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15th March

First Published in The New York Sun, March 15, 2005

By Andrew Wolf

Each year the Riverdale Jewish Community Council holds a “legislative breakfast.” This is an opportunity for the city’s elected officials, and those who want to be elected officials, to strut their stuff before much of the leadership of one of New York’s most politically potent neighborhoods. About 375 people attended Sunday’s event, one of the biggest turnouts ever.
So it wasn’t surprising that Mayor Bloomberg made the scene, nor was it surprising that three of the four Democratic hopefuls trudged up to the northernmost outpost of the city. What was significant is which of the four Democrats didn’t bother to show.

Despite the fact that he is a Riverdale resident, and could have taken a brisk 20-minute walk from his coop apartment overlooking the Hudson River to attend the event, Fernando Ferrer, the former Bronx president, didn’t bother. Riverdale, once a bastion of Ferrer support, has become a lost cause for the three-time mayoral hopeful.
When he first ran in 1997, Mr. Ferrer had the enthusiastic support of every local public official, from Rep. Eliot Engel on down. After he dropped out of the race and instead ran for re-election as borough president, Mr. Ferrer crushed his opponent, Council Member Israel Ruiz Jr., in Riverdale’s electoral districts.
But by 2001,Mr.Ferrer finished a distant fourth among the mayoral hopefuls in Riverdale, even well behind the hapless candidacy of Alan Hevesi. What happened?
The previous year, in an effort to secure the endorsement of the Rev. Al Sharpton, the Ferrer forces made a controversial down payment to win the support of the black activist. At Mr. Sharpton’s behest, the Bronx Democratic organization, then led by Mr. Ferrer’s campaign chief, Roberto Ramirez, withdrew its backing of Mr. Engel in his bid for a seventh term in the House of Representatives. Instead, they backed Mr. Sharpton’s choice, then-state Senator Larry Seabrook.
In a district that was mostly minorities, this was trouble for Mr. Engel. While minority representation may have, at some level, been a legitimate issue, the choice of Mr. Seabrook was considered an amazing display of the lengths to which Mr. Ferrer would go to attain his goals. And while Mr. Engel compiled a record that slavishly reflected the interests of his constituents, particularly minorities, Mr. Seabrook was among the most awful public officials in a borough where poor representation is all too often the norm.
Mr. Seabrook managed to compile what might have been the worst attendance record in the Senate and in the Assembly before that, missing scores of important votes. He did manage to outpace his colleagues in collecting payments for travel expenses, and seemed to be constantly under investigation for one infraction or another. During the campaign, Mr. Seabrook was embarrassed by disclosures that he had secretly divorced his wife while continuing to file joint tax returns and exercising what the shocked Mrs. Seabrook delicately called his “conjugal rights.”
At one memorable public event, as members of the black legislative delegation from throughout the city gathered to give Mr. Seabrook their endorsement, a crazed woman lunged at Mr. Seabrook screaming, “Larry, Larry, me husband, me husband!”As the television cameras rolled, Mr. Seabrook fled down White Plains Road as his supporters wrestled the woman to the ground.
The effort by Mr. Ferrer’s forces (Mr. Ferrer took no position in the race) to replace Mr. Engel with the dubious challenger fell flat. But nowhere was it resented more than in Riverdale, where Mr. Engel’s unwavering support of Israel has made him a local folk hero. Overnight, Mr. Ferrer lost virtually all of his local support.
At Sunday’s breakfast, it was Mr. En
gel who got the most enthusiastic reception of all elected officials, a reminder of why Mr. Ferrer chose to be the invisible man in this gathering of Riverdale’s Jews.
The mayor was accorded a positive, if not wildly enthusiastic, welcome at the Riverdale breakfast. Mr. Bloomberg won Riverdale handily in the last election against Mark Green. But since then, a number of issues have surfaced that may have chipped away at the mayor’s support, including the soon-tobegin construction of the Croton water filtration plant under Van Cortlandt Park,problems with the mayor’s school reforms, and a new Meals-on-Wheels program that substitutes delivery of a week’s worth of frozen meals for the daily drop-off of a fresh hot meal. But the gutsy Mr. Bloomberg was not dissuaded from bringing up the filtration issue despite some scattered boos from the audience.
There was no controversy, however, about matters pertaining to Israel. The assembled crowd was enthusiastically supportive of the quasi-official trip to the Jewish state that Mr. Bloomberg embarked on yesterday, the day after the breakfast.
C. Virginia Fields, the president of Manhattan, and Council Speaker Gifford Miller arrived early and worked the room table by table. Ms. Fields appeared to be quite effective in what she is said to do best, connecting with voters on a retail basis. Mr. Miller seemed much more stiff and uncomfortable visiting the tables, as he was shepherded around by Council Member G. Oliver Koppell.
Although Mr. Bloomberg was permitted to speak as the incumbent mayor, the three Democratic hopefuls had to be content with friendly but scrupulously impartial introductions by State Supreme Court Justice Mark Friedlander, who emceed the event for the 20th time. Mr. Miller left as soon as the mayor arrived, followed by Ms. Fields minutes later.
Rep. Anthony Weiner arrived later than his opponents, but seemed to get the warmest welcome, in keeping with his tough and locally popular stands on Israel and against the administration of Columbia University.
Last to arrive was Senator Schumer, who seems never to miss this or any other event where more than one voter might congregate. But the senator, for the third year running, told the exact same story about how his wife,Iris Weinshall,got her job as the city’s transportation commissioner. Time to put some new material in the rotation, Senator!

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

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