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21st April

First Published in The New York Sun, April 21, 2005

By Andrew Wolf

It has been suggested to me that Fernando Ferrer’s campaign for mayor is becoming eerily reminiscent of the script for “The Producers,” the movie turned Broadway blockbuster, which is about to be turned into a movie again.

“The Producers” is the creation of Mel Brooks, the comedian who sold his soul to the devil for the exclusive right to be utterly and delightfully politically incorrect without repercussions. In case you have been held as a prisoner of war for many years and have just recently been released, here, in a nutshell, is the plot: A marginal Broadway producer and his nerdy accountant realize that rather than producing a hit show, even bigger money can be made by overselling shares in a new play to investors — as long as the show is an utter, immediate flop.They find the worst script (a sure to-offend musical called “Springtime for Hitler”), the worst director, and the worst actors. But the play is so bad that audiences view it as parody, and it becomes a huge hit and ruins them financially.
In the world of politics, the producers are the consultants. Win or lose, they always get their fees. A big campaign going nowhere can be just as or even more lucrative than a winner. The late Phil Friedman was the consultant for the “Ishtar” of all New York City campaign efforts, former City Council President Andrew Stein’s abortive mayoral run. Mr. Friedman pulled down $22,000 a month before becoming embroiled in his own financial scandal and removing himself from the fast-sinking Stein campaign ship. The gifted but troubled consultant took his own life earlier this year.

Mr. Friedman was widely criticized for his high fees and the expensive campaigns he put together. But he was a bargain compared to Mr. Ferrer’s close friend and campaign chief, Roberto Ramirez.

According to an August 2003 article in the Village Voice,in the 2001 mayoral contest, Mr. Ferrer spent $1.7 million with firms owned by or associated with Mr. Ramirez such as the Mirram Group, Miranda y Mas, and a mysterious company called Northeast Bronx Printing & Graphics. These companies accounted for 19% of the total cost of the 2001 Ferrer campaign, which received $2.7 million in public funds.

According to the Voice article, backup material to substantiate the expenditures had yet to be filed. Questioning the incestuous nature of the web of companies controlled or influenced by Mr. Ramirez, the Voice concluded that “The shocking price tag on Ramireztied services — even with legitimate costs like Northeast’s postage and Miranda y Mas’s advertising airtime factored in — may well be one reason Ferrer lost.” The article went on to suggest that this was a matter for further review by the Bronx district attorney.
Four years after Mr.Ferrer’s failed candidacy, and nearly two years since the Voice expose ran,Mr.Ramirez is still running the Ferrer campaign organization.

To his roster of services, Mr. Ramirez has now added government lobbying, a truly high-profit growth industry in a town like New York. But with the murmur of controversy humming in the background, Mr. Ramirez was quick to assert that if Mr. Ferrer were to be elected mayor, he would not lobby City Hall for his clients. Maybe that’s why the Ferrer campaign has a “Springtime for Hitler” air about it.

Mr. Ferrer started his campaign with the Democratic nomination seemingly locked up. A “secret” campaign strategy meeting, overheard by a New York Times reporter listening in via a cell phone that Mr. Ramirez forgot to hang up, revealed the Ferrer fund-raising strategy for the general election, as if the former Bronx president was already the Democratic candidate. This seemed to energize, not dampen, the spirits of Mr. Ferrer’s three opponents.

While most consultants would caution candidates to play to their base, Mr. Ferrer, through his remarks on the Amadou Diallo shooting, did the opposite.

At Mr. Ferrer’s suggestion, he and the suddenly up and coming C. Virginia Fields entered into a “non-aggression pact” over coffee at a Bronx luncheonette. This has had the presumably unintended effect of underscoring Ms. Fields’s new demand that Mr. Ferrer apologize for his Diallo remarks.This led to an angry rejoinder from the Ferrer camp, suggesting that Ms. Fields’s response to the Diallo shooting in 1999 was too slow.

Mr. Ferrer’s major policy pronouncement on school funding and tax policy on Monday has been nearly universally met with derision.

Even the Democratic legislative leaders, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and Senate Minority Leader David Patterson, usually the first out of the box to support a tax scheme, were quick to condemn the Ferrer stocktransfer plan. It would appear that another Ferrer opponent, Rep. Anthony Weiner, is picking up traction on this issue after cleverly suggesting that New York’s taxing the securities industry is akin to the governor of Wisconsin’s taxing dairy products.

What is going on in the Ferrer camp?

Is it just bad luck, or the political equivalent of “Springtime for Hitler”?

After all, the last time he guided Mr. Ferrer to defeat, Mr. Ramirez’s fortunes soared. A win or a loss now will fatten the Ramirez empire in the short term, but a loss will give him the bonus of the ability to directly lobby City Hall, which will bolster his coffers in the long run.

Perhaps the next move will be Messrs. Ramirez and Ferrer in top hats and tails, dancing and singing “I want to be a consultant!” But it would be smarter if Mr. Ferrer changed partners and was given a new script.

© 2005 The New York Sun, One, SL, LLC. All rights reserved.

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