This June found New York City's crusading public advocate Mark Green courting financial support at a fundraising "comedy gala" in honor of his 55th birthday. To raise around $1 million for his 2001 mayoral bid, Green culled a selection of celebrities finely tuned to appeal to the sensibilities of the left-leaning (yet moneyed) baby boomer. Aside from a performance featuring the comedic stylings of Al Franken and Chevy Chase, participants who forked over $5,000 or $10,000 could attend a private cocktail reception--presumably to grouse about the excesses of the Giuliani administration with the likes of Marlo Thomas, Buck Henry, Tony Randall, and the eldest Baldwin brother.
Mark Green is climbing back onto his horse. New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani's decision to bow out of the Senate race against Hillary Clinton was not only a major letdown for political journalists already bored with the presidential race, but also a blow for Green, who would have finished out the mayor's last year in office if Giuliani had won. Like the headstrong Giuliani running for Senate against a widely reviled (and revered) first lady, this surprising succession had all the qualities of a good political yarn, even with an ironic twist. Green, after all, has played the supporting role of Giuliani nemesis for the past seven years.
The public advocate job is successor to what was once the second-most powerful elected office in New York City, president of the city council. That position was a casualty to a city charter reform in 1989. Though the public advocate's office has practically no legislative power, Green remains the city's highest-profile elected liberal.
Ever since he successfully defeated Giuliani's clumsy attempt to alter the order of succession in yet another proposed charter revision last fall, Green has said he didn't want just to be handed the mayor's job. "I far, far preferred [to become mayor] not because Giuliani won an election but because I won an election," he told me. Green was in his car heading to one of the many events he attends each day when he heard the news on the radio that Giuliani was dropping out. "I didn't bat an eye. Just left to give a speech to a Tikkun conference," he said. Not that most political observers believe him. The developing wisdom was that a tryout run as mayor would have given Green not only the enviable position of running for mayor as an incumbent, but also a chance to prove he could govern as well as criticize.
Now Green faces a wide-open field of Democratic candidates who have been milling around the New York political scene for as long as he has. The leading contenders are City Council Speaker Peter Vallone, City Comptroller Alan Hevesi, and Bronx Borough President Fernando Ferrer. As always, there will be a number of minor characters, likely including racial demagogue Al Sharpton, who, if he runs, could cut into Green's popularity with black voters. The 2001 Democratic primary should determine the next mayor--Giuliani is term limited, and there is probably no other Republican who can be elected in a city with a four-to-one ratio of registered Democrats to Republicans.
While Green garners the most support in very early polls, it should prove to be a robust race. Under New York City's new campaign finance rules, which were crafted by Green and Vallone, candidates receive ample matching funds for small donations. And of course there are plenty of wealthy players in New York to hit up for the big donations that are not precluded under the matching system.
Green is essentially the city government's official nag, criticizing how things are done and, occasionally, rooting out corruption. The public advocate is largely a kind of institutionalized Ralph Nader (who in fact was Green's longtime boss before Green turned to electoral politics). Green's power is largely limited to issuing reports, holding press conferences, and filing lawsuits, calling attention to where government has screwed up. After the shooting of Patrick Dorismond by an undercover police officer, Green sued the mayor's office for releasing Dorismond's juvenile criminal records. Last fall, Green's office released a well-regarded report on problems with the police department's responses to civilian complaints. The advocate's office also undertakes many less-than-glamorous investigations (a recent report demonstrates, for example, that most city agencies do not comply with regulations on how long they should keep callers on hold).
While Green doesn't like being categorized as a mere thorn in Giuliani's side, he has always clearly enjoyed giving the mayor a poke. His speeches and off-the-cuff remarks are liberally peppered with anti-Giuliani slights that have the same well-worn quality as the jokes that high school teachers tell period after period. Yet like the other prospective candidates, Green recognizes that despite Giuliani's ever-so-obvious failings, many voters credit him with improving the city's appearance and safety. "Everybody is going to be like him without saying they are. They will say, in effect, we are going to carry on the best without the rough edges," says Fred Siegel, a historian at Cooper Union.
And indeed, even Green, who represents the liberal end of New York electoral politics, says in his stump speech that the future mayor shouldn't strive to be either the "new Giuliani" or the "anti-Giuliani," but instead should "build on this mayor's proven successes on crime and do better when it comes to student test scores, police misconduct, racial divisions, and secret government. The best models available are frankly those of Tony Blair and Bill Clinton, neither of whom simply reversed the policies of their conservative predecessors, but [who] kept the good and tossed the bad."
Remarkably enough, Green might even get a little help from Giuliani himself. The two men spoke on the phone after the mayor's strange New Agey press conference announcing he would not run for Senate. And the following week, they even met for a brief period after a bill-signing ceremony--their first tête-à-tête in four years. Green said they spoke about working together on a specific agenda, although he declined to identify particulars. "We agreed we should try to have a better relationship, since it couldn't get much worse." ¤