09/06/2011 01:27 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Fernando Ferrer Was Close To Becoming New York's First Latino Mayor Before 9/11

Luvaldina Feliz woke up early on September 11, 2001 and began her daily routine: breakfast with her husband at their Bronx apartment and then on to Public School 11, where she worked as a volunteer.

But that day was different. She left a little earlier than usual because it was primary day. Feliz expected to join thousands of voters in catapulting the first Hispanic into the mayoralty.

The terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center took place the same day as the city’s primary election to determine who would be the Democratic candidate for mayor, and the battle centered between former Public Advocate Mark Green and then Bronx Borough President Fernando Ferrer, a Puerto Rican.

"I voted for Ferrer because as borough president, he worked hard to solve problems in our communities," Feliz said. "Ferrer was going to be an excellent mayor."

Feliz's dream was never fulfilled. The attacks changed the course of that campaign and the fate of the city. Instead of Ferrer—or any Democratic mayor—the aftermath of 9/11 set the stage for a billionaire with little political experience, Michael Bloomberg.

Before Sept. 11, Ferrer said his campaign was full of energy and there was great enthusiasm among voters eager to elect the first Latino mayor.

"After 9/11, everything changed, not just in New York politics but at the national level. I think I would have won on that day, but they postponed the election, leaving just 16 days to carry out another campaign, with totally different issues," Ferrer recalled.

Green won the rescheduled primary and was favored to defeat Michael Bloomberg, the Republican Party candidate, in the general election. However, a succession of errors and unfortunate decisions would cost Green his bid for City Hall.

According to some political analysts, the most costly mistake occurred when, in the days before the Democratic primary against Ferrer, one of Green’s supporters distributed a flyer featuring a cartoon of Ferrer with civil rights activist Al Sharpton that many considered racist (the picture showed Ferrer kissing Sharpton on his behind).

Although Green denied playing any role in the distribution of this cartoon, the scandal cost him the support of both African-American and Latino communities. Sharpton publicly endorsed Bloomberg. Green’s Democratic base also began to crumble when, in the days following 9/11, he supported the proposal of then-Mayor Rudy Giuliani, a Republican, to extend his term by three months.

Ferrer recalled that, on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, he rose early to get to the polls by 7 a.m., at a school near his home on 227th Street in the Bronx. Afterwards, he greeted voters near several more polling sites.

"At about 8:45 a.m., I got a call from the wife of my assistant, that there had been an ‘accident’ at the Twin Towers. ‘A fire,' she said. Still, no one spoke of a plane," he said.

As they crossed the Triborough Bridge (now renamed for Robert F. Kennedy,) Ferrer told his driver that he wanted to stop by a school in El Barrio, to hear the news. He then learned that another plane had exploded into the second tower, and “I knew immediately that it was not an accident," he said.

Ferrer went to his office on the third floor of the Bronx Courthouse. There, he maintained contact with the police, hospitals and various agencies of the city until 11 a.m., when the police called to evacuate the building because all government buildings were deemed potential targets for further attacks.

"I went with my assistants to the Democratic Party office in the East Bronx, to be in communication with the City and also with my family," Ferrer said. "My wife was the principal of a Bronx public school at the time, P.S. 46, and my daughter worked for Citibank in Lower Manhattan."

Soon after the attacks, a debate emerged over Giuliani extending his term. Unlike Green and Bloomberg, Ferrer did not back that proposal. The mayoral contender noted that after 9/11, the key campaign issues changed completely, from the focus on affordable housing and health care to, instead, national security.

"There was a lot of fear in those days, and I think that influenced the vote. [The focus of] both local and national agendas became national security and the war on terrorism. These are important issues, but so are poverty, public education, employment and health, which are the foundations of a city,” Ferrer asserted.

Ferrer, who was Bronx borough president for 14 years (1987-2001) and the Democratic candidate for mayor in 2005, is currently co-chair of the communications firm Fleishman-Hillard Government Relations. He also serves on the board of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA).

He makes clear that he has retired from politics. Yet he still endorses candidates for elected office. Ferrer believes that there are other Hispanics who could succeed as mayor, citing as examples the current Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr. and State Senators Jose Peralta, Joseph M. Serrano and Adriano Espaillat.

'One makes mistakes'

Although Mark Green has admitted making mistakes during the 2001 campaign when he lost the mayoral election against Bloomberg, he maintains that it was not because of the cartoon, but several issues, including the "money factor."

"You make mistakes in a political campaign, but those tactical errors are dwarfs compared to the big picture," Green said. "The two factors that had a tremendous impact on the elections were first, the historic attacks on primary day—which affected the general psyche and politics—and second, the most money ever spent by a candidate during an election campaign in the history of this city," he said.

Bloomberg spent $74 million in the city election—more money per voter than is spent by candidates in the national presidential election, Green noted.

"I tried, but lost by two percentage points to Bloomberg, who was supported by Governor Pataki, Mayor Giuliani and the Rev. Al Sharpton,” Green said. “Of course now we know he is very capable," he added, referring to the mayor.

When asked about his role, if any, in relation to the cartoon, Green maintained: "Today, we know that some idiot supporter of mine spread that caricature in Brooklyn," reiterating that he had no knowledge then of the distribution or of those who had.

Green recalled that the morning of 9/11, he woke up feeling very optimistic because he knew that the candidate who won the Democratic primary would likely become the next mayor of the city.

"My son Jonah, who is a cinematographer, was filming it all for a school project, and in one of the takes, you can see my wife and I coming out of our apartment. There at the bottom of the video is the date: September 11, 7:44 a.m.," Green said. "Anyone who views this now can see that was the last hour before the city, the campaign and the world changed.”

Green went to vote at the Richard Green High School, on East 88th Street. Then, along with members of his staff, he rode in his car to P.S. 6, on Sixth Avenue and 11th Street, a half mile from the Twin Towers. He recalled that he welcomed parents who had brought their children to their first day of school and encouraged them to vote.

At 8:46 a.m., a friend of Green’s, after looking southward at the city, said, "Something's wrong." It was just moments after the first plane struck the North Tower.

"I looked and just stood there, confused," said Green, who explained that the way he reacted was something he had never experienced. When someone announced that a plane had crashed into the tower ‘by accident’, Green replied that this was no accident, because the sky that day was clear enough.

Green revealed that in the next five minutes he was torn between going to the World Trade Center, in his capacity as the Public Advocate, and staying away because it might be seen as a political act. He ultimately kept his distance, considering that everything he might do that day would be considered ‘political.’

"We stopped the campaign," Green said, "and two hours later, Gov. George Pataki officially postponed the elections.”

Green revealed that he has never spoken personally about 9/11, because talking about how it affected his family or a political campaign "sounds small" compared to everything that happened through the attacks.

"They changed the world, engaging a war on terrorism at the highest levels. People died, and our security, our civil rights and our laws were impacted," he said.

Green agrees with his then rival Ferrer that 9/11 changed the local and national discourse. "It changed the issues on which we used to focus: employment, environment, housing ... We’d been attacked by foreign enemies, and the questions now became: How will the city of New York respond, how are we going to recover?”

Today, the former mayoral candidate is retired from active politics, dedicating his time to writing and hosting the national radio program Both Sides Now, with Arianna Huffington and Mary Matalin.

As they look back at the political landscape, analysts like Carlos Vargas-Ramos, a researcher at the Center for Puerto Rican Studies in New York, said that Ferrer and Green are right in their assessment of the decisive effect Sept. 11 had on the elections.

"From the theme of the 1990’s economic boom, which had not been distributed equitably across the city, the focus changed to talk of national security, and who had the skills to rebuild and protect the city,” Vargas-Ramos said.

Luis Miranda, an expert on Latino politics with the MirRam Group and who served as an adviser to Ferrer in 2001, said the campaign focused on this inequity. "The slogan was 'The Other New York' and the other New York includes everyone: those who aren’t rich, Latinos, African-Americans, the working class."

Miranda noted that his candidate had significant support within the African American community, including from Rev. Sharpton and Congressman Charles Rangel, and this gave his campaign a critical boost. “Had the attack had not occurred on Sept. 11, 2001, Fernando Ferrer would have become the first Hispanic mayor New York," Miranda said.

Vargas-Ramos said Sept. 11 triggered an opening for a political outsider like Bloomberg. “For many voters, there was no Democrat —be it Ferrer or someone else— who was perceived as up to the task," the analyst said. "And suddenly Bloomberg emerges, a corporate titan who had these skills. That was what gave him the advantage, what it took for him to become mayor.”

This article is part of a 9/11 Anniversary series from El Diario, to read more, please click here.

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