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The Globe and Mail

A Can Of Worms In The Big Apple

New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg's Democratic Opponents Are Having A Hard Time Getting It Together. It Looked Like They Had A Shoo-In Candidate, But Then He Made An Ill-Chosen Comment About A Controversial Police Shooting

Shawn McCarthy is New York bureau chief of The Globe and Mail.

30 April 2005
Copyright © 2005 Bell Globemedia Publishing Inc. All rights reserved.

NEW YORK -- A month ago, Fernando (Freddie) Ferrer was cruising along in the direction of a historic political breakthrough in this city.

With the backing of New York's Democratic establishment, the former Bronx borough president was the clear favourite to win the party's nomination to challenge Republican Mayor Michael Bloomberg, a former billionaire businessman, in the fall election.

A victory against the competent but uninspiring incumbent appeared achievable, though no slam dunk. With it, Mr. Ferrer would become the first Latino mayor of America's most populous city, successor to larger-than-life public figures such as Rudolph Giuliani, Fiorella LaGuardia and the 19th-century Tammany Hall legend William M. (Boss) Tweed.

Then, Mr. Ferrer struck a reef in the treacherous waters of the city's turbulent racial politics.

With a few ill-chosen words that appeared to absolve four policemen in the shooting of an unarmed black man six years ago, Mr. Ferrer opened a rift between his campaign and the African-American community, including some politicians who supported him in his unsuccessful 2001 campaign for the Democratic nomination and were expected to endorse him this time.

His stumble has reinvigorated the field of challengers, each representative of a distinct constituency in the Democratic Party. And it has raised the likelihood of a divisive primary season – like the one in 2001 that left the party exhausted and damaged in the general election against Mr. Bloomberg.

Lining up against Mr. Ferrer is slate of candidates who could have answered a Broadway casting call to fill stereotypical roles for Democratic politicians in New York.

• Manhattan borough president Virginia Fields is a stylish and articulate though untested black woman who focuses on the problems of poor neighbourhoods and promises new opportunities for minorities and women;

• City Council Speaker Gifford Miller is an earnest, liberal, Ivy Leaguer from Manhattan's affluent Upper East Side who offers a middle-of-the-road blend of prudent activism;

• Congressman Anthony Weiner is an aggressive Jewish upstart from Queens who defends the interests of embattled middle-class New Yorkers of the "outer boroughs."

The four took the stage last week in a candidates meeting that produced a few sparks, notably Mr. Weiner's attack on Mr. Ferrer's plan to tax trades on the New York Stock Exchange, but mainly boilerplate Democratic nostrums about the need for better schools, more jobs and an end to Mr. Bloomberg's plan to spend $600-million (U.S) on a new football stadium on the west side of Manhattan.

Two nights later at a public forum, Mr. Ferrer, a soft-spoken, owlish man, ratcheted up his delivery, telling a radio audience that he is a passionate man – passionate about affordable housing, about the city's struggling public schools and about unemployment, particularly among young black and Latino men. But he came across as a politician who has been told by handlers that he needs to be more passionate to sway voters.

He accused the current mayor of "squandering" money on the stadium – planned as home to the New York Jets and the Olympics, should New York win a long-shot bid to host the 2012 Games – while neglecting the real priorities of New Yorkers.

While Mr. Bloomberg tends to give pep talks about the state of New York, Mr. Ferrer has focused his campaign on serious problems facing the city: jobless rates above 40 per cent among young black and Latino men, soaring property values squeezing the middle class and poor alike, and the ongoing crisis in the public-school system, which has suffered from chronic underfunding and violence; high dropout rates and poor student achievement.

But it's one thing to enunciate the challenges, and quite another to persuade people that you are the one to tackle them.

His anemic performance at candidates' meetings – together with his gaffe over the police shooting – has senior New York Democrats worried that they will lose city hall for the fourth consecutive election, an astonishing performance given the party's deep roots and overwhelming numerical superiority in the city.

"None of the Democrats are breaking through with their message," New York State Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, a Democrat from Manhattan's Lower East Side, told The New York Times. "They are risking losing to a man whom they should clearly be able to beat."

Mr. Bloomberg is a moderate Republican – a former Democrat who changed parties to run for mayor four years ago – who was praised by Time magazine as one of America's best mayors. But while many affluent New Yorkers admire him, he has generated little enthusiasm among the broader population, particularly in the ethnic communities.

Until a few weeks ago, Mr. Ferrer was the prohibitive front-runner to face Mr. Bloomberg in November. Polls had him leading the field by more than 20 percentage points and besting the mayor in a head-to-head race. He had endorsements from Eliot Spitzer, the crusading state Attorney-General who has announced his candidacy for governor in 2006, and from Carl McCall, a leading black Democrat in the city and former state comptroller.

And he had the kind of inspiring life story that American politicians love to highlight to establish their populist credentials.

He was raised by his mother and his grandmother, immigrants from Puerto Rico who worked in the kitchens of the Waldorf-Astoria hotel. As a youngster, he shined shoes, and was later a scholarship student at New York University, an elite private university in Manhattan.

As the de facto mayor of the Bronx, he presided over a building boom that saw the borough reverse its slide into an urban nightmare and reinvigorate decaying neighbourhoods. While the renaissance was city-wide, Mr. Ferrer received credit not only for that turnaround, but also for bringing jobs and much-needed services to the borough.

In the 2001 mayoral race, he led a minority-based coalition with support from the likes of incendiary black powerbroker Rev. Al Sharpton. That coalition coalesced around opposition to former mayor Giuliani, whose unqualified support for police rankled those who felt that the NYPD often victimized minorities.

Mr. Ferrer lost the Democratic primary that year to Mark Green, a veteran New York City politician, in a campaigned marred by racial tension. Mr. Green's campaign distributed a New York Post cartoon in white neighbourhoods depicting Mr. Ferrer kissing Mr. Sharpton's greatly enlarged backside; the Ferrer camp accused Mr. Green of racism.

With the Democrats divided, Mr. Bloomberg won a squeaker over Mr. Green after spending $74-million of his own money on his campaign.

This year, Mr. Ferrer counted on refashioning the 2001 coalition and building a solid base among Democrats of all stripes. Then he stumbled over Amadou Diallo.

In 1999, Mr. Diallo, an unarmed African immigrant, died in a blizzard of gunfire from police who mistook him for a rape suspect. The four officers – who were later acquitted of criminal charges – fired 41 bullets, striking him 19 times.

The shooting prompted an explosion of fury among minority activists and their supporters. Mr. Ferrer himself was arrested during a protest against the shooting, thus bolstering his credentials in the black community, which felt particularly victimized by Mr. Giuliani's encouragement of aggressive police tactics.

Last month, Mr. Ferrer appeared to flip-flop on the Diallo case, telling a meeting of police sergeants that he felt the shooting was "not a crime" and that there was a tendency to "over-indict" the NYPD.

The outrage in the African-American community was immediate and visceral. Brooklyn city councilman Charles Barron told a black newspaper: "Freddie Ferrer just shot the 42nd bullet."

Mr. Sharpton publicly rebuked Mr. Ferrer at a rambunctious town hall meeting after the audience flailed the hapless politician, who repeatedly apologized for his "poor choice of words."

Mr. Ferrer's critics and political opponents have refused to let the matter die. In a recent debate hosted by WWRL radio and broadcast live to a largely African-American audience, he was asked again whether he believed the shooting was a crime. He replied that, regardless of the jury verdict acquitting the officers, the shooting was "wrong by any standard."

His opponents were less equivocal. Ms. Fields said flatly that it was a crime, while Mr. Miller elevated the rhetorical stakes, labelling it "a crime against humanity."

A poll of New York City Democrats by Quinnipiac University, in nearby Connecticut, conducted after the incident, showed Mr. Ferrer's support slipping to 36 from 40 per cent, while Ms. Fields's had risen to 21 from 14 per cent.

Still, Mr. Ferrer remained the only Democrat who led Mr. Bloomberg in a head-to-head poll, and did so by a comfortable 46-40 margin.

Former mayor Ed Koch, a Democrat who is co-chairing Mr. Bloomberg's re-election campaign, predicts that Mr. Ferrer will not recover from the Diallo debacle. "I think he is going down like a stone, in free fall," Mr. Koch said in an interview.

It's a wonderful town

And just what kind of city does New York's mayor preside over?

Population: 8.1 million

Area: 800 square kilometres

Five boroughs: Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens, Bronx and Staten Island

Number of city councillors: 51

Number of city employees: 300,000

Proposed spending (2006 budget): $49.2-billion (U.S.)

Expected revenue (2006 budget): $49.6-billion (U.S.)

Expected budget shortfall over next four years: $8.2-billion (U.S.)

Number of public schools: 1,565

Number of public-school students: 1.1 million

Number of homeless people on streets and in shelters: 38,000

Foreign-born population: 40 per cent

Top source countries for immigrants: Dominican Republic, China, Jamaica, Guyana, Mexico.

Household income for top 20 per cent, excluding capital gains: $159,631

Household income for middle 20 per cent: $37,827

Household income for bottom 20 per cent: $5,746

Source: City of New York and Fiscal Policy Institute

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