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Memoir of a Defeated Politician

books and culture

Memoir of a Defeated Politician

The score-settling and blame-shifting in former public advocate Mark Green’s memoir is hard to stomach. May 6, 2016
Politics and law

Bright, Infinite Future: A Generational Memoir on the Progressive Rise, by Mark Green (St. Martin’s Press, 368 pp. $ 26.99)

Mark Green, a longtime fixture on New York’s political scene, has written a tell-all memoir and political manifesto about his years as an advocate and perennial candidate. Green is at his best in Bright, Infinite Future when he tells advocacy stories, like helping to kick the mob out of the carting business in New York City. He is happy to share the credit and doesn’t get bogged down in denouncing enemies.

As a young lawyer working for Ralph Nader’s Public Citizen—one of Nader’s Raiders—and later as New York City’s first elected public advocate, Green was a happy warrior for the Left. While public advocate, he was a thorn in Republican mayor Rudolph Giuliani’s side. Over the years, Green frequently went toe-to-toe with William F. Buckley, Jr. as a regular on Firing Line. These were roles Green seemed born to play. But a candidate in a tough race? Not so much. He recounts his failed runs for Congress and Senate in the 1980s, for Gotham mayor in 2001, and for state attorney general in 2006. While he acknowledges missteps, much of the memoir is devoted to settling scores. Green takes pains to point out the many betrayals he has suffered at the hands of one-time allies and his opponents’ supposedly unfair advantages.

In 1985, Green, a relative newcomer to politics with no money, wanted to unseat Long Island Republican senator Alphonse D’Amato. In the Democratic primary, Green faced multi-millionaire John Dyson, whom Governor Mario Cuomo, the titan of New York liberal Democratic politics, had encouraged to run. Cuomo helped both men behind the scenes, but publicly stayed neutral. Reporters hectored Green about that. “Why do you listen to leaks from the governor’s aides? You should listen to the organ grinder, not the monkeys. And he says that he’s neutral,” Green told them.

“What the hell [are you doing]?,” Andrew Cuomo, the governor’s son, demanded to know in a telephone call. (Green dishes on his relationship with the Cuomos and a panoply of New York political figures.) The candidate, raised a Jewish boy on Long Island, claimed ignorance of the old-time ethnic slur against Italian Americans. This was the second time Green had angered the governor. Earlier, he’d flippantly told a reporter that the governor might “throw his halo in the ring” and run for president.

Things only got worse. Green secured the nomination, but it did him little good. Help for the campaign, despite Green’s entreaties, was slow in coming from Democratic quarters in Albany and Washington. And New York City mayor Ed Koch, whom Green also had insulted, crossed party lines to endorse D’Amato. The senator, well-financed, well-connected, and politically savvy, trounced Green 57 to 41 percent.

Green recalls the boos from the crowd when, in his concession speech, he thanked “the governor for doing everything he could to help with our campaign.” So the loss was Cuomo’s fault after all—not Green’s. Then again, maybe it was D’Amato’s. “I completely violate the tradition that losers are supposed to suffer in quiet dignity,” Green writes. A few years after the election, he filed a 32-page ethics complaint against D’Amato with the Senate Ethics Committee, asking for an investigation of his campaign-finance habits. D’Amato was cleared of criminal conduct and reelected.

Green’s race against Michael Bloomberg for mayor in 2001 followed a hotly contested Democratic primary. Green narrowly lost the mayoral election in New York, he writes, because: Fernando Ferrer (his primary opponent) refused to endorse him in the general election; he was unfairly blamed for racially inflammatory fliers in Brooklyn; Reverend Al Sharpton tossed “racial anthrax” into his path; Bloomberg’s money gave the mogul an unfair advantage; and, of course, September 11 intervened.

Was it unreasonable to blame 9/11? Apparently not. In a stroke of extraordinary prescience, Green says he had warned his wife before the primary that he would win the election, so long as there was no “intervening factor.” September 11 was primary day. Governor George Pataki called Green at home after the attacks that morning to tell him he was postponing the primary. “Later it’s reported that exit polls as of that morning show me hovering around the magic 40 percent threshold needed to avert a runoff.” Green at least admits that union influence—a Ferrer strength—could have swayed voting that evening had the primary continued.

As Giuliani managed the aftermath of the attacks, he asked Bloomberg and the Democratic candidates for an extra 90 days in office. Green was the only Democrat to consent. It didn’t go over well with Democratic voters who preferred Ferrer’s rebuff of what many viewed as a power grab. When Ferrer and Green ended up in a runoff for the nomination, Green stepped in it again when he told an interviewer that if he had been mayor on 9/11, he would have done “as well or even better” than Giuliani. He tried to repair the damage. “I go on Imus the next day to eat crow,” Green writes. It was too late. Bloomberg used his war chest to vilify him for the remark.

Looking back, Green concedes that it was a “stupid answer,” yet insists, “I’m not seeking office to do less well than the incumbent.” Giuliani, he says, “strayed off course” after 9/11 when he started making “political decisions” such as seeking the 90-day extension. His comment was “a gaffe” in the sense of “telling not a lie but the truth.”

Green faced Bloomberg in a close general election that, because of the run-off primary, lasted only a few weeks. After debating the self-made billionaire, “I recalled thinking . . . Wait, this guy is hanging in there with me! How’s he doing that?” Bloomberg wound up winning by about 35,000 votes.

The political-manifesto passages in Bright, Infinite Future can be hard to stomach, especially the glowing descriptions of the “genius” Fidel Castro. Much of this content is devoted to simplistic vilification of Republicans and the insistence that all advancement since the American republic’s founding has been the work of progressives. Green is more intriguing when he lowers the decibel level and shares his intimate memories of Nader, a quixotic man who changed Washington’s regulatory landscape through intellect and dogged determination. Somehow, Nader did all that without calling anyone an organ grinder.

Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images

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