Mark Green

Mark Green

Mark Green

Taking stock of people and ideas in the news.
Aug. 24 2001 8:30 PM

Mark Green

From Nader raider to New York mayor: A how-to guide.

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America's best theater is found in New York City, usually in the mayor's office. But drama lovers who are mourning the imminent departure of that Barrymore of mayors Rudy Giuliani shouldn't worry. He will probably be succeeded by a man who's just as pugnacious, smart, vigorous, and self-aggrandizing: the city's public advocate, Mark Green. Barring an unspeakable gaffe, Green will top three strong opponents to win the Democratic primary (if not in the first round on Sept. 11, then in the runoff two weeks later). And barring a personality transplant by the leading Republican, that graceless sack of dollar bills named Michael Bloomberg, Green should coast into Gracie Mansion.

David Plotz David Plotz

David Plotz is the CEO of Atlas Obscura and host of the Slate Political Gabfest.

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Americans who live over the horizon from the twin towers may be asking: What is a Mark Green? Green has a modest national profile, thanks to frequent guest hosting of CNN's Crossfire, but he is above all a Gotham institution. Green holds one of the oddest jobs in political America—the nation's only elected pest. New York City's public advocate fields citizen complaints about government agencies—20,000 a year—investigates bureaucratic incompetence, publishes reports on services, and sponsors city council legislation. The job is all bark: The public advocate has almost no authority and no power but public pressure. Green is an institutionalized noodge, a certified pain in the ass. (The idea of electing someone just to make trouble seems particularly New York: "It wouldn't be New York unless there were at least two fights every morning," says Green.)

Green was elected the city's first public advocate in 1993, the same day Giuliani was elected mayor. (Before 1993, there was a similar office, city council president.) Green has spent the past eight years crusading about matters as serious as police brutality and child welfare and as picayune as the training of city lifeguards. The drumbeat nature of the job suited the talky, witty Green. Thanks to his pursuit of populist issues, a penchant for Sunday news conferences, and genius for the one-liner, he has proved a virtuoso at garnering favorable publicity—and made himself a marvelous enemy in Giuliani. Green is one of few New Yorkers who gives Rudy as good as he gets. (The war between Giuliani and Green has been wonderfully nasty. Click for more about it.) Green has become perhaps the most popular politician in the city. He won more votes than Giuliani in 1993 and again in 1997 (beating his Republican opponent 3-1 in the latter race). His unfavorable ratings are nearly zero.

Conservatives—see the New York Post—like to depict Green's ascendance as a triumph of old-school liberalism. They forecast a mayoralty of raging crime, disarmed cops, millions of tax dollars squandered on indolents and lowlifes (i.e., New York, 1975). They misunderstand Green. Born in 1945, Green grew up on Long Island, affluent and Jewish, and, like so many well-off kids, he was galvanized by the anti-war movement in college. During a 1967 internship with Sen. Jacob Javits after his Cornell graduation, Green caused a Washington uproar by recruiting nearly 200 interns to sign a letter against the war, a campaign that got the House internship program suspended for three years and Green named one of the 10 most radical students in the country. When he graduated from Harvard Law School in 1970, Ralph Nader called. As Nader's consigliere for much of the '70s, he was the picture of the righteous liberal. Green railed against the corruption of Congress, the awfulness of Washington attorneys ("liberal lawyers toiling for illiberal clients"), and the shoddy ethics of corporations. He authored several successful (and well-written) books.

But Green is a much less interesting politician than this history might predict. From the perspective of 2001, a career as a Nader raider seems somewhat woolly and radical, but at the time it was a plum for a passionate young Democrat. (Just as many ambitious young blacks, such as Vernon Jordan, gravitated to the civil rights movement because that was where the action was, so Naderland was a magnet for striving Democratic lawyers.)

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Green's little secret is not that he is a frothing Jacobin but that he is a conventionally ambitious politician. He hews closer to Bill Clinton than to Nader. He cares deeply about good policy and democracy, but he is equally juiced by the grit of politics. Post-Nader, Green has rafted the mainstream of Democratic politics. After losing a 1980 House race, he founded a think tank and wrote speeches for Gary Hart. Another loss in 1986 (to Al D'Amato for Senate) was followed by policy briefings for Democratic nominees Michael Dukakis and Bill Clinton and a gig guest-hosting Crossfire. (He's the only Crossfire regular to run successfully for office after hosting the show.) Mayor David Dinkins enlisted him as consumer affairs commissioner in 1990, a swashbuckling job where he denounced supermarket price-gouging and scams by Manhattan electronics stores.

Green migrated to jobs that are ideal for political career building. As consumer affairs commissioner, he worried about getting good deals for shoppers. Green's work as public advocate is similar, except now his customers are citizens shopping for government services. Green chose the only kind of populism possible for a well-off, Jewish, Ivy League pointy-head: the populism of consumer service. Green used his jobs to build a base of New Yorkers who felt grateful to him. He has responded to more than 100,000 citizen complaints in his years as advocate and consumer commissioner. That's a lot of votes. (And he never fails to take credit for anything he has done. Many of his sentences begin, "I was the one who …") This populism has its limits, namely the borders of New York City. Charles Schumer spanked him in the 1998 Senate primary because Green had little appeal outside the boroughs.

Nader scorns the compromises and sucking-up of electoral politics. Green has taken to it like a ward heeler, surprising old friends with his gift for glad-handing. He has embraced New York's ethnic politics. He has spent the last eight years cultivating black activists and ministers and has chosen issues like police brutality that have delighted black voters. He has similarly catered to Jews. Among his causes: battling food companies that raise kosher food prices during Passover and ensuring that New York stadiums offer kosher snacks. (He never misses a chance for a little ethnic massage. In response to a question about his career with Nader, he replied, "I learned how to scrap and fight and win in small offices during the '70s, just like Israel has to today.")

He has run an impeccable, extremely strategic, campaign. According to one newspaper report, a dozen members of Green's staff joined a gay organization in order to ensure that the group endorsed him. Once he secured black support, Green solidified his campaign by collecting the endorsement of William Bratton, Giuliani's very successful former police commissioner. Getting Bratton "is the seal of Kasruth," says Fred Siegel of the Progressive Policy Institute, because it will win the white ethnic voters who might worry that Green is soft on crime.

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Bloomberg plans to paint Green as a "Commie," one of the Republican's advisers told New York columnist Michael Kramer. But Green is more practical on policy questions than Republicans will concede. Like most New Yorkers, he has come to realize the hopelessness of the free-spending, chaotic urban liberalism of a generation ago. Giuliani has turned even Democrats who loathe him into imitators. Though Green is extremely liberal on social issues—pro gay marriage, anti restrictions on abortion—he tracks Giuliani on most city affairs. On fiscal and criminal justice issues, he says, "I am tight as a tick." He vows to continue Giuliani's incredibly successful policing methods, albeit with more emphasis on punishing rogue cops. (Green's views are probably both principled and calculated. As Siegel notes, no Democrat could get elected mayor this year unless he agrees to Giuliani's crime and fiscal policies.) Green now favors welfare reform. He would abolish parole. And he has challenged the teacher's union, the most powerful interest group in New York Democratic politics. Green wants to hold teachers to higher standards, make it easier to fire incompetent teachers, and give principals more power to move teachers.

(Green seems to be aiming for a Washington Monthly administration with a Crossfire attitude: Neoliberal policies with a lot of sass and rancor.)

A victory in November might give Green the opportunity to restore Democratic credibility in urban politics. New Yorkers blame Democratic mayors for the mess that the city was. Crime, welfare, homelessness, greedy city unions, racial violence: All are pinned on David Dinkins and his predecessors. Giuliani proved that the city is governable. Green's old friend Harvard lecturer (and former Clinton speechwriter) Michael Waldman says he has "the chance to show that liberals can do what Giuliani did. He can show that liberals can run a city and be tough on crime and be trusted with the budget."

But Green may not get the chance to repair his party's urban blight. He will likely face a winner's curse. New York is sliding into recession. Green has promised millions for housing, teacher salaries, and better working conditions for cops, but plunging tax revenues may force the next mayor into austerity budgets. Green will be too busy balancing the budget to undertake education reform or anything else ambitious. Green certainly has the brains and panache that helped Giuliani govern so well, but he isn't likely to have Rudy's luck.