Freddy Ferrer: My Kind Of New Yorker
Freddy Ferrer and Michael Schenkler. Photo by Azi Paybarah
By MICHAEL SCHENKLER
I love this job.
I get to spend time with some of the best people this City has to offer. And last Thursday evening one of the City’s finest citizens stopped by for a brief two hour chat.
You don’t find people much better than former Bronx Borough President Fernando Ferrer.
We embraced, sat down, poured coffee and I opened gently: “Are you running for mayor?”
“You’ll be the second one to know… the first is my wife,” Freddy retorted.
Since the last Mayoral adventure, he explained that, “I do what prudent people in my position would be doing. I’m enjoying my life right now.”
He still has a full plate running The Drum Major Institute – a think tank – writing for the Daily News, and serving on five not-for-profit boards.
In spite of being considerably less visible then he was as an elected official, he said of his yet undeclared Mayoral candidacy, “all the polls show me blowing everyone out.”
Before I share snippets of our enjoyable session together, I must share some clear impressions of a man who won my admiration and support as a candidate for Mayor in 2001.
Freddy is one of the rare public servants who views public policy as much with his heart as he does with his mind. His unwavering belief in a City to serve all New Yorkers is born of personal experience. Freddy wants to give back to New York and enable future generations to have the opportunities our City afforded him. His deep passionate and intelligent approach to public policy has been honed by his two year stint as president of Drum Major, the socially progressive think tank with a Board which includes civil rights leader Andrew Young, Martin Luther King III, and Robert Kennedy Jr.
“Mike Bloomberg isn’t a bad man. I have some disputes with him on some policy issues, some of them are urgent,” Freddy said of the man whose job he’d like.
Citing cutbacks in the Meals on Wheels program in the Bronx, Freddy exclaimed, “We’re arguing about $4 in that program and at the same time, [the Bloomberg administration] is talking about 600 million on the West Side stadium.”
Suggesting failure of the West Side Stadium effort, he explained, “the Mayor can’t say we’re spending $600 million without checking with anybody.
“When I raised this to [now Deputy Mayor] Dan Doctoroff, before Bloomberg announced his candidacy, and I said shouldn’t the stadium be in Queens, he said, ‘What do you mean?’”
Taking the sports theme one step further, this Queens publisher asked the kid from the Bronx, “What’s your favorite baseball team?”
“Leave me alone Mike,” Freddy said laughing, and then without missing a beat insisted, “In the National League, my favorite team is the Mets.”
“You should be a politician,” I laughed and thought out loud.
“For a major league team to get a new stadium, they should contribute not some money; a lot of money.” Freddy carefully punctuated this discussion of a new Queens Stadium at Willets Point. “The Mets have the second highest payroll in the major leagues.”
“We should not be in essence transferring common wealth to private business to defray the cost of free agency,” he clarified.
Our quick exchange:
MS: How come you didn’t win last time?
FF: I didn’t get enough votes.
FF: I don’t know.
MS: Was your ethnicity the reason?
FF: I prefer not to think so… Nobody ever totally disregards it, but the city voters are ready to look beyond it… I came 13,500 votes away from [the Democratic Mayoral nomination]. I did well in Queens, but not well enough… In the first round, I topped everybody, including two Queens candidates.
MS: What will it take for you to win the Mayor’s race?
FF: Fifty percent, plus one.
MS: What did you have last time?
FF: 37 percent [with four candidates, 40 percent is needed to win]– most people are in denial about it.
MS: Is Bloomberg more beatable now?
FF: If I believed one of [the potential candidates] was insurmountable, we’d be here talking about planting trees… Having $100 million obviously is [Bloomberg’s] greatest strength, but it could also be his greatest weakness.
Rudy could have been beaten. In 1993 and 2001, [NYC Dems] had an inherent weakness. The Republicans didn’t win it. We lost it.
[Democrats] are incapable of speaking to anybody but elites, [we can’t just speak] to people who give money. Our people have to speak to a broad array of New Yorkers. This city gave me everything I needed to be what and who I am. I want it to be that city again for the next generation.
MS: This Democratic Party isn’t the same one we grew up with.
FF: Does that mean I should be in another party? I shouldn’t give up on the things I believe in persuading people, changing the party. I think the party will change from the grassroots up.
“It’s a complex issue. I supported [Bloomberg] getting control. Appointing the chancellor, that’s reasonable control. This bureaucracy, he owns it … Period.
“I also believe with a 12.5 billion dollar budget, and with such important policy…he should discuss these things out in the open.
“Social promotion. What a phony issue … We know grade retention, and social promotion alone don’t work … but we do know what does work: reducing class size; having a qualified, certified teacher in earlier grades… What also works is extending the school day and extending the school week. Those things work… then why don’t we do them?”
“How many Harvard MBAs does it take to screw up a school system?” Freddy said, mocking the lack of educators in the Department of Education’s upper management team.
Referring to the recent, sudden departure of Diana Lam, Ferrer rhetorically challenged Chancellor Joel Klein: “Your chief deputy is engaged in a cover up… What did you know, when did you know about it and what did you do about it?”
“What she did [using her position to get her husband a job] was skuzzy… She had assistance do it. She had assistance trying to cover it up.”
“We should be treating teachers as a profession — the same level as doctors, lawyers, architects.
“Teaching is the only profession in the state where there’s no peer review...If you’re a poor teacher in danger of losing your license, what do you do? Go to P.S. 2 [another school]?… When you give a license, the state has the inherit ability and obligation to regulate the exercise of that license… They do so in every other damn profession except teaching.”
On State Government and Health Care
“Albany: How dysfunctional does it have to be?
“I worked up there during the fiscal crisis in 1975…for Queens Assemblyman Joe Lisa. It gave me a chance to see some of the finest public people up close. For a young guy to be exposed to the finest citizens of this city… was an extra education for me. I’m sorry other people didn’t get a chance to see that.
“It was partisan, but they said we have to save the city, and the state. They made tough choices.
“Now it’s sharply partisan, enormously cynical, dysfunctional.
“Health care in this state is in meltdown. You see a couple of hospitals in Queens and Brooklyn facing financial trouble. It’s going to be everybody. They won’t be able to pay their bills… Every hospital is going to have major financial issues. Almost every hospital… The layoffs have just begun.”
“One in four people doesn’t have health insurance… Health care will decline if we do not rationalize the system… Begin to phase in, in a rather quick way, the state assumption of the locality’s cost instead of doubling and tripling property taxes. Second, effect some real reform and efficiency… Third, care for uninsured. We’ve got to figure out a way, not only statewide, but nationally, how to get people health insurance.”
Freddy attacked the President, Governor and Senate Majority Leader Joe Bruno: “One of my issues with Bloomberg is he’s letting them get away with policies that are killing this city. How can you them him do that?”
I challenged Freddy asking whether Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver was not also deserving of the same criticism but being given a pass because he, like Freddy, was a Democrat.
“Sheldon Silver: I would not call him a success,” Freddy clearly stated. “I had my issues with Shelly’s leadership: on the commuter tax — horrible horrible, horrible… But I’ll accept that as a fair criticism of me… You’re right. Only because I believe in the context of what is up there, totally cynical government… I would much rather have a Shelly Silver with all his flaws and warts, then to leave [the state] just a Joe Bruno and the Governor …I’ll admit that on the record… I accept your criticism, if not the content, then the spirit.
On New York City
During our pleasant exchange, I had a flashback to the bright and visionary Freddy Ferrer who captivated me when I interviewed him as a mayoral candidate in May of 2001. I recalled his compassion and dedication to those New Yorkers who don’t have a fair chance. Checking my column of some three years ago, Freddy cited affordable housing and quality education, as he laid out his vision for New York.
This time, he packaged his New York in terms a woman he met on his commute home.
“There was a woman who came up to me, taking the subway home, the No. 4, who said she has to leave the city. This is the woman you want to live in the city. She said ‘I’m getting killed with taxes, I have to leave.’ This is exactly the woman and the family we should be holding onto…on the brink of middle class…They are the people who give the city its dynamism. It’s nuts, people like her are leaving.”
Freddy Ferrer’s New York is my New York and your New York. It includes all of us whose families built this wonderful City. It also includes the other half of our borough’s residents who were born in foreign lands and came here in search of the American dream.
They, like Freddy, are workers and dreamers. And Freddy Ferrer is proof that in New York, dreams do come true.
Azi Paybarah contributed to this story.
Michael Schenkler can be reached at: