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The New York Mayoral Race And The Black Vote

For the first time in nearly 30 years, the name of the sitting mayor of New York City won't be on the ballot when residents enter voting booths for primary day next week. And for the first time in over a decade, none of the leading Democratic candidates for mayor identify themselves as Black. As a result, and due to the fact that Mayor Giuliani was one of the most racially polarizing Mayors in American history, Black interest in this year's election is noticeably passing in nature. With Giuliani out of the race and no Democrat eager to run as the political antithesis of the two-term mayor, the opinion has grown among many observers, that the Democratic primary is headed for a runoff and the Republican primary may not even be close as voters carry a lukewarm attitude into polling locations across the city.

The primary turnout is expected to be near record lows with an estimated 600,000 Democrats expected to make their way into the voting booth, joined by a mere 100,000 Republicans. The 1997 Mayoral race set record lows on the Democratic side, with only 411,459 voters casting ballots. If only 600,000 Democrats vote on the September 11 primary, while it would be an improvement from the 1997 turnout, it would still represent one of the lowest voter turnouts in history in light of the fact that there are 2.4 million registered Democrats in New York City.

The lower the turnout, the more likely it is that there will be a run-off on the Democratic side. If none of the Democratic candidates receives over 40 percent of the vote, there will be a runoff between the top two vote recipients, 2 weeks later, on September 25.

Presently it appears that the race to a runoff will focus on four of the five major Democrats running for Mayor: City Comptroller Alan Hevesi, City Council Speaker Peter Vallone, Public Advocate Mark Green, and Bronx Borough President Fernando Ferrer.

Hevesi looks the most well-rounded on paper, having raised over $7.2 million in contributions as well as obtaining the endorsement of police brutality victim Abner Louima. The fund-raising amounts and Louima endorsement demonstrate Hevesi's cross-section of popularity, spanning the wealthy elite of Wall St. and a significant segment of New York's burgeoning Haitian community. Hevesi's scope of responsibility as controller is impressive. Hevesi is a member of the board of trustees of four of the five city pension funds and the investment adviser to all of them. Combined, these funds oversee the savings of over 500,000 employees or retirees in one of the largest pension systems in the United States. His office employs nearly 800 people, oversees about $87 billion in city pension funds and audits city agencies that spend about $40 billion a year. But Hevesi's business connections and stewarding of financial affairs has cut both ways, as he has been forced to answer allegations of corruption and impropriety pertaining to his tenure as comptroller of the city, as well as his handling of campaign contributions from a variety of donors. Even Mayor Giuliani has publicly raised doubts about Hevesi's personal and professional integrity.

Interestingly, Hevesi came out in support of reparations for the descendants of slaves in late 2000 and in January of 2001, while speaking in front of Black audiences. Initially, Hevesi, who has been active on behalf of Holocaust survivors, told Black voters that he equates their case for reparations with those of Jews who were opposed by the Nazis in World War II and of Japanese-Americans mistreated by the U.S. government during that time period. But recently, Hevesi has toned down his support of reparations, speaking of their merit in "symbolic" terms, and has differentiated between the demands for reparations by Blacks who are descendants of slaves and the demands for reparations that come from the living survivors of the Holocaust. Hevesi is relying heavily on Queens and Brooklyn Democratic organizations to win the support of Queens and Jewish voters.

Three years after running a depressing race for Governor of New York, Peter Vallone has surprised many following the mayoral race for the strength of his finishing kick, as the Democrats race to next week's primary. Vallone's lurch toward the front of the Democratic pack in the last month has shocked observers with its growing strength and momentum. Months ago many had expected that by now, he would have ended his campaign, especially since so many had argued that Hevesi would satisfy the desires and concerns of those who may have been predisposed to support Vallone.

The best symbol of Vallone's surprising strength is the endorsement that he has received from District Council 37, the public-employees’ union with 125,000 members. While Vallone is well-respected by many of the city's top Democrats he has never been viewed as a typical New York City liberal politician. In a stance that distances him, by far, from the other three Democrats, Vallone does not run away from the Giuliani administration. Rather he actually runs toward much of the record of Giuliani and seeks, wherever appropriate to be associated with the Giuliani administration. In that sense, it is not a stretch to think of Vallone as this race's Al Gore – alternating his message between taking bows for what he has accomplished with Mayor Giuliani, while distancing himself from the personal character and caricature of Giuliani, especially that which exists of the Mayor, in the Black community.

Vallone, without hesitation, associates himself with the Giuliani administration’s economic and crime-fighting legacy, while avoiding any link to the Mayor's most notorious political and personal foibles and the ominous association with police brutality. Essentially, Vallone is styling himself as the only Democrat that is qualified to run a city government and who won't mess up the good that Giuliani has done. The Vallone message equates to: If there is any good that Giulani has done, it was with Vallone as his co-mayor; if there was anything bad or wrong that occurred, it happened as Vallone fought against it as Council Speaker. While positioning himself in order to catch Giuliani's political draft, Vallone constantly places his governing credentials juxtaposed to what he describes as the inexperience of his rivals. This tactic was clearly evident in an interview of Vallone that ran in yesterday's Newsday. Here is an excerpt:

Q. What is it that you have as a potential mayor that Mark Green does not have?

A. The experience to do it. I've done this. The three of them are very nice guys, very qualified in whatever the hell they do, but they have nothing whatsoever to do with running the city. And that's simply the truth. They have nothing to do with balancing a $40 billion budget. They have nothing to do with all of the difficult land-use decisions that have to be made in the city, that we've done so well over the last 10 years without any scandal, without any corruption.

So, with everybody leaving office at the same time, what's the biggest decision that the voter has to make? Who's going to run the city? Do any one of these guys have anything to do with running the city? No. Some day they may be good mayors. Do you have the time to wait?

Q. Freddy Ferrer has been the borough president of the Bronx.

A. What does a borough president do? If you could tell me what a borough president does, you're a better man than I am...

Q. No, no. Alan Hevesi is the comptroller of the whole City of New York.

A. Can you tell me what the comptroller does? And can you tell me what the public advocate does? The difference is, when I'm finished with you, I go to City Hall. Every single day I'm working in City Hall. And every single day, I have something to do with what goes on in the city. Working side by side with the mayor.

Mark Green, who is largely viewed as the front-runner of the four leading Democrats, has won the endorsement of Hip-Hop mogul Russell Simmons who has vocally expressed his support for Green as well as his intentions to rally the young and often politically-disinterested Hip-Hop community around the Green-for Mayor campaign. In June at his controversial Hip-Hop Summit, Simmons stated that he wanted to use the Green candidacy to not just show that the Hip-Hop community could influencepick the next mayor of New York City. It has been learned that Simmons has been privately seeking to persuade the influential Hip-Hop publication, The Source magazine to publicly endorse Mark Green for Mayor, possibly with a cover story

Green, as Public Advocate, has lent a sympathetic ear to the complaints of many Blacks, on a variety of issues, and has publicly voiced his concerns about the relationship between Black voters and the New York City Police Department (NYPD) and although he initially had next to nothing to say about the issue of reparations – with one of his spokespersons being quoted as saying that reparations were not justified for Blacks on the grounds that living Blacks were not the actual victims, Green has gradually evolved his stance on the hot button issue. Recently, even in public debate, Green has publicly stated his support for "reparations" in the form of improved schools and housing for Blacks and Latinos who currently are faced with substandard access and accommodations in both of these areas.

Green has also been successful at raising money for his campaign, having raised $532,000 over 21 days, more than Hevesi, Vallone or Ferrer. Green is looking to balance his strong support among Black, Liberal and Manhattan borough voters. It is a balancing act that does not come without problems. As an example, Green's recent endorsement from former police chief William Bratton while endearing him to those Whites who love Giuliani's stance on crime, will make many of Green's Black supporters uncomfortable. One can't help but wonder what Russell Simmons, an outspoken critic of Giuliani's regime on criminal justice issues, has told Green of what he thinks of Bratton's association with the campaign.

Fernando Ferrer is the true Democratic wildcard in the race for mayor of New York City. Few are able to confidently gauge his level of support and hold out the possibility that he could defeat Green in the Democratic Primary now that Rev. Al Sharpton has endorsed him. But many questions remain over Rev. Sharpton's "king-making" ability and no one can be sure of how many of the 132,000 people that voted for Rev. Sharpton in the 1997 mayoral race will transfer their allegiance to Ferrer. For all of the talk of Sharpton and Ferrer creating a Black-Latino coalition, relations between the two men have been tense during the campaign and discussions of a Sharpton endorsement of Ferrer, that took place this spring, were broken off after media reports stated that Rev. Sharpton was using the possibility of his endorsement of Ferrer as leverage to secure Ferrer's support of Sharpton-backed candidates seeking various offices throughout New York City. That Sharpton's endorsement of Ferrer had to wait until late August, in the eyes of many, ensured that the potency of the alliance and its impact on the September primary, would be severely weakened. But, the Sharpton endorsement may pay an unexpected dividend, at the eleventh hour, in light of former New York police commissioner William Bratton's endorsement of Mark Green.

Fernando Ferrer, over this past weekend, wasted no time in attempting to use the Bratton endorsement against Green, demanding that Green explain why he is accepting the support of a man who some Black New Yorkers believe permitted racial profiling while commissioner. Rev. Sharpton has also stated his concerns and disappointment with Bratton's involvement with Mr. Green's campaign, wondering aloud if Bratton's association with Green means that if elected mayor, Green will resume the policing strategy that dominated New York streets during the first Giuliani administration. The arguments may resonate with many.

Ferrer has focused his efforts and campaign on his obvious base: Bronx residents and Latinos across the city. His hope is to get 70 to 80 percent of the Latino vote. He will need this voting bloc to turnout in significant numbers in order to defeat Green. But his fortunes may indeed turn on his ability to turn Black voters away from Green in the last week before the primary. Rev. Sharpton is key to that effort.

New York's unions are split in their endorsements of the leading Democratic candidates. In addition to the 125,000 strong District Council 37, Vallone has gained the support of the Patrolman's Benevolent Association and the corrections officers. Hevesi has the teachers' union in his column. Ferrer has cafeteria workers and crossing guards. And Green has obtained the backing of the United Auto Workers, the biggest apparel workers' union, as well as a 70,000 member janitors' union.

New York's top Black political establishment is also divided among the candidates, with David Dinkins, the city's first black mayor, supporting Mark Green; the Rev. Floyd Flake endorsing Alan G. Hevesi, the city comptroller; and Rep. Charles Rangel and C. Virginia Fields, the Manhattan borough president, both joining Sharpton in endorsing Ferrer.

On the Republican side, Blacks will not be a major factor as the city's Black population is overwhelmingly registered Democrat. It is expected that billionaire Michael Bloomberg will defeat the Giuliani-endorsed Herman Badillo in the Republican primary. Already, Bloomberg has outspent Badillio by some $19 million and recent polls show that Bloomberg is holding a significant lead over Badillo.

A general election featuring either Green or Ferrer against Bloomberg would provide for a competitive matchup. Working in Bloomberg's favor is the fact that until last year he was a registered Democrat. His Republican credentials are questioned at every point by those within his own Party, which can only help to make Bloomberg immune from the traditional Democratic tactic of demonizing Republicans as far-right ideologues or extremists. Democrats also had a hard time doing the same with the pro-choice Mayor Giuliani but were eventually able to depict the Mayor as extreme due to the perception, among many Blacks and Latinos that the NYPD (which Giuliani publicly defended) was racist. Still, the mayor won two elections in an overwhelmingly Democratic city and arguably could win a third term against either Ferrer or Green. So, in a city where Republicans are outnumbered by an overwhelming margin, it is usually helpful if the Republican nominee for Mayor is seen as a moderate and not to closely associated with the national Republican Party's leadership. Bloomberg's non-Republican Party establishment credentials were emboldened by the recent endorsement he has received from Arizona Senator John McCain.

In addition, Bloomberg has secured the endorsement of the Independence Party and Dr. Lenora Fulani, guaranteeing Bloomberg a small, but significant measure of support in the Black community. Dr. Fualni has told us that she hopes to help Bloomberg win 20% of the Black vote. We think that the best he could do is 15%, which Dr. Fulani thinks is too little to secure a Bloomberg victory.

Chances of Bloomberg making a significant showing among the Black electorate are not good however, as his campaign has thus far steered away from the bold, candid and aggressive campaigning necessary for a Republican to win Black votes from Democrats. And even though Bloomberg is not the traditional Republican that eventually becomes the poster child for a massive Black turnout in favor of any Democrat, Bloomberg probably will not have the traction to survive the power of a united front of Black opinion leaders who are almost certain to support the Democratic nominee, no matter who he may be.

In addition, one finds it difficult to imagine how Bloomberg, with lukewarm support from Republicans, could counter the enormous Black turnout that some believed could be generated by a one-of-a kind hat-trick in New York City politics: the combined endorsement and campaigning for the Democratic nominee by Russell Simmons, Rev. Al Sharpton and Harlem's most famous White "resident" ex-president Bill Clinton.

The biggest challenge for Bloomberg if not winning the Black vote, will be his ability to win over the Giuliani Democrats. And with Giuliani endorsing Badillo and demonstrating a bit of a cold shoulder to Bloomberg that will be no easy task.

We look for Ferrer to narrowly defeat Green in a run-off in the Democratic Primary while Bloomberg defeats Badillo by a significant margin.

We will look at the race again after the primaries and expected run-off.

Cedric Muhammad

Wednesday, September 5, 2001

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The views and opinions expressed herein by the author do not necessarily represent the opinions or position of or Black Electorate Communications.

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