As the tables were cleared at Sunday’s breakfast of the Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty, Fernando Ferrer paused to chat with a pair of city Councilmen. Then, with barely a glance behind him, the former Bronx borough president and Democratic mayoral frontrunner said "OK, K-man, let’s go."
Minutes later, in a scene familiar to any observer of the campaign trail, Ferrer and Kalman Yeger were headed down the hotel stairs into Yeger’s waiting minivan, off to march in the Salute to Israel parade and discussing the rest of the day’s schedule.
In a town where some elected officials are known to change staff as often as they switch neckties, and talented aides often jump ship after a losing campaign, it’s something of a rarity to see a New York pol work the breakfast, dinner and parade circuit with the same aide as long as Ferrer and Yeger have.
It has been nearly 10 years since the Orthodox Jew from Flatbush with a history of supporting Republicans joined the staff of the Latino liberal from the Bronx, and those years have seen two prior campaigns for mayor, one aborted and one unsuccessful.
Struggling to hold on to his lead in the Democratic primary after some early missteps, Ferrer, 58, shook up his top campaign staff earlier this year and on Monday announced a new slate of hirings heading into the busy summer. But Yeger, 31, who is now executive director of New Yorkers for Ferrer, has been a fixture, and often the sole member, of his entourage.
"The young man is family," says Ferrer, who attended Yeger’s 1999 wedding and the brit of his son, Ari, on a Saturday morning three years later. (Upon entering the shul, Ferrer was asked by Sabbath-observant relatives to lower the air conditioner). "The only bris I ever went to, because I can’t stand the sight of blood, was his son’s," Ferrer recalls. The two first met at a 1995 Israel Bonds event in the Bronx when Yeger, nearing completion of his political science studies at Touro College, walked up to Ferrer and introduced himself. "I said, ‘If you run for mayor I want to work for you,’" says Yeger.
Within a year he was a special assistant in the borough president’s office, and in 1997 sat vigil with family members while Ferrer underwent surgery for an enlarged thyroid. Ferrer has been Yeger’s "Shabbos goy" not only at the brit but at hotels when they have traveled together on weekends, opening electronic doors and shutting lights.
"The reason I am in politics is because of Freddy Ferrer," Yeger says. "I believe in the things he believes in: giving hope to the people of the city and uniting it."
Of Yeger’s previous work on the campaigns of Republican Dennis Vacco for attorney general in 1994 and Bob Dole’s presidential bid in 1996, Ferrer says: "I have tried to correct his errant ways and the actions of his misspent youth." Yeger also worked for a former Democratic councilman, Lloyd Henry of Brooklyn.
While most of the city’s elected officials have staff members with ties to the Jewish community to manage their outreach efforts, Yeger’s role transcends the ethnic liaison job description. On Sunday, he marched with Ferrer at the Salute to Israel as well as a gay pride parade in Queens. "Freddy has always been his own Jewish liaison," says Yeger.
After term limits forced Ferrer from the borough presidency and he lost the mayoral bid in 2001, Yeger continued to appear with Ferrer at events over the past three and a half years.
"There is a unique bond and joint loyalty that would endure whether or not Freddy was running for mayor," says William Rapfogel, executive director of Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty, where Yeger worked as director of external affairs between his stints with Ferrer. "They can talk to each other without even having to speak and they seem to know what each other are thinking."
Some guests waiting to meet Mayor Michael Bloomberg at his Jewish heritage celebration Monday night were surprised to bump into Dr. Henry Kissinger.
"I just wanted to say hello to the mayor," said Richard Nixon’s secretary of state as he left Bloomberg’s receiving line at Gracie Mansion.
In a quick interview, Kissinger said he never met W. Mark Felt, who was revealed last week to be Deep Throat. "I don’t talk about it," he said. "People are making a profession out of talking about Watergate. I didn’t know Felt and I don’t comment on it."
Asked about the Mideast, Kissinger said the Bush administration was "doing very well" in handling the peace process, while Ariel Sharon is "a great man who has preserved Israel’s security in a very effective way." Declining further comment, Kissinger left the rainy event, missing out on kosher hot dogs, Israeli folk songs and Bloomberg’s Jewish history trivia test. Bloomberg spokesman Stu Loeser said the mayor and Kissinger "have known each other for years and are friends."
As a Senate candidate in 2000, Hillary Rodham Clinton denounced "voices of anti-Semitism, extremism, prejudice and intolerance" in the state’s Independence Party, earning the scorn of a party leader, Lenora Fulani. But Clinton isn’t joining her fellow Democrats in ripping the Republican Bloomberg for running with Fulani this year. "Everybody has to make their own choices," she said after speaking at the Met Council breakfast Sunday.
Fulani was the main headline coming out of a forum on WNBC that aired Sunday, in which the four Dem rivals attacked Bloomberg tag-team style on the issue. But Clinton and Bloomberg seem to have an unofficial non-aggression pact, and the mayor has not ruled out endorsing her re-election bid next year. On Monday, Clinton took on a far more partisan tone against the Bush administration at a fund-raiser.
The Bloomberg campaign has its new Jewish liaison, Mordy Lichtenstein, diligently e-mailing the media about the mayor’s busy Jewish week: meeting his Jerusalem counterpart, Uri Lupolianski; hosting the Gracie Mansion soiree; marching in the Salute to Israel parade and speaking at the Met Council breakfast, the Jewish Community Relations Council dinner and a Brooklyn Sephardic shul.Lichtenstein was also seen marching ahead of the mayor at the parade, picking up discarded "Mike ’05" signs and placing them in the hands of spectators.
(In fairness, plenty of other people were happily waving them on their own.)