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Wednesday, August 10, 2005

Ferrer's Bid Mines Hopes of an Ethnic City - New York Times

Ferrer's Bid Mines Hopes of an Ethnic City - New York TimesAugust 10, 2005
Ferrer's Bid Mines Hopes of an Ethnic City
By DIANE CARDWELL

Over the last decade, Fernando Ferrer has come to define Democratic politics in New York City and all their searing divisions.

In 1997, he ran for mayor but dropped out before the primary, leading some moderate and Hispanic Democrats to support Rudolph W. Giuliani, the Republican incumbent, who won re-election. In 2001, he came within a hair of winning the Democratic primary runoff, losing to Mark Green in a battle that split the party along ethnic lines and contributed to its defeat that November.

Now, as he pursues a mayoral bid for the third time, leading Democrats and numerous polls suggest that the stars are finally aligned in his favor for the Sept. 13 primary, and his strategists are hoping that he will not only take first place, but will capture the 40 percent of the vote needed to avoid a runoff.

It has been a remarkable rise for Mr. Ferrer from a drug- and violence-riddled South Bronx neighborhood to become the city's most prominent Hispanic politician. But that road, especially the stretch that runs through his campaign this year, has also been bumpy, pocked with seeming inconsistencies that have exposed some of the old party divisions.

As a result, many party leaders have questioned whether Mr. Ferrer, 55, is the person who can finally remake the traditional Democratic power base and break a decade-long Republican hold on City Hall. And underlying the political concerns is the sense that Mr. Ferrer's style - cautious to the point of inertia - will fail to energize the coalition of labor, minorities and whites he so needs for victory should he make it to the November general election.

For months, Mr. Ferrer has been going around the city, reaching far beyond his Bronx roots and seeking to draw in the middle-class voters who have proven key to winning city elections. His message - given at a backyard fund-raiser in an affluent Staten Island neighborhood one swampy night, or at an African Methodist Episcopal church in southeast Queens on another - strikes traditional Democratic themes in a city that has turned its back on the party, at least in selecting its mayors: that government can solve city ills through building more subsidized housing, by hiring more employees, by taxing Wall Street to improve its schools.

At the core of his candidacy is his belief that many New Yorkers face huge challenges merely trying to get by in the city, given rising housing costs, public schools that often fail to provide an adequate education, and a lack of attractive jobs for all but the elite. Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, he argues, does not even recognize these concerns and panders only to business concerns and wealthier New Yorkers.

In carrying that message, Mr. Ferrer is mining the same potent yet flammable vein of ethnic aspiration, minority kinship and class anxiety that he did in his failed 2001 bid. But he is also emphasizing his common-man credentials, portraying himself as an ordinary striving New Yorker who raised himself up through hard work and opportunity.

"If not for a good, sound education, I would not be standing here before you today," he often says. "Someone else would."

It is a message his advisers hope will resonate in neighborhoods throughout the city, and it is one that he, among all of the candidates, is uniquely suited to bear.

Unlike the other Democratic candidates, Mr. Ferrer can point to a hardscrabble New York background in which he surmounted formidable obstacles. Raised during tough times by a working mother who divorced when her only son was 8, he worked odd jobs around the neighborhood beginning at 10, excelled both in and out of school and became the first in his family to graduate from college.

But it was in political circles that Mr. Ferrer made his mark early on, charting a course that reflects an earlier age of New York civic life, when promising candidates were nurtured by a county political machine that groomed them for higher office. Known as a policy grind who is part operator and part conciliator, he quickly rose to prominence in the City Council and, through his ties to the powerful Bronx Democratic organization, was anointed in 1987 as Bronx borough president, the springboard to his mayoral aspirations.

Even though Mr. Ferrer portrays himself as a reluctant politician, his path from a South Bronx tenement can often seem like a finely rendered road map to City Hall.

"My idea of Freddy all this time is that ever since I've known him he's been running for office," said Angelo Falcón, a political scientist who first met Mr. Ferrer when they were teenagers. "You know the guy who wants to be student president and he's like a real cutthroat politician in high school? Well, that was Freddy."

And now, Mr. Ferrer is making what could be his last stand, his final chance to attain an office his wife, Aramina, says he was clearly destined for when she met him back in high school.

"I always knew," Ms. Ferrer, a public school principal, said in an interview in the couple's Bronx apartment in Riverdale. "I knew he was extraordinary because he was so focused, so serious and so smart. I thought, 'Wow, where did you get that from?'"

Public Service Boot Camp

The roots of where he got that from lie on Fox Street in the South Bronx, in the ghost of a five-story walk-up where Mr. Ferrer lived in circumstances that he mentions frequently but describes, when pressed, only in the most general terms. His early youth was "beautiful," he says, with stickball on the block, Sunday breakfast at his grandmother's house after church and pizza every Friday night with his mother and sister (both named Susan) at the Venice Restaurant on Wales Avenue.

But as the Bronx slowly gave itself over to the ravages of the drug trade and middle-class flight during the 1960's, things began to change in his neighborhood. His grandmother, Inocenzia Lopez, was mugged in her building. There were frequent arrests on the streets. The superintendent stopped making repairs.

There had been early harbingers of the trouble ahead. At 6, Mr. Ferrer said, he and his mother found anti-black and anti-Hispanic graffiti scrawled on a sign. "Get out of the neighborhood," it read.

"Now I had never heard those terms in my life," Mr. Ferrer recalled in an interview at his campaign headquarters in Midtown Manhattan, referring to ethnic slurs in the graffiti. When he asked what they meant, he said, his mother replied, "Well that's us."

After the departure of Mr. Ferrer's father, Santiago, of whom he will say only that they had "tough moments," money was tight, so Mr. Ferrer began working odd jobs as a child, first shining shoes, then making deliveries, including the case of Pabst Blue Ribbon quart bottles he walked up five flights to one apartment every Saturday.

Mr. Ferrer describes his grandmother, who prepared food in the kitchen of the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, and his mother, who was a hotel bookkeeper, as hard-nosed women who pushed him to excel in school and make something of himself. If his grandmother was stirring oatmeal at the stove and he got out of line, Mr. Ferrer recalled, he got a spoonful of the thick porridge flicked onto his cheek.

But it was his involvement in the Puerto Rican youth leadership group Aspira in high school that may have set the direction of his life, helping to develop his serious side while laying the groundwork for his political ambitions and public persona. Even now, on the campaign trail, he can seem like an overachieving debate-club president, bristling at questions or peppering his speech with words like ameliorate and temporize.

Former members of Aspira describe it as a kind of public service boot camp, with seminars on Robert's Rules of Order and work on voter registration drives, that served as a catapult to prominence for generations of young Latinos. But the organization also helped its members form a sense of Nuyorican identity, one that promoted mainstream values in contrast to the more militant groups of that day.

"It was great because it gave us an opportunity to see that we weren't alone in our schools, gave us an opportunity to see that, yes, we were smart," said Marlene Cintrón, the executive director of the HopeLine, a South Bronx charity that helps immigrants, adding, "and we could get empowered together."

Luis A. Miranda Jr., a former Aspira leader who was once president of the city's Health and Hospitals Corporation and is now one of Mr. Ferrer's closest advisers, described the organization as serious-minded, like Mr. Ferrer.

"It wasn't just to stay out of trouble," he said. "You had to sign an agreement that you were going to get good grades, that you were going to strive to be the best in your class." Recalling a trip to Puerto Rico, Mr. Miranda summarized the gravity of the group: "There is a beach 10 miles away from you but, no, you go to the legislature and you spend the day talking to the legislators."

Among his peers, Mr. Ferrer developed a reputation that would follow him into politics for being intelligent and driven with a flair for cogent, articulate debate.

"We used to call him Sit Down Freddy," Ms. Cintrón said, because at Aspira meetings, he always had something to say. "And we were like, 'Sit down! Sit down, Freddy.' So we knew even back then, that we were going to be seeing - and hearing - a lot from Freddy."

A top student at the demanding Cardinal Spellman High School in the Northeast Bronx, Mr. Ferrer became president of its Aspira chapter. But there was another side to his exuberance, some say. At one point, he discovered that a treasurer had misspent about $10 of the group's money, so he hauled the girl before a meeting, recalled Mr. Falcón, a member at the time, and reduced her to tears.

"He was like a prosecutor," Mr. Falcón said. "He could have talked to her privately, but instead he made a big deal of it. He was just that kind of a guy."

Fast Political Celebrity

After high school, Mr. Ferrer went on to New York University in the Bronx on scholarship, and studied government, philosophy and the classics. After graduation, he worked for several government agencies and elected officials in the city and state, and eventually became a district leader. He became close to the Bronx Democratic Party, which, mindful of the demographic changes sweeping the borough, was looking for promising young, loyal Puerto Ricans to nurture for leadership roles.

After losing his first election - a race for the State Assembly that he ran on a bet - he became a councilman in 1982, which put him on a fast track to political celebrity. Before long, political operatives began talking of him as potentially the city's first Latino mayor.

"Freddy was one of the stars of the Council," said Peter F. Vallone, who led the Council for 16 years. "Freddy was the kind of council member who understood the difference between doing something that was popular and doing something that was right," Mr. Vallone said, adding that he always chose the latter.

But in 1987, when the Bronx borough president, Stanley Simon, resigned amid impending indictments stemming from a bribery scandal, Mr. Ferrer was installed as borough president. He was reluctant at first - "I thought if God was good to me, I'd be a congressman," he recalled. "I enjoyed being a legislator."

Nonetheless, laboring against low expectations, Mr. Ferrer took to the job with a certain gusto. He says his first two acts were to clean house, figuratively (asking for staff resignations) and literally (stripping the Bronx County Courthouse, where the borough president's office is, of its graffiti). He says now that he liked being in charge because he saw the potential to help improve the Bronx, but he also clearly enjoyed the status that came with being an executive. Although he is best known as Freddy to the outside world, his staff began addressing him as Mr. President, a label that some aides use to this day.

"I made the transition from the legislative to the executive in 20 minutes," Mr. Ferrer said in an interview at a Brooklyn diner. "I liked it, it worked for me, I had a very clear sense of what I wanted to accomplish."

At the time, the borough had become a dystopian punch line and a popular synonym for urban blight, something Mr. Ferrer says he was determined to change. He is fond of saying on the campaign trail that under his watch, the Bronx gained more than 66,000 units of housing and 34,000 new jobs. It was even selected as an All-America City by the National Civic League in 1997.

But Mr. Ferrer's role has been debated over the years, with fans heaping credit on him and others saying he was simply the steward of a renaissance that mirrored the city's broader recovery from the depths of a wrenching decline. At the same time, consultants and public policy experts say that after the 1990 Charter revision diluted much of the power of the borough presidents, Mr. Ferrer's ability to act as much more than a cheerleader was severely curtailed.

At the same time, Mr. Ferrer's close relationship to the Bronx Democratic machine, with its reputation for shady dealings if not outright corruption, has always hovered around him.

Still, he gained a reputation as a relentless advocate for his borough, and before long he became restless. In 1997, he ran for mayor for the first time, a decision Mr. Ferrer, who often refers to himself in the second person, said he reached because "you come to realize, in the context of this city, the place to try to make a positive difference in people's lives is City Hall, the mayoralty." In that race, he sought to position himself as a moderate. Before abruptly dropping out, he competed for the Democratic berth that ultimately went to Ruth W. Messinger, who lost to Rudolph W. Giuliani, the Republican incumbent.

After four more years as borough president, he tried in 2001, as his term ended by law, to carve out a territory to the left of the other Democrats. He ran as the anti-Rudy and casting himself as the savior of the "other New York," where he said people left behind by the freight train of the Giuliani administration lived.

That message brought him to the brink of winning the primary runoff, although his opponents labeled it divisive. And he is still tainted by the treacherous ethnic and racial politics that exploded in the contest against Mark Green. To this day, many Democrats blame Mr. Ferrer and his supporters for the Democratic Party's defeat on Election Day, saying that in a fit of spite after losing the runoff, they failed to rally behind Mr. Green, paving the way for Mr. Bloomberg's victory.

An Ethnic Investment

Since then, Mr. Ferrer has lived a more serene life, quietly finishing a master's degree in public administration at Baruch, and running the Drum Major Institute, a public policy advocacy center he redirected to focus on problems of the working poor and the middle class, concerns that form the backbone of his campaign.

He was also able to spend more time with his family, including his daughter, Carlina, and his two young grandsons, and indulge his passion for cooking. Self-taught in the kitchen, but by many accounts accomplished, and a man who is perhaps at his most animated when discussing the relative merits of Krispy Kreme doughnuts and White Castle burgers, Mr. Ferrer said he had to think long and hard about whether he wanted to start down this road again.

"I was not especially eager to do it because I happen to like the idea of coming home for dinner," he said. "I didn't need another run to affirm my life - I had a nice life," he added, tucking into a potato-and-onion omelet, like the ones he ate at his grandmother's house growing up.

Mr. Ferrer says that he was spurred to run by his disillusionment with how Mr. Bloomberg has governed the city, but his candidacy also represents the chance to pay off the investment of an entire generation of Latino leaders and prove the political maturation of the city's largest minority group.

And for Mr. Ferrer, the heart of his candidacy lies in his upbringing, in contrast to Mr. Bloomberg, who he says has no understanding of the problems of ordinary New Yorkers.

At a Midtown diner in the spring, Mr. Ferrer put it this way. "Everything I am, everything I've become, every opportunity I've ever had has been as a result of being a kid growing up in New York," he said, speaking slowly and tapping the table, seemingly unsure that he was being understood. "I want those same opportunities for generations to follow."

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