SILVER SPRING, MD. — Mark Green, likely to be elected mayor of New York next Tuesday, is living demonstration of at least two clichés.
As the city's consumer-affairs commissioner, then as its public advocate, and, since the 1970s, as a combative TV debater, Mr. Green has proved time and again that the squeaky wheel does indeed get the grease.
But he's also shown that familiarity breeds, if not contempt, then something less than unconditional love, as he's commanded the spotlight with thousands of press conferences, reports, and books. From his early appearances on William F. Buckley's "Firing Line" to his continuing role as "guest liberal" on "Crossfire," Green was a familiar face before he started making news as a public official. He became one of those characters on TV people think they know.
Now reporters call him by his first name as they skewer him with "anecdotal" and "off the record" criticism. Ed Koch smirks that Green is too "obnoxious," although the last time I looked up the word in my political dictionary, I saw Koch's picture.
The conventional wisdom is that Mark Green may not be tough enough to be mayor at this most challenging time in the city's history. The whispering campaign against him is getting louder - and he hasn't even won yet.
New York politics hasn't changed much over the years. In every election, one candidate is "out of step with New Yorkers" and the other is a "dangerous liberal." That's how the camps attacked each other in the days of Mario Cuomo vs. George Pataki, David Dinkins vs. Rudy Giuliani, Hillary Clinton vs. Rick Lazio - and everyone vs. Alfonse D'Amato (including Mark Green in 1986).
This year, it's Republican Mike Bloomberg's turn to attack the Democrat as "a very liberal, leftist kind of guy." Bloomberg is playing a risky game when he calls Green the "dangerous liberal" of the race. At a time when the city needs every ounce of its energy and resolve, divisiveness, and doubt are far more threatening than Green's résumé.
To paraphrase Lloyd Bentsen: I know dangerous liberals. Dangerous liberals have been clients of mine. Green is no dangerous liberal. Take Ralph Nader. When I was creating campaign material for Green's 1993 campaign for public advocate, we relied heavily on Mr. Nader's endorsement and a picture of Mark and Ralph together. Today, I suspect even Mark Green has joined the growing list of Naderites whom the great man considers sellouts.
Now, instead of quoting Ralph Nader, Green points to the examples of Bill Clinton and British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who modernized their parties and set the stage for a new, more global politics. Considering the global partnerships the next mayor of New York is going to need, Green's world view makes more sense than ever.
Green's triumph over a primary field of candidates from what used to be called the "clubhouse" cemented his reputation as an outsider who plays a shrewd inside game of politics. And his recent announcement that Clinton's highly regarded Treasury secretary, Robert Rubin, would be a key mayoral adviser reassured Wall Street.
Still, to quote New Yorker Rodney Dangerfield, Mark Green gets no respect. His campaign is called "aloof" at best and racially divisive at worst, following his bitter primary contest with Fernando Ferrer, who was backed by a coalition of minority leaders including the Rev. Al Sharpton and Rep. Charles Rangel.
Meanwhile, Sharpton is no doubt preparing a primary challenge to Green in 2005 if his run for the presidency doesn't work out. And it won't astonish anyone if Giuliani starts dropping hints about running for mayor again. (Term limits only prohibit three consecutive terms.) But Green would do well to put politics aside for a while.
If Green wins (and despite spending more than $40 million, Bloomberg is still 16 points behind in the polls), he will take office with the rare distinction of not owing anything to the various constituencies that traditionally fuel winning mayoral campaigns. Most of the unions opposed Green in the primary, as did much of the minority community he once counted as his base. This independence may come in handy when he has to confront potential layoffs and budget cuts.
Green won't be the kind of mayor he thought he'd be a year ago. But like his hero, Bobby Kennedy, Green enjoys rolling up his sleeves and adapting to a changing world. "If I wasn't the United States senator," Kennedy once said, "I'd rather be working in Bedford-Stuyvesant than any place I know." Or as Mark Green likes to say, "I may wear you out, but I'll never let you down."
William S. Klein, a political consultant, has worked on Mark Green's past campaigns.