ever seen at having multiple games going on at the same time and anticipating several moves ahead in each game. He’s always prepared for all possible outcomes.”

One of Green’s aides tried to put the best face on it by saying they took the mayor at his word, that he was concerned about easing the transition between administrations. But it must have made Green’s blood boil. “These guys may have some weird mutual respect, but they also can’t stand each other,” says someone who knows both men well. “Remember, when Rudy wanted to run for the Senate, he began an entire movement to alter the city’s charter just so Green wouldn’t succeed him if he resigned.”

There are insiders – even people close to the mayor – who believe that he, too, may ultimately suffer if he continues to pursue the idea of a longer stay in office. Though no one has wanted to criticize the mayor publicly – both for the good of the city and out of respect for the job he’s done – that is beginning to change as the grasping political machinations become more apparent.

“The implication of his people,” Green says in his apartment, in a rare moment of anger, “that après moi, le déluge, so insults the democratic process …”

And there is even dissension among the mayor’s longtime supporters. The story dominating the news now, one insider told me, should not be Rudy trying to position himself to remain mayor. It shouldn’t be Rudy’s people calling legislators and powerful supporters in the real-estate and business communities – which they’ve been doing – trying to muster the backing. It looks unseemly.

The idea of Giuliani’s extending his term was raised within the first days of the terrorist attack. Initially the mayor didn’t seem interested. If he had been, he could’ve directed his people to move faster on the legislative front. Some insiders believe this didn’t happen because the mayor thought he would get the new Cabinet post that went to Pennsylvania governor Tom Ridge.

“That was never going to happen,” says one observer. “First of all, Bush has no great affection for Rudy. Remember, he supported McCain. And besides, why would Bush give that job to someone he wouldn’t be able to control? Someone who’s probably bigger than he is now?”

If the mayor goes after more time, argues one source close to Giuliani who is against his trying to stay on, it will be a drawn-out process, and the hero’s cloak he’s been wrapped in will wear thin. Eventually, his numbers will start to drop. He has the opportunity now to go out as the greatest mayor in the city’s history, this source says. But it appears that those within his very small inner circle who advocate staying on are winning.

“It is always dangerous for democracy,” says another political insider, “when someone tries to engage in charismatic leadership.”

Mayor Giuliani is only one obstacle Green has to deal with. The other is a sudden challenge to his appeal in the black community from the loosely knit black-and-Latino coalition that has developed, to everyone’s surprise, around Ferrer. The Bronx borough president’s campaign is fascinating because it continues to defy the judgments and predictions of the experts.

First, the conventional wisdom said that groveling for Al Sharpton’s support was a mistake. It wasn’t. Then the chorus emphatically said Ferrer’s two-cities argument – one prosperous, the other suffering – was divisive and would seriously damage him after the terrorist attack when unity was the order of the day. It didn’t. And finally, no one correctly anticipated the commitment of his Latino support, which turned out in force on primary day while Green’s Jewish base stayed home in unprecedented numbers.

“This is now a dogfight,” says one political veteran. “And race is the real issue. Of course, Mark can’t say that. But what you have now is Mark Green and Bill Bratton against Freddy Ferrer and Al Sharpton.”

It is yet one more bizarre turn of events in Green’s quest for City Hall that after struggling to shake the too-liberal label he should now be matched in a runoff with someone who’s attacking him from the left. And, in the face of the extraordinary new challenges confronting the city, that the Democrats would be locked in a good old-fashioned intramural battle of interest groups – just the kind of skirmish that did so much damage to the Democratic Party back in the eighties.

But Green’s support in minority communities is not to be underestimated. “Mark has built up a lot of credibility in the black community over the years by working hard for it, and as a result he has a legacy of relationships,” says Dennis Walcott, head of the New York Urban League.

Now, however, Green has to carefully walk the racial tightrope. He must solidify his base of Jews, Manhattanites, and blacks while going after outer-borough Catholics (i.e., Giuliani Democrats), without alienating his minority support. He cannot risk, for example, making Al Sharpton an issue. But given Sharpton’s prominence in Ferrer’s campaign and the job he’s done to attract black support, it is reasonable to ask what role Sharpton will play in a Ferrer administration. Someone other than Green will have to bring it up. Ferrer, too, has stolen Green’s thunder about the democratic process by standing up to Rudy. It’s riveting political theater to see how it will play.

Green, on the other hand, will have to stick to the safer road and emphasize his broad-based support. “I endorsed Mark Green because the city really needs somebody who has currency with all of New York’s ethnic, racial, and political constituencies,” says the Reverend Calvin Butts of the Abyssinian Baptist Church.

“After everything we’ve been through, we need somebody who says, ‘Look, we’re all in this mess together.’ The African-American community sees Mark as someone who tries to be fair to all people. Black people like Freddy, too, but I don’t think anybody should characterize this race in terms of one ethnic group against another. And that’s the way his campaign has characterized it.”

It’s significant that Ferrer’s support among white voters was in the single digits. He now has to make some very quick adjustments if he has any hope of winning the runoff. Green, on the other hand, can continue the strategy he has employed throughout the campaign, with certain adjustments for the new realities.

“We’ve had success until now by focusing on my record and my vision for the city, not by being divisive or negative,” Green says. “I’m focused on attacking problems, not rivals.”

Under the direction of campaign manager Richard Schrader and media consultant Hank Sheinkopf, Green has finally become a candidate who understands not only how to run but how to win. Recognizing the mistakes of past campaigns, he has become a disciplined candidate who has largely stayed on message.

“I’ve made very few mistakes in a campaign where I’m on a high wire in a hurricane, in a tabloid-driven city called New York,” he says. “I think people have realized watching Bloomberg that doing this well is much harder than it looks.”

Green’s campaign was designed to protect and preserve the early advantage he established rather than risk revealing too much of himself. Before the Trade Center attack, he had slipped into a kind of prevent defense. For months, he and his staff were content to have him do the grunt work of campaigning quietly – the meet-and-greets at subway stops; the appearances at town meetings, schools, churches, and synagogues – and to issue an occasional position paper. The objective was to solidify his base of traditional Democrats but not to make news or to directly engage his opponents.

Of course, after the World Trade Center disaster, experience and leadership are much more important. Green will undoubtedly attempt to show he’s not only ready to lead but will surround himself with talented, experienced people who can walk in and go to work without a training period. He’ll do this by making more appearances with former police commissioner Bill Bratton and Jerry Hauer, a world-class terrorism expert who established the city’s Office of Emergency Management under Mayor Giuliani in 1996.

“The next mayor will have to do exactly what Rudy’s done,” says Bratton. “He’ll have to exude confidence, be a cheerleader when necessary, bring everyone together, and appear to be everywhere all at the same time. The stamina, the physical demands alone are extraordinary. It’s an eighteen-hours-a-day, seven-days-a-week job. And for that six hours when he’s home, I’d say there probably haven’t been that many nights over the past seven and a half years when he hasn’t been interrupted several times for an update on something.”

It is hard to imagine anyone being as steadfast, both physically and emotionally, as the mayor has been. “Sometimes he comes in at midnight, sometimes after 2 a.m.,” says Howard Koeppel, Giuliani’s friend and the man whose apartment he has been staying in since he moved out of Gracie Mansion several months ago. “He was never someone who needed a lot of sleep. He gets up, he makes his own bed, and he comes to breakfast full of pep. He’s really got a great attitude. He never complains. He’s happy to be alive and he’s happy he’s feeling well. He always has a nice smile at breakfast, and then he gives me a big hug and a kiss and off he goes.”

Before September 11, there were, broadly, two salient questions about Green. Is he an unreconstructed, unapologetic liberal? Or has he moved to the center and become a Clinton Democrat? Though this is still a relevant subject for debate, it seems, at least on first blush, less important now than leadership qualities. Or, as the question was phrased pre-terrorist attack, does Green have the kind of outsize personality that seems to be necessary to run New York effectively?

If you look back over the past couple of decades, you see that the blustery, larger-than-life mayors, men who were able to impose their will on the city (Giuliani and Koch), were much more effective leaders than the quieter, less obtrusive mayors (Dinkins and Beame).

“The city has always fed off strong, dominant personalities,” says the Urban League’s Walcott. “To govern, you need to have that ‘it’ thing, that thing that really marks you as unique. This not only helps you govern, it helps you manage, and it really helps you define and communicate your vision.”

Green doesn’t disagree about the importance of the “it” thing, only about whether he has it. “If I didn’t have the confidence in my leadership skills, which is to show courage, vision, tenacity, and compassion and be able to communicate, I wouldn’t run and I shouldn’t serve,” he says.

“I agree that to be a successful mayor, you have to have a vocal, dynamic personality. But remember, FDR wasn’t FDR when he was governor. He became FDR as president. And John Kennedy was just a suave senator. He wasn’t JFK until he became president. And the Rudy Giuliani of 2001 is not the Rudy Giuliani of 1989 and 1993. I’m as well prepared to become mayor as anyone in recent memory.”

And Green may actually be tougher and more complicated than he’s let on – not necessarily in a good way. Several of his staff I talked to said he can be extremely difficult to work for. He’s demanding and he micromanages. “He’s very tough to satisfy, he’s a complete control freak, and, underneath it all,” says one staff member, “he’s a pretty cold guy.”

Stephen Gillers, a widely respected professor of ethics at NYU Law School, has known Green for 30 years. He was also a law-school classmate of Giuliani’s. Gillers, perhaps surprisingly, thinks there are just as many similarities between the two men as there are differences. “Both men are capable of intense focus, both can roll up their sleeves and devour a problem from every conceivable angle, both have the capacity to master detail, and both men have unquestionable integrity,” Gillers says.

“Obviously, they are ideologically and temperamentally different and their presentation of self is different, but they’re really alike in many respects. And Mark is nothing if not persistent. Anyone who’s been through as many campaigns as he has would’ve given up by now if he weren’t. But I think that Mark, like Rudy, is driven by the belief that he can make his goals real.”

Green says he is under no illusions about the immensity of the task the next mayor faces. He has established a set of priorities: safety and security; rebuilding the city; and what he calls home-front issues. These are the things that led him to run in the first place: smaller classes, affordable housing, more community policing; and an effort to make sure the city remains united.

“The home-front issues are still dreams, although they may have to be deferred in time but not in accomplishment,” Green says in his signature, pretzel-like syntax.

Green also knows that everything that has to be done will be made more difficult by the coming budget problems. He says he’d already started work on an austerity budget before the current crisis.

The next mayor will have to make some very hard choices. And while labels like conservative and liberal may seem out of place in this anomalous moment of unity, they still offer clear signs about where a candidate’s priorities will lie when the inevitable cuts have to be made in next year’s budget.

So, has Green undergone an ideological transformation? On a warm Wednesday afternoon during what turned out to be the city’s last week of innocence, Green was campaigning in shirtsleeves at the farmers’ market in Union Square. He looked, except for the plume of white hair and the slight hitch in his gait because of a bad knee, pretty much like he did when he played first singles for the Great Neck South High School tennis team.

Amid the McIntosh apples, organic tomatoes, and Catskill strawberries, there were as many different kinds and shapes and colors of people as there were fruits and vegetables. Green talked to blacks, Hispanics, Arabs, Asians, and Hasidic Jews. At one point while he was walking through Union Square Park, surrounded by flowers and hundreds of people enjoying the urban oasis on a summer afternoon, he called me over.

“You see that building over there?” he said, pointing to an office tower across from the park. “I used to work there. And five or six years ago, this,” he said, moving his arm in a broad sweep to include the entire park, “used to be needle central. Look at how beautiful it is now. This is a case study in how things should work.”

This was the new Mark Green, who is buddies with Bill Bratton and talks about the importance of public safety at every campaign stop. “Mark’s positions today are not the same as they were 25 years ago or 15 years ago or even 10 years ago,” says Michael Waldman, onetime head speechwriter for Bill Clinton. “He’s like a lot of Democrats who’ve learned the lessons of the past two decades.”

When I asked him later if he had indeed undergone an ideological transformation, he quickly and aggressively resisted. “Name three ways you can spot that I’ve changed,” he challenged, without letting me answer. “You can’t. Okay, you’re not being interviewed, so you’re off the hook. But you’d be hard-pressed to find examples of where I’ve run away from things I’ve done or said before.”

I tried a different strategy. I told him there’s no way that five or six years ago he would have stopped while campaigning to make sure a reporter was aware of a change like the one he pointed out in Union Square Park. “Have I changed my views, post-Giuliani, on law enforcement?” Green asked. “Of course. I’m acknowledging I’ve learned from all this. My God, if I didn’t, I wouldn’t have eyes, ears, and a brain.

“I’m running to create a safer, smarter city,” he continued. “A collateral benefit is I hope to be a proud Democrat who proves that we can again successfully manage a city based on smart, progressive values. You can be tough-minded and kindhearted. They are not inconsistent. I hope to be among a class of Democrats in cities who show that we have the brains, the backbone, and the heart to govern successfully.”

Only a few weeks ago, the possibility of a Green administration in City Hall conjured images of glamour, youth, and a return to open government. His campaign has attracted hundreds of enthusiastic young volunteers along with celebrities like Russell Simmons, Jon Bon Jovi, Richie Sambora, Mary J. Blige, David Boies, Warren Beatty, Annette Bening, Richard Dreyfuss, and Mandy Patinkin.

None of that seems to matter much now. Not in the face of the monumental challenges that await the next mayor. The difficulties almost make one wonder why anybody would even want the job at this point. “You have to understand something about Mark,” says former national-security adviser Sandy Berger, who was Green’s roommate at Harvard Law School. “He loves government and he loves governing.”

Will that be enough? “If you’ll permit me to quote John Kennedy,” Green says, stretching his eyelids, which he does frequently for emphasis, like William Buckley. “He once said he wanted to put a man on the moon not because it was easy. He wanted to do it because it was hard.”

Crashing Green’s Party