Standard Ruler

by Noam Scheiber | May 16, 2005

There is unappreciated genius in the words of Fernando Ferrer, the Democratic front-runner in New York's mayoral primary. They don't pack the emotive punch of a Bill Clinton or the soaring brilliance of a Barack Obama. Ferrer's gift is actually a little lower-brow--for the snide one-liner of the sitcom trade. For example, when asked at a recent candidates' forum who he blamed for the shooting of Amadou Diallo, the Guinean immigrant gunned down in 1999 by four nypd officers, Ferrer shot back, with impeccable timing, "You know, I'm not a lawyer." In another life, Ferrer might have landed a bit part on "The King of Queens." I mention the Diallo murder because it has come to define Ferrer's once- promising campaign. The trouble began in March, shortly after the former Bronx borough president told a gathering of local police officers that, in his (nonlegal) opinion, the killing had not been a crime. For good measure, Ferrer added that "there was an attempt by many [during that period] ... to over- indict." This came as a shock to people in the civil rights community, who fondly remembered Ferrer agitating for an indictment of the policemen involved. It also came as a shock to Diallo's mother, who pronounced herself "surprised to hear he said that because [Ferrer] was among the people in the community who ... asked for justice for Amadou." For weeks, audiences dogged Ferrer with questions about the precise quantity of indictment he believed Diallo's executioners deserved. The local news media engaged in an endless, self-fulfilling debate over whether Ferrer's was a garden-variety faux pas or a truly disastrous gaffe-the kind that "confirm[s] people's worst fear about a candidate," as The New York Times put it. Ferrer's poll numbers plummeted. Last Friday, two top advisers quit. I have nothing but sympathy for Amadou Diallo. But, tragic as his case may be, I find it troubling that no one has spoken up for the real victim in this episode: Fernando Ferrer. All his adult life, Ferrer has been playing by the same set of rules--that the way to succeed in politics is to behave like an unapologetic hack. Now that he's on the verge of his greatest success, voters and the press have decided unapologetic hackery isn't good enough. Suddenly they want "consistency." And "principle." And "character." Well, I say it's not fair. You don't cut Social Security benefits for people who are about to retire. You don't change frequent-flier incentives for people who've already earned their free trip to Hawaii. And you don't go revising the criteria for political leadership when a longtime pol like Ferrer is about to grab the brass ring. Ferrer's outlook on politics is mostly a product of the Bronx political milieu in which he cut his teeth. Ferrer won a City Council seat in 1982, then rose through the local machine by putting his head down and waiting his turn. He didn't have to wait long. In 1987, a major corruption scandal brought down the mostly Jewish leadership of the Bronx Democratic Party. Ferrer inherited the borough presidency by virtue of being far enough from real power to avoid the taint of scandal. (It also didn't hurt that he was Latino.) To the lesson of this formative experience, Ferrer's years as a borough boss added another: the idea that all politics is transactional. The Bronx, as New York historian Fred Siegel has pointed out, has no private-sector economy to speak of. More than half the area's adult population had actually dropped out of the labor force by the late '90s. Its only economic lifeblood was the range of jobs and social services doled out by the local political leadership, which relied on this arrangement to cement its power. Ferrer put these two lessons to work in his 1997 run for mayor. Part one of the strategy was to be the guy who was not the other guys, just as he'd been in 1987. In this case, Ferrer noticed that two other likely primary candidates, Al Sharpton and Manhattan Borough President Ruth Messinger, hailed from the left of the political spectrum. He decided to become the candidate of moderates. Except that Ferrer's instinct wasn't to appeal to people's values so much as buy them off. Ferrer promptly shed his liberal positions on abortion and the death penalty without even bothering to, say, highlight his agonizing personal evolution on the issues, as a more skilled politician might have. On abortion, he more or less woke up one day and declared that "every time a mother hiccups, that's no reason to abort a child." Ferrer's campaign flamed out after a highly touted fund-raiser yielded little money but much footage of a half-empty ballroom, which the New York press obligingly replayed again and again in the days that followed. A lesser man might have concluded that higher office wasn't in the cards. Ferrer concluded he had simply offered the wrong deal to the wrong people. By the time the 2001 campaign rolled around, Ferrer had recast himself as a champion of the "other New York"--which, he insisted, was an appeal to the city's economic underclass, but which sounded like an appeal to racial resentments. The reason we can't say for sure is that Ferrer didn't spend much time on the campaign hustings doing the hard work of demagoguery. At least not until he had devoted himself to lobbying other local bosses, like hospital workers' union chief Dennis Rivera and the race-baiting Sharpton. Ferrer was less a candidate than a quid pro quo masquerading as a candidate. And it very nearly worked. He took first place in the Democratic primary, with 35 percent of the vote, but lost narrowly in a subsequent runoff. Still, the near miss made Ferrer the prohibitive favorite to win this year's Democratic nomination. His only hurdle was winning back the white Democrats who felt he had sandbagged the party's eventual 2001 nominee with his tepid support. As always, Ferrer's solution was to bargain for loyalty, not inspire it. To win over local whites, Ferrer pandered ( la Diallo) to police unions, which were known to harbor bitterness toward Mayor Michael Bloomberg. It should have worked. "This is spring training for the World Series," waxed one of Ferrer's minions in an inadvertent voice mail message to a reporter. "Because, dollars to doughnuts, we'll be in the World Series." Everything in Ferrer's storied rise suggested he was right. To suddenly deny Ferrer his due would be a crime against ambitious ward heelers everywhere, a crime against mixed metaphors, a crime against a lovable sitcom type. Then again, who am I to over-indict?

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