Election '97: Ruth's Root Rot

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No roots are grassier than Ruth Messinger's. Just try to name a community board, tenants council, PTA or senior center in Manhattan that has not grown familiar with the clack of her low-rise pumps.

Even when she's been on the campaign trail in past elections, Messinger has been most comfortable in small groups where she can connect face-to-face with constituents. In fact, professional pols credit the Manhattan Borough president with perfecting the “coffee klatch” fundraising technique. Hers contain three basic ingredients: 1) a left-wing living room (preferably in a rent-stabilized apartment), 2) hot Joe 3) and the candidate forging unusually deep personal bonds with prospective Friends of Ruth.

In the hands of more cynical politicians, the klatches can be little more than shakedowns. But most of the contributions she's fetched this way over the years have been of the two-digit variety. This attitude has spread to the way she has run her office. “I think Ruth's strength has always been her commitment to the communities she's represented,” says Brooklyn College Political Science Professor Ed Rogowsky, himself a former director of community board relations in Brooklyn Borough Hall. “She's made her reputation by being responsive to what her constituents need. There's no doubt about it.”

By most estimates she is just a primary away from facing Rudy Giuliani in the race for mayor, yet Messinger, the coffee-talk liberal, seems to be morphing into an old-fashioned, media-obsessed New Democrat, hiring Chicagoan Jim Andrews–who specializes in big TV and radio buys–to run her candidacy. It may be a strategy chosen to counter Rudolph Giuliani's cash-fat re-election fund or to avoid getting her image sullied by the traditional Democratic machine.

But in New York, where potent neighborhood street operations have put scores of Democrats in City Hall, the approach is shocking many of Messinger's supporters. Some wonder if she has even a slim chance of getting the big turn-out she needs in order to win.

“Back in February, when she was getting my endorsement, she called me six times. I haven't heard from her since,” says one angry Manhattan district leader, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “For eight years she's been campaigning seriously for this and she had a good plan for working inside the communities. Now its like someone pulled the plug on that. I don't get it. Does she really want to win? Who does she think is going to pull out the vote for her?”


To blame the Messinger campaign's early hiccups on the candidate alone is, of course, unfair. Whoever faced Rudolph Giuliani would not only have had to overcome his 60 percent approval rating, but also his nearly $9 million war chest, one of the largest ever seen in New York. Messinger, relying on a greater number of small contributors, had raised about half that much as of July 12. Moreover, Giuliani has tamed, then allied himself with, the once-hostile municipal labor unions–forcing Messinger into the uncomfortable situation of attacking big labor, the Democratic Party's most consistent source of money and field troops.

But, to a large extent, the crux of her campaign's dilemma is her political identity and approach, which has always focused on working with local groups on grassroots causes. As a City Councilmember she championed community control on land use decisions and other issues. As Borough President, she occasionally angered community board leaders in well-heeled Manhattan neighborhoods by allocating discretionary grant money disproportionately to the poorest neighborhoods in the borough.

None of this has made her especially disposed to play ball with outer-borough pols.

She's hardly the first ambitious Manhattanite to face this problem. Twenty years ago, Ed Koch, then a full-blooded reformer who had faced down Tammany Hall in his Greenwich Village days, reluctantly solicited the Brooklyn machine's help in bumping upstart Mario Cuomo in the Democratic primary runoff. Koch convened a series of hushed back room meetings with aides to infamous Brooklyn Democratic boss Meade Esposito, where the mayor-to-be made a tacit promise granting the boss key patronage slots. Koch agreed and won a tight race, but the compact was a disaster: Esposito's hand-picked transportation commissioner turned out to be a crook, as did several of his other friends at first deemed worthy of administration paychecks.

Under this cloud of history, Messinger went to Brooklyn earlier this year to discuss the terms of an alliance with top Democratic operative Jeff Feldman and Assemblyman Clarence Norman, the Brooklyn Democratic Party leader. Cordial chatter filled the room. Norman made what he thought was a modest, reasonable offer: he handed the Manhattanites a $150,000 shopping list for miscellaneous campaign expenses–the largest being the cost of setting up Messinger field offices and embarking on the all-important get-out-the-vote drives. “We weren't asking for shit. We asked for twice that much during last year's judicial races,” said a leading Brooklyn Democrat on condition of anonymity.

Ruth and an aide nodded politely, said they would call back and thanked the leaders for their valuable time. They never made the call. “We took the piece of paper and then we crumpled the piece of paper up and threw it in the garbage,” says Messinger's campaign press secretary Lee Jones, with voice-quavering vehemence. “It's just not the kind of thing we ever plan to do in this campaign.”

A few days later, the Kings County Democratic organization formally endorsed native son Sal Albanese for mayor.

The parties are certainly not as strong as they used to be–and their support is not utterly essential–but they still control local operations and can muster high turnout in the projects, senior centers and middle-income co-op complexes that contain the highest concentrations of voters in the city's most populous borough. “It's true the bosses don't run things anymore,” says Rogowsky. “But if you're running a campaign that's already short on money, you need every bit of help you can get.”


The danger for Messinger is not merely that she didn't emerge with a Koch-style deal–but that the machine's leaders now may actually find glee in her failure. Says one prominent Brooklyn Democratic Party fixer: “Let's give her as much lip service as she's entitled to and see how hard she crashes. She doesn't like us. She's never liked us. She's not going to like us. So, you know what? Fuck her.”

Bronx regulars take a more civil attitude towards Messinger, but their support is thin–despite the avowed help of Borough President, former Messinger rival Fernando Ferrer and powerful county leader Roberto Ramirez. “We support her, but how hard will we work for her?” says one former high-ranking source who worked on Ferrer's aborted campaign. In Queens, the party has backed her, but popular Democratic Borough President Claire Shulman has defected to the GOP camp.

In a recent interview with the New York Observer, media consultant Andrews boasted of a “massive grassroots operation.” But Messinger has yet to open a single satellite operation in the outer boroughs. And in late July, her campaign workers told City Limits they had yet to see any campaign buttons. Still, Jones speaks of “setting up our own field operation” to avoid dealing with the party's county organizations.

There's no doubt she has some catching up to do. In Brooklyn, Giuliani has culled vital endorsements from key Democrats in some areas where Messinger might have enjoyed a naturally sympathetic constituency. In impoverished East Brooklyn, where Giuliani's workfare initiative and his attempt to eliminate fire alarm pull-boxes made him almost universally unpopular, the mayor has netted the endorsement of incumbent City Councilmember Priscilla Wooten. She controls turnout in many East New York projects and has a large patronage base in the district's schools. In Brighton Beach, where Messinger's credentials as a Jewish grandmother could help erode the mayor's dominance, Giuliani picked the energetic, ambitious Jules Polenetsky to run for Public Advocate on the mayor's ticket. In Williamsburg and Bushwick–the borough's most concentrated and politically progressive Hispanic neighborhoods–powerhouse Assemblyman Vito Lopez has lined up with Giuliani, along with his voter-rich train of community organizations.

Nonetheless, Messinger's support in central Brooklyn remains strong, with Congressman Major Owens, State Senator Velmanette Montgomery and a string of local church leaders providing her with energetic backing. But even these Messinger supporters are beginning to wonder when–or if–the candidate's campaign will ever establish a presence in their part of town. “She has almost no visibility in Central Brooklyn,” says an aide to a Brooklyn council member who considers himself a Messinger supporter.


All things considered, it's no wonder Andrews and Messinger are talking so enthusiastically about their media campaign. “It is true there is a media focus, but you have to understand we're going up against a media behemoth in the fall,” Jones explains. “Much of the campaign is going to be decided over the airwaves. It's impossible to get out there and shake enough hands. Per dollar, media is the most cost effective way to spend your money.”

Manhattan county Democratic leader Denny Farrell, a Messinger backer, says her strategy reflects the state of modern politics. “To tell you the truth, I think guys like me are basically obsolete. Ten, 20 years ago, you won a race by going on bended knee to the kings. But today that's not the way you do it. You run a TV campaign.”

Besides, Jones assures the flock, “The campaign is in its very early stages. There are people who are being Monday morning quarterbacks and here we are, on the sidelines, doing our wind sprints before the game.” Still, when pressed on the campaign's specific plans for setting up a citywide field operation–or on the content of Messinger's TV spots–he demurs. “As the organization develops we'll be happy to give details, but it doesn't serve much useful purpose for me to sit around and discuss these aspects of the campaign,” Jones adds.

In one respect, Jones is almost certainly right: there is enough time to work out the kinks. The fact that Messinger faces her biggest challenge in the general election–should she win the primary as expected–gives her campaign two months more than in traditional New York campaign years, when the Democratic primary has been the deciding contest.

After all, among her chorus of advisors Messinger can count John Mollenkopf, the CUNY political science professor who wrote the book on Koch's masterful manipulation of neighborhood-based political machines and nonprofit groups. In addition, Messinger has maintained an aggressive schedule of attending outer-borough flesh-presses.

And she's started to get encouragement from the unlikeliest quarters. “I still don't think she'll win, but she's in a lot better shape than I was at this time in my campaign,” Ed Koch says. “It's still early. Nobody should panic. She could still pull it out.”

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