Calling his narrow defeat by Mayor Michael Bloomberg last year a "fluke," Mark Green says he’s often urged to return to public office.
And while he insists he has made no decision about a 2005 rematch or a rumored bid the following year for state attorney general, the former public advocate seems happy to encourage speculation.
"I do not believe that losing the mayoralty 49-47 to Bloomberg, Giuliani, Pataki and $73 million should mean that I never again consider public office," said Green in the first extensive interview on his political future since the Democrat’s 2001 defeat by the Republican billionaire, who was backed by popular outgoing mayor Rudy Giuliani and Gov. George Pataki.
Green said he would only run again "if it grew out of public sentiment," and estimated that he has been approached in the past year by perhaps "two people" who voted against him and "probably 3,000 who said they were proud to vote for me and would do it again."
Such a ratio, he acknowledged, can create a "distorted reality" for a politician since detractors are less likely to confront him. But he added: "What I hear most often on the street is, ‘Don’t give up your public life, we need you.’"
(While speaking to The Jewish Week over breakfast near his Midtown office, a passer-by approached and said "the wrong man is in office. You can’t run the city like a business.")
Green, who was ahead in the polls for months before Election Day, said he’ll decide his plans within the next two years.
"Will I end my public official life on what in many ways was a fluke in 2001, when I was sailing along and hit a ‘perfect storm’ in September and October? I’ll know in a year or two," he said.
The "perfect storm," Green said, was the confluence of the 9-11 terror attacks that scuttled primary day and his momentum as frontrunner; Bloomberg’s expenditure of more than $70 million of his own wealth in the race, and the divisiveness that arose between himself and Bronx Borough President Fernando Ferrer in the Democratic runoff, for which he has insisted he is blameless.
Green called Bloomberg a "smart, competent, successful man," but noted that the mayor’s approval rating had been cut in half in recent months, from 60 to 31 percent, at a time of rising taxes and budget cuts.
"A lot of it is that he has had to feed fiscal spinach to the public," said Green. "But there may be other reasons as well. Can a chief executive with a 31 percent approval rating in his first year come back and prevail? Absolutely. If he has a 31 percent favorable rating entering an election year, would he be in trouble? Absolutely."
Green spends most of his time these days writing books, lecturing at New York University Law School and running a nonprofit think tank, the New Democracy Project. But he keeps a public profile appearing as a weekly commentator on New York 1 cable’s "Inside City Hall," and made campaign appearances during Carl McCall’s failed gubernatorial bid.
Although he regularly critiques the mayor’s performance while appearing on the NY1 panel with former Mayor Ed Koch and former Sen. Al D’Amato, Green avoids hypothesizing on what he would do differently had he won.
Should Green enter the mayoral fray, he again would face a crowded Democratic field, as he did in 2001. Prospective candidates include Ferrer, Council Speaker Gifford Miller, Comptroller William Thompson and Manhattan Borough President C. Virginia Fields. Reps. Jerrold Nadler and Anthony Weiner have also been mentioned.
Bloomberg recently said he would seek re-election in 2005, although observers speculated that such an announcement was necessary to maintain his clout in budget negotiations with the City Council.
In an attorney general primary if, as expected, incumbent Democrat Eliot Spitzer runs for governor, Green would face Bronx Assemblyman Jeff Klein, who already has declared, and possibly Manhattan state Sen. Eric Schneiderman.
Green supporters say he would have a leg up on the competition because of his high name recognition and association with public interest issues. They say he would model any future campaign on his successful 1993 run for public advocate, as well as Alan Hevesi’s successful bid this year for state comptroller. Those races involved building on positive name recognition with a minimum of combat.
"Mark is a brand name that is well liked and has a good record," said Richard Schrader, Green’s former campaign manager and longtime friend.
Schrader admits that Green would face obstacles in fund raising because of last year’s defeat. Public matching funds and their spending restrictions would level the playing field, he said, although another Bloomberg cash blitz would be difficult to overcome.
"There is a lot of loyalty toward Mark," said Schrader, adding that he has seen polls suggesting minimal lingering negatives for Green stemming from the fractious runoff.
But Doug Muzzio, a professor of public affairs at Baruch College, is far less sanguine about a Green comeback. "My immediate, knee-jerk reaction is fuhgedaboutit, it ain’t gonna happen," said Muzzio. "There won’t be any groundswell. Not if you lose the way he did."
Green’s predicament bears a striking resemblance to that of fellow Democrat Al Gore. Both were next in line for the office they were seeking, narrowly lost and are struggling to maintain their place as frontrunners as other party stars jockey for position. When asked, Green toys with the parallel.
"Is there a similarity between two experienced public officials who were No. 2’s and tried to be No. 1’s and then were about to win when funny things happened?" he asked, laughing. "I’ll let other people come to their own conclusions."
Muzzio said that once both men have been branded "losers" by the public, their stars are tarnished. "To a certain extent they missed their chance and they are not going to get a second one," said Muzzio.
He conceded, however, that Giuliani and Richard Nixon were two examples of comeback losers. "Sometimes people like me are wrong," he said.
Discussing other topics, Green said Democrats needed to place a greater emphasis on ideological differences with Republicans in order to maintain their party’s traditional bond with Jewish voters.
"We have to better articulate that we are the party of Kennedy, Clinton and Lieberman, and they are the party of Trent Lott, Jesse Helms and Jerry Falwell," said Green. "The Dixiecrats who run Congress and so much of the executive branch are all too often racially and religiously intolerant, notwithstanding how they, for political convenience, play up their support of Israel because they want a place for the messiah to return to.
"Democrats have to be much more publicly courageous," he said.
Green also said his party should take stronger steps to punish its officials who cross party lines in tight races. "If you’re going to get the benefits of being married to the Democratic Party, you can’t betray her six or seven nights a week."
He said Democrats could learn from the "political discipline" of the GOP and begin withholding funds or political backing to the disloyal. "Because we are not comfortable cracking the whip, we are at an inherent disadvantage," said Green.
Asked if there was a single thing he wished he could change about last year’s race, Green said it was his nature to "look ahead rather than back." He added that he had once wondered aloud to his wife, Denny, about "what would have happened if Osama bin Laden sitting in his cave said let’s do it on Dec. 11 or Nov. 11."
"I stopped the conversation because thousands of people were affected far more catastrophically by that event than we were," Green said.
William Rapfogel, executive director of the Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty has accepted an invitation from the White House to serve as a panelist at the Regional Conference on Faith-Based and Community Initiatives in Philadelphia on Dec. 12.
Agudath Israel of America has sent a memo to state senators urging them to reject the Sexual Orientation Non-Discrimination Act when the Legislature reconvenes for a special session this week. Agudah’s David Zweibel says the bill "endangers free exercise of religion, free speech and the favored status long accorded the institution of marriage, and conveys a highly inappropriate social message."
City Councilwoman Melinda Katz of Queens has been appointed to the national board of the American Jewish Congress.