Shifting strategies in N.Y. runoff

October 08, 2001|By Jules Witcover

NEW YORK - A campaign poster for mayoral candidate Fernando "Freddy" Ferrer on a wall of his headquarters identifies him as "A Mayor for All New Yorkers." It bears a silhouette of the Manhattan skyline, complete with the now-vanished twin towers of the World Trade Center.

That poster pretty much captures the essential ingredients of Thursday's Democratic primary runoff election between Bronx Borough President Ferrer, seeking to be the city's first Puerto Rican mayor, and Mark Green, the city's elected public advocate, for the right to face Republican Michael Bloomberg on Nov. 6.

Before the Sept. 11 terrorist attack on the World Trade Center, Mr. Ferrer campaigned to include what he called "the other New York" - the poor and minority communities - in the city's general prosperity. In a four-man race for the Democratic nomination, he hoped to patch together enough Latino and African-American support to force a runoff against the front-running Mr. Green, supported strongly by Jewish and other white New Yorkers.

It not only worked, but Mr. Ferrer ran first with 36 percent of the primary vote to only 31 percent for Mr. Green, far short of the 40 percent Mr. Green hoped to win to avoid the runoff. Now Mr. Green, whose strategy in the crowded field was to stand above the fray, has been forced to get into the trenches with Mr. Ferrer.

In a 90-minute televised debate the other night, Mr. Green accused Mr. Ferrer of divisively advocating "two New Yorks" at a time, he said, unity and "one New York" should be the byword after the terrorist attacks. In so doing, Mr. Green displayed an abrasive side that has won him many Democratic critics. "Do you still think it's two cities, Freddy?" he asked in chiding tone at one point.

There is a distinct political arithmetic involved in the argument. In winning the first primary round, Mr. Ferrer benefited mightily from a doubling of Latino turnout and 52 percent of black votes after his endorsement by controversial black leader Al Sharpton. But Mr. Ferrer managed only about 7 percent of the white vote, the rest of which was split among Mr. Green and two other white candidates.

The key question is whether Mr. Ferrer can hold onto his heavy minority support in the runoff while appealing for a heavier white vote. He has soft-pedaled Mr. Sharpton's endorsement with his need for that vote obviously in mind.

Mr. Ferrer has won other prominent endorsements, from popular former Sen. Pat Moynihan, former vice presidential nominee Geraldine Ferraro and, most recently, former Mayor Ed Koch, who in announcing his support characteristically dismissed Mr. Green as "arrogant." To which Mr. Green replied in the debate, "to be called arrogant by Ed Koch is quite an experience."

Mr. Green makes light of Mr. Ferrer's endorsements, saying they're "like chicken soup - they can't hurt." At the end of one pitch to a labor local the other day, however, he pleaded, "Don't let other people pick your mayor." At the same time, Mr. Green talks up his own endorsements, citing key labor and other groups as giving him "enormous momentum" going into Thursday's runoff.

With New York still literally digging out from the terrorist attacks, Mr. Green is betting heavily on a comprehensive plan for rebuilding lower Manhattan's financial district and keeping frightened businesses in the city to recoup an estimated 100,000 lost jobs. Mr. Ferrer has modulated his pitch for helping "the other New York" by saying that as a result of the terrorists' handiwork, all residents are now part of "the other New York" that needs special attention.

He has, however, called for decentralizing the financial district by relocating in other parts of the sprawling city key functions shattered by the attacks. Mr. Green takes the opposite position, arguing that "they took down the World Trade Center, but New York must remain the center of world trade" right where it always has been.

The runoff is likely to turn on which of the two is seen as best able to put the city back on its feet, economically as well as physically. And the key political calculation remains whether Mr. Ferrer can build on his coalition of ethnic and racial minorities with enough new white votes to withstand Mr. Green's attacks on him as divisive.

Jules Witcover generally writes from The Sun's Washington bureau.

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