Making an NYC Life Possible

Freddy Ferrer insists he’ll return city’s heart to the mayor’s office

Sitting in a cafe near his Midtown campaign headquarters on a Friday evening, Fernando Ferrer spoke in his usual quiet voice even when discussing topics—such as what he saw in a recent visit to some rundown housing in the Bronx—that he said made him angry. That may be due to what the mainstream press has dubbed his campaign strategy of “laying low.”

Ferrer’s understated style could also have resulted from his early morning return from a Chicago fundraiser the evening before. The mayoral candidate had gotten up at 3:30 a.m. to catch a flight back to New York and he had not slept all day. When he was done talking to Gay City News, the three campaign staffers who joined him in the café hustled Ferrer into a waiting car and took him to a television studio for yet another interview.

And Ferrer has more work ahead.

If current polls are to be believed, he will likely win the Democratic mayoral primary on September 13, but he will not garner the requisite 40 percent of the vote and will be forced into a run-off election with the second place finisher on September 27, the winner of which would face Republican Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg on November 8.

What may also contribute to the perception that Ferrer is “laying low” is that the former Bronx borough president refuses to attack his fellow Democrats.

“My case is not against any of my Democratic colleagues, my case is against Mike Bloomberg,” Ferrer said. “It is Mike Bloomberg’s policies that have caused me to run for mayor again. I expected better of him… I believed he had the ability and the capacity to govern from the heart. That turned out not to be true.”

Bloomberg’s “choices” offend him. Trying to win the Jets a “sweetheart deal over the Hudson Yards” for a football stadium “instead of getting serious about affordable housing” is one and “his apparent confusion over what affordable housing is” is another.

“It’s not multi-million dollar condos.” Ferrer said.

“I’m trying to put forward a positive case against Mike Bloomberg,” he stated. “At the same time I don’t happen to believe in the traditional Democratic practice of forming a circular firing squad.”

Ferrer is aware that Bloomberg spent $74 million on his campaign to win City Hall in 2001 and the Republican mayor may spend at least that much this year.

“When reporters asked him why, he said ‘I had to let New Yorkers know who I am,’” Ferrer said. “Presumably by 2005 we already know who he is, but he has already indicated that he is willing to spend $100 million I believe in an effort to make us forget what kind of mayor he has been.”

Ferrer must convince New Yorkers that he will be a better mayor.

“The core value of my campaign is what I’ve tried to make the core value of my public service for 25 years,” the 54-year-old said. “Everybody I serve being able to get the tools they need to bring the good life to themselves. That’s what made my life in the city possible.”

Ferrer, a native New Yorker, grew up in the Bronx. He was first elected to the City Council in 1982 where he represented the Bronx until 1987 when he won the Bronx borough presidency. Ferrer served in that position until 2001 when he made his first run for mayor, having abandoned an earlier 1997 effort in the spring of that year. In 2001, Ferrer beat Mark Green, the city’s public advocate, in the Democratic primary, but did not reach the 40 percent threshold and was defeated in a run-off.

The things that made his life in the city possible are what Ferrer says he desires for all New Yorkers.

“There are ways to get there—the foundations of a stable life, decent housing, good jobs, access to a good education, access to quality healthcare,” he said. “Those are the things that meant something for me and millions and millions of New Yorkers.”

To construct or preserve affordable housing in the city, Ferrer would raise $8.5 billion over ten years to build or maintain 167,000 affordable housing units. He would change city tax and land use policy to require developers or give them tax breaks to set aside a portion of their units for moderate or low-income residents and stop using programs that were intended to build affordable housing for high-end properties.

“Multi-million dollar condos don’t need those incentives,” Ferrer said. “It’s unwarranted to grant those incentives… I’d close those loopholes and begin to use those two things and begin to use triple tax exempt low income financing that currently we’re extending to multi-million dollar condos.”

To create jobs, Ferrer wants to focus on small business, a sector of the economy where the city has greater influence and that employs a large portion of the labor force.

“Small businesses are over 90 percent of all businesses and employ half the private sector workforce yet the Bloomberg administration has barely better numbers of including women and minority-owned businesses in the economic mainstream doing business with the city,” he said of the current mayor’s performance as compared with the Giuliani administration.

Ferrer points to what he said was a successful effort in the Bronx to obtain $50 million in federal financing for small businesses there. A Mayor Ferrer would spend a modest $35 million to link small businesses to city contracts, as subcontractors to other businesses working with city, and to “create access to capital” that will help “small businesses ramp up, stay in business, hire more people, train people.”

Then the city must change some of it regulations and laws that Ferrer said can be overly burdensome for small businesses.

“If you’re a hairdresser in this city, you’ve got to hire four different kinds of professionals just to begin to open up and deal with the wealth of regulations the city puts forward,” he said. “We’ve got to begin to look at that and streamline it.”

To improve the city’s public schools, Ferrer wants to bring back a stock transfer tax of a half penny per share per transaction on equity trades on the New York Stock Exchange. That provision would sunset after four years, but it would raise $3.7 billion with $250 million returned to the Stock Exchange.

“Programmatically, there are a lot of things we have to do,” Ferrer said. “In order to legitimately reduce class size you have to build new classroom space and you have to build new schools. We’re seeing the overcrowding crisis really affect, in a negative way, performance in middle schools where scores are collapsing and high schools where by the end of high school we begin to detect a dropout rate of over 50 percent.”

Other aspects of Ferrer’s education proposals rely on the state paying $23 billion in response to a lawsuit brought by the Campaign for Fiscal Equity. The suit, to date successful, charges that the state has underfunded education in New York City. Whether that cash will be paid is uncertain given potential appeals, but Ferrer knows how he will spend it.

“We do that by building more classrooms and more schools,” he said. “We build pre-K programs as well as after school programs to give struggling kids more time and keep kids out of harms way. Music, art, athletic programs, gifted and talented programs, family literacy centers. This is the 21st century where more than half the people in this city speak a language other than English over the dinner table. We have to figure out ways to bring parents into the mainstream, culturally and linguistically, to help their kids.”

Ferrer will also attack the city’s healthcare problem. Currently, the city pays out $800 annually million in “uncompensated care” for people who are not covered by Medicaid, the government-run health plan for the poor and disabled, or private insurance, but go to city hospitals for help.

Ferrer estimates that between 500,000 and 800,000 New Yorkers are eligible for Medicaid or Child Health Plus and Family Health Plus, two Medicaid-funded programs, but are not enrolled. If they were enrolled, the state and the federal government, which pay a large part of Medicaid costs, would cover a significant portion of their bills.

“For every dollar of uncompensated care we get for the otherwise eligible we can enroll them in a program and pay 25 cents,” Ferrer said.

Ferrer would make it easier to apply and lengthen the period of time a participant can stay in these programs. These would “conservatively” save the city $560 to $600 million a year, he argued, though these efforts would require changes by the state.

“The mayor’s job is to fight for the city,” Ferrer said. “The mayor doesn’t work for a Republican governor or a Democratic governor or a Republican president or a Democratic president. The mayor works for 8.4 million people and you’ve got to get very busy about making this change.”

Just as he will fight for the city, Ferrer will fight for the gay and lesbian community, he said. For his first four years in office, Bloomberg refused to take a position on same sex marriage. While he now says he supports gay marriage, his administration is opposing a February ruling in a New York state court that required the city to issue marriage licenses to gay and lesbian couples.

Ferrer would “immediately drop the appeal… I’m for marriage equality and I’ve been for it since 1996.” As he did throughout a 45-minute interview, Ferrer took some pleasure in taking a poke at Bloomberg’s position.

“He’s said a great many things about it,” Ferrer said. “‘I’m for it, I’m not for it, I may be for it,’ but if you’re for it then you shouldn’t fight it. This isn’t hard.”

He would also drop the so far successful Bloomberg challenge to the Equal Benefits Bill, a local law that requires businesses holding contracts worth $100,000 or more with the city to offer the same benefits to the domestic partners of their employees as are offered to the spouses of their employees.

Bloomberg may be on better legal footing with the benefits bill. Ruling on an equal benefits law passed in San Francisco and a benefits case involving a same-sex couple, at least two federal courts have said that federal law is controlling on many aspects employee benefits matters. The San Francisco law survived largely in tact, though with some trimming given federal law prerogatives. Currently, federal law offers no protections to queer couples. Ferrer had a simple answer.

“So sue me,” he said with a grin. “So sue me… I don’t care… I would have signed the damn bill and I would have enforced it. We’re talking about equal rights here and equal protection under the law.”

In 2001, Bloomberg supported the bill with some qualifications, then he opposed it.

“I recall he promised to do it,” Ferrer said. “I remember the promise. I would have kept my promise and enforced the law.”

His answer was pithy when asked about the Dignity in All Schools Act, an anti-bullying bill that includes protections based on sexual orientation and gender identity. “Implement it, implement it,” he said. The Bloomberg administration has refused to do that.

Ferrer said he supported an AIDS curriculum in the city schools that used “information, candor, and prevention” to prevent the spread of HIV and that a Ferrer administration would make up any shortfall in federal AIDS funding with city dollars that may result from changes in the Ryan White bill.

“A Mayor Ferrer wouldn’t be missing in action in Washington on that as well as Section 8 housing vouchers, health funding, transportation funding, and other housing funding,” he said.

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