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The 9/11 Election: A Personal Reflection

09/07/2011 10:42 am ET | Updated Nov 07, 2011

"Looks like I'll be running for mayor."

It's September 24, 1999, and I'm sitting in my living room overlooking the East River at 90th Street, breaking some news gently to my wife. "But what if you lose?" asks Deni, wary of my irrational confidence that critics call arrogance. "How would that affect us?"

Lose? What does lose mean? "Okay, there are no guarantees in politics. I think I'll win unless there's some big, unexpected event that changes everything, like that racial killing in Bensonhurst during the Dinkins-Koch race in August of '89."

So begins two years of glad-handing, fund-raising, and speeches, as Deni and I confide privately (away from the kids, staff, and journalists), "Can't wait till September 11!" -- anticipating the scheduled date of the 2001 Democratic Primary.

Fast-forward to the evening of September 10, 2001. Polls show me ahead in the four-way Democratic primary and trouncing Republican multi-billionaire Michael Bloomberg in a general election matchup. In the same living room, I announce, as any vindicated husband would, "Well, honey, there was no big unexpected event -- it has all gone as planned." We hug, kiss, and sit motionless for several moments. "Can't wait till September 11," she giggles, for the last time.

The next morning, a video shot by our son Jonah shows us walking through a clutch of journalists and passersby in front of our residential building only 100 yards north of Gracie Mansion. The time stamp at the bottom of the frame read "7:45 a.m., 9/11, 2001."

I vote and then hurry to a grade school at Sixth Avenue and 11th Street to greet parents and fidgety kids on the first day of class. I bellow my final "Don't forget to vote today!" to a young couple walking west and, at 8:46 a.m., turn with satisfaction to deputy campaign manager Jeremy Ben-Ami. "That was the last handshake! Primary's over! Let's go back to the apartment." Then I hear someone blurt out an "oh" in a way that sounds as if something unusual has happened. On a completely blue, clear, and sunny day, I look up toward downtown...

* * * *

Staring at the flame and smoke billowing out of the first World Trade Center building, without any commentators to first contextualize what's going on, I can't compute anything beyond Where's Bruce Willis? and How could this happen on Election Day? Someone shrieks, "A plane accidentally hit the World Trade Center!" Based on the perfect visibility and the site, I murmur, "That was no accident."

Our apartment of stunned staff and family is sitting shiva. Like everyone around the city, we're mesmerized by the sickening images of the collapsing towers on TV -- but unlike everyone, I get a call after 11 a.m. from the governor's office saying that the election is postponed and will be rescheduled at a later date. Like a rained-out baseball game? That night, my Harvard Law School roommate, Sandy Berger, who became President Clinton's national security advisor, stays over since he can't get out of town after a speech. Eating leftovers while watching Charlie Rose, I ask, "You guys ever anticipate a terrorist attack by plane?" "Nope," he says, adding that in his last briefing of the incoming Condi Rice, he told her that terrorism would be Bush's No. 1 foreign-policy problem.

"Can't wait till September 11" has a new meaning.

* * * *

Clips from Off The Record, Jonah Green's film about the 2001 mayor's race.

I visit ground zero on Thursday to thank emergency personnel and see the wreckage firsthand. Smelling the sulfurous air and seeing the mountains of twisted steel are scenes from postwar Dresden. On that Friday, with a friend who owns an Outback franchise, we organize a tent along the East River under FDR Drive to serve steaks and burgers to exhausted (and contaminated) emergency personnel. They are surprised to see a politician with an apron handing out the food, with no cameras or media. It feels satisfying... until I remember why we're there at all.

Later that day I visit one of the few injured survivors at New York Hospital. A building had fallen on him and crushed his legs. "Don't worry, Mr. Green. I'll be back up -- and so will the city," he says in a strong voice.

* * * *

Rudy and I -- coming from contrasting traditions, styles, and beliefs -- have mutual respect and hostility. At a fund-raising party September 9, I joke that "the thing about Giuliani is, either you love him... or he hates you." But I abandon that line and line of reasoning after he transforms from Nixon to Churchill in those 24 hours, when he so skillfully rallies the city through the worst day in her history.

Campaigning resumes the following Monday for the now-rescheduled September 25 primary. The press and public are closely watching how Bronx Borough President Freddy Ferrer, City Controller Alan Hevesi, City Council Speaker Peter Vallone, and I react to the very changed and fraught circumstances. Ferrer says that he understands what the city needs because in the Bronx he's seen "rubble bounce" and because he witnessed the 1990 Happy Land arson fire that killed 87; he adds that rebuilding funds should be "dispersed around the city." Editorial opinion is hostile to what they think sounds more like patronage than recovery.

In reaction to what many folks regard as Giuliani's divisive ways, my campaign slogan from the start is "a Mayor for All" -- and I often appear with both former Mayor David Dinkins and former Police Commissioner Bill Bratton.

I win the Times endorsement, Vallone the News. But Ferrer and his top adviser, former Dinkins deputy mayor Bill Lynch, implement their Black-Brown strategy of rallying the minority community to the polls, aided by the huge coordinated effort of the 1199 Hospital Workers Union. This is an understandable political plan given the lineup of three other white candidates -- hence Ferrer's slogan that focuses on "the two New Yorks" and "the other New York." I remember one day campaigning in the Bronx when a young man sees me, comes over, and says, "Green, I think you're great, but, hey, I'm a Latino!" He shrugs, I laugh, and we both get it.

In the Democratic primary, Ferrer wins 36 percent of the vote, me 31 percent. There will be a runoff.

* * * *

The campaign is seen largely through the lens of the singular calamity. Interviews, press conferences, and street talk focus on post-9/11 policies, not so much the usual mayoral fare of education, crime, taxes, services. Children look up, frightened, when planes fly overhead; many Manhattan residents carry water bottles to clear their throats, which are raspy from the metallic air.

I attend numerous funerals of fallen uniformed personnel, as the Fire Department lost about half as many men in one day -- 343 -- than had died in the Department's entire history. The first is the saddest -- my friend, Father Mychal Judge, the Fire Department chaplain. A beloved figure whom I got to know through our mutual friend, hero cop Steve McDonald, "Father Mike" is the first recorded fatality on September 11, when debris from the World Trade Center towers killed him as he was administering last rites to victims. Officer McDonald, former President Clinton, Cardinal Egan, Mayor Giuliani, and I, among other dignitaries, deliver eulogies to 3,000 mourners downtown at the St. Francis of Assisi Roman Catholic Church.

* * * *

It's 3:15, September 27, on Yom Kippur, two days into the runoff. The mayor's office is calling to ask that I meet with him at 5 p.m. at the West Side piers, where he's set up a temporary office now that City Hall has been evacuated. The subject is not mentioned.

I'm ushered alone into a small, windowless room with the mayor. Characteristically, he gets right to the point: "Look, Mark, the city is in an emergency and I have my Cabinet working together every hour to get through this -- and who knows if something else might happen? I'm asking each of the three remaining candidates to support a proposed legal change to give me and my experienced team 90 more days after the scheduled January 1 swearing-in to finish what we started."

Well that's pretty creative and chutzpadick I think. "Mr. Mayor, I understand your desire to finish what you're doing. But even Lincoln during the Civil War, a worse emergency, went ahead with a scheduled election in 1864. Postponing the swearing-in would set a terrible precedent." The meeting lasts five minutes and ends with Giuliani asking me to "think about it more since Mike has already agreed."

En route home, mayoral aide Denny Young calls my cell to imply that the mayor will publicly condemn me if I don't agree to support a 90-day extension -- this at a time when Giuliani aides are openly speculating and newspapers reporting that "America's Mayor" might seek to change the state law's term limits and run again himself.

I go home to a pre-Atonement dinner with my family. "You're not gonna believe what the mayor asked me to agree to," I say, as we down Deni's matzo-ball soup and brisket. Fearing how he might wield his new stature and clout, the consensus of staff and family is to acquiesce to an extension.

Later that evening, I reverse course from my initial response to Rudy and call Young to say that I'll go along if three months can be added to the next mayor's term.

The upshot: Ferrer refuses Giuliani's entreaty and looks like a hero standing up to a bully; Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver refuses to allow the necessary change in state law; and my lead over Ferrer plunges from ten points ahead to a tie. Eight years of fighting Giuliani on everything from racial profiling to an incinerator in Brooklyn seems to evaporate in a day. I deserve it. I vow not to go against my instinct again... if there is an again.