Politics

Tracking Progress: A Q&A with former NYC Public Advocate and mayoral candidate Mark Green

Mark Green, New York City’s first public advocate, served eight years during the Giuliani administration, though he always aspired for higher office. Having run and lost in campaigns for Congress, U.S. Senate – twice – New York City mayor, attorney general and public advocate, New York voters are used to seeing his name on the ballot. Now his name is on a book, “Bright, Infinite Future: A Generational Memoir on the Progressive Rise.” Green spoke to City & State’s Jeff Coltin about his toughest opponent, being a progressive and getting Preet Bharara into politics.

C&S: You write with such a quick, conversational style. I almost got whiplash reading about the 1986 Senate race against Al D’Amato. Is that how it felt from your perspective?

MG: It’s more fun writing about them, looking backwards, than living them with the pressures of failure and success day by day. I always wanted to combine policy and politics, and had the privilege of doing that in very fast-pitch baseball. Both as a public interest lawyer with the incomparable Ralph Nader and as a candidate and official in the big city. My conversational, blunt style is my natural voice, which won me some fans and some enemies. 

C&S: You’ve been a far-left Democrat for decades –

MG: Far-left, did you say? I never use the phrase far-left. It doesn’t exist anymore, and I’m not it! I support Hillary over Bernie. Far-left, I don’t know what that means. But progressive, yes.

C&S: Well, progressive. In recent years, there’s been many more high-profile officials calling themselves progressives: Clinton, Sanders, de Blasio, Cuomo. Are you surprised by the Democratic Party’s adoption of that term?

MG: Rather than being surprised, I wonder why it took so long. When I was growing up programmatically and politically in the ’60s and the ’70s, I thought of myself as a Louis Brandeis, Ralph Nader progressive Democrat – meaning that “laissez” wasn’t always “faire,” and that citizens, through their democracy, should regulate the excesses of capitalism. I’ve been living and watching the lurching evolution of a progressive majority from the ’60s to ’16. This vindication does not embarrass me.

C&S: You have lost races to Schumer, Bloomberg, Cuomo and de Blasio. Who was the most difficult opponent, strategy-wise? Who scared you the most?

MG: Looking back on losing to a political murderer’s row of Bloomberg, Cuomo, Schumer and de Blasio, I began to think that a person couldn’t ascend to New York politics unless they got by me first. Two of those four proved especially difficult by the end. First was Bloomberg, since I had no good strategic answer to his $100-a-vote campaign of 2001 – other than trying to steal his bank account, which I was told was illegal. Second was Schumer, because he had two assets that have distinguished him as the most consequential New York politician of the last half-century: lawfully raised money combined with an unmatchable work ethic. Plus, proven legislative talent. 

C&S: Bloomberg changed so many things in New York in his 12 years. What would be different in the city today if you had been elected in the close race for mayor in 2001?

MG: People would be making love more? I’ve never answered that question, much less thought about it. I’ll leave counter-histories to Stephen King in “11/22/63” and to Gwyneth Paltrow’s film “Sliding Doors.” Once I go down that rabbit hole, there’s no coming back. So I try to look ahead.

C&S: In 2001 you were presumed to be the next mayor and there were rumors that Bill Bratton would be your police commissioner. You obviously felt that he was the person for the city then. What do you think of the job he's doing as commissioner under de Blasio?

MG: First, I never said publicly or to him, which would have been inappropriate, that he’d be my P.C. However, it is what I intended to do. And overall, I think he’s been the most consequential law enforcement official ever in the city, including Police Commissioner Teddy Roosevelt. De Blasio and the city are lucky to have such a complete police professional.

C&S: Throughout your career, you’ve rallied against money in politics. You campaigned against the quid-pro-quo system, but now we’re seeing de Blasio’s team under multiple investigations, the Cuomo administration under an investigation for the Buffalo Billion – are you shocked that this is still happening in New York politics?

MG: Dismayed, not shocked. The current rules stink, and will be changed at some point in the near future when Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street patriots agree that the pay-to-play system corrupts even good people. And the alternative of self-financing multibillionaires is worse for different reasons. If there’s one issue that has animated my public life, from Nader through elected politics to “Bright, Infinite Future,” it’s the dilemma of elections for sale and purchased politicians. That’s why the culminating chapter in this memoir is a manifesto pushing Clinton 45 to create a “democracy czar” in the White House so we have less money and more voters in the political process. 

C&S: You’re a Clinton supporter, but getting money out of politics is one of Sanders’ main positions. Do you trust Clinton to follow on that path if she’s in office?

MG: First, Bernie has been an eloquent antagonist of money in politics, but we’re hardly competitive, since it’s anchored my public life from the publication of (my book) “Who Runs Congress” in 1972, to my legislation providing a multiple match for small donors in city campaigns, to this book. Second, Sanders grossly exaggerated when he said that, because Hillary Clinton has raised a lot of money from wealthy people, she’s implicitly corrupt – a logic that would have included Lincoln, FDR and Obama. I believe Hillary Clinton really understands the problem of a process that forces non-wealthy, clean candidates to raise huge sums from special interests and then emotionally remain a neutral judge when it comes to legislative decisions. In fact, in the first week of her candidacy back in 2015, she announced one of her two top goals was overturning Citizens United, which I will give anyone odds will happen when she’s president and appoints one, two or three new justices to replace the radical right on the court. 

C&S: You were New York City’s first public advocate. What are the biggest issues the public needs an advocate on today?

MG: I’m not currently in city government, so allow me to be modest about what a public advocate could do. First there’s the necessary but boring stuff on being a watchdog over commissioners and agencies which are dragging their heels in some way – water meter bills, class size, civilian policing complaints. Second would be larger policy initiatives that a mayor and City Council could then consider and adopt as we did back in the ’90s when it came to racial profiling, marketplace discrimination against women, tobacco and health, and indeed the 311 system itself.

C&S: Public Advocate Letitia James is bringing lawsuits more than advocates before her, but she’s gotten some pushback there, with some lawsuits being thrown out for lacking legal standing. Is she taking the right approach?

MG: Well, she’s an energetic public advocate who has to work around the problem of an office that has shrunk since I was there. One solution is the leverage of lawsuits, but she has to be careful not to seem litigious for publicity’s sake. Overall, I think she’s doing a good job.

C&S: You’re the former consumer affairs commissioner. Has the relationship between the public and big business fundamentally changed since the 2008 recession?

MG: Not much. Beginning certainly after the 1929 stock market collapse, the public in general has been skeptical, if not disgusted, by business fraud, specifically, and giant corporations in general. The 2008 market collapse largely reminded citizens and voters that we can’t just accept the free market fundamentalism as a sufficient way to run the country. Hence, the enormous appeal of an Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, and the popular pummeling of Bush 43 and big banks.

C&S: In the book, you write, “If liberal values were a stock, now is time to buy.” What do you mean by that?

MG: When I sent my book proposal in 2014, right after the big Republican wins in the midterm election, I thought that the country was, however haltingly, moving into an era with a new progressive majority. That conclusion was based on the GOP being a party with a fringe at the bottom: an angry, irrational, nativist, shrinking base. Competing with a Democratic party with an eye more to the future America of millennials, minorities and realists. Vindication in the form of Trump/Cruz and the likely sixth popular vote loss by the GOP in the last seven presidential elections has done little to dampen my confidence. Based on apparent Republican extremism in this presidential race and demographic trends, I’m reminded of the comment that John Kenneth Galbraith wrote after the market crash of 1929: “The end had come, but it was not yet in sight.” 

C&S: “Bright, Infinite Future.” Where’s the title come from?

MG: The book pivots on two contrasting observations about liberals and conservatives: Leonard Bernstein in 1953 said, “A liberal is a person who believes in a bright infinite future”; William F. Buckley Jr. in 1955 said, “A conservative is a person who stands athwart history yelling, Stop!” That contrast was and is still telling.

C&S: One of my favorite anecdotes from the book: Preet Bharara actually drove for you?

MG: (laughs) Yes, well people laugh at that. I didn’t know what he would become in 1993, but he was asked, “What was your earliest role in politics?” He said, volunteer driver for Mark Green in his ’93 public advocate race. I’d like to hope that he picked up some tips while driving, but that would probably be inaccurate.

C&S: Originally I said you were a far-left Democrat, but you fought against that term. What is it that makes you bristle?

MG: I work with so many people in their 20s and 30s and I have children who are millennials and I see what millennials know and don’t. When you said far-left, I immediately thought, boy isn’t that out of the 1950s and 1960s. And it’s out of the National Review, Erick Erickson world where, since they’re losing politically, they throw around phrases trying to taint the other side. I’m a center-left progressive democrat when I was running, serving and writing. And people who think that the center is somewhere between the National Review and The Nation are missing the picture. I believe the country is slowly moving to a more progressive place on race, federal spending, climate, diplomacy, choice, marriage equality – you name it! And except perhaps for Sanders’ viewpoints on breaking up big banks per se, it’s hard to think of many of his policy proposals that are not popular and it’s easy to think that most of Ted Cruz’s policy proposals poll very badly. So there’s a narrowing center in American politics now, but it’s clearly trending progressive.

In my opinion, if you use the term “far-left” it stigmatizes your thinking. It’s something out of the ’60s. The only people who use that phrase now are old-time people who see a communist under every bed or the far-right wing. Oh look, you just said the far-right wing! Yeah. If one side believes the American president is not an American and climate change is a hoax and the other side entertains no such insanities, only lazy commentators can say, well both sides do it. 

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