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Secret Deal Sparks Fear Of Racial Discord


March 16, 2005
Copyright © 2005 NY DAILY NEWS. All rights reserved.

Imagine a political race involving four candidates of the same party where two are white, one is black and one is Hispanic. Imagine the two whites having a secret meeting where they agree not to attack each other. Would you suspect them of playing racial politics? I sure would.

We don't have to imagine such deals. One just happened. The Hispanic and black Democratic candidates for mayor actually had a secret meeting and struck a deal not to attack each other. They also pledged support if one is in a runoff against someone else.

The two white candidates were not invited, and there is no pledge to spare them attacks or support them.

No matter how Fernando Ferrer and Virginia Fields spin their deal, I think they have struck the first dangerous blow for racial divisions in the 2005 mayoral contest. There is something sinister about the "no whites need apply" undercurrent.

"The idea is let's not get the blacks and Hispanics sore at each other," said Maurice Carroll, the polling director of Quinnipiac University. "It's not anti-white, though it clearly leaves them out."

Joseph Mercurio, a veteran handler who works for Fields, the Manhattan borough president, said themeeting was about "keeping the party together" for the fall race against Republican Mayor Bloomberg, who exploited a black-Latino rift in 2001 to capture City Hall.

"This was not the black and Hispanic candidate getting together, it was the two front-runners getting together," Mercurio said. Yet last week, Mercurio told The New York Times that, if Fields is the Dem nominee, she expects Ferrer to deliver "his constituency," meaning Hispanics. If Ferrer is the nominee, Mercurio said, Fields would be "instrumental in delivering blacks for him in the general election."

Ferrer, the former Bronx borough president, bristled yesterday when I repeated to him Mercurio's comments about the racial expectations.

"That's the reason he's not my spokesman," Ferrer said by phone. "Don't impute his comments to me."

Obviously, race and ethnic appeals are routine in politics. Most are subtle. With no single group holding a majority of the city's Democratic voters - whites are 40%, blacks 31% and Hispanics 25% - every candidate has to reach across fault lines. But exclusive appeals are divisive and can backfire. Ferrer was burned on the issue in 2001.

His frequent invoking then of "two New Yorks" was widely seen as an appeal to black and Hispanic unity. That pitch, combined with the controversial support he got from the Rev. Al Sharpton, hurt him among whites. Although Ferrer finished first in the four-person primary, he got only 7% of the white vote and had to face Mark Green in a runoff. In that race, Green got 84% of the white vote, Ferrer got 84% of the smaller Latino vote - and Green won.

Ferrer began this year with a middle-class appeal, but has returned to the divided-city theme on occasion. Saying he set up the meeting with Fields because "we know and like each other," he added that "my door is open," meaning to white candidates Council Speaker Gifford Miller and Rep. Anthony Weiner. Ferrer insisted it was "wrong and inappropriate" to read a racial motive into the Fields meeting.

I hope he's right, and here's a suggestion for how he can prove race isn't the issue: Meet and make the same no-attack vow with Miller and Weiner. Maybe then the ominous racial cloud will fade away.

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