Beth Fertig is the contributing editor for education, covering the New York City public school system for WNYC on air and online at SchoolBook.org. She has covered education in the city for more than 15 years. Beth is the author of Why cant u teach me 2 read? Three Students and a Mayor Put Our Schools to the Test (FSG Books) which grew out of a radio series on the low graduation rate for special education students. Follow her @bethfertig.
A Day in the Life: C. Virginia Fields
Thursday, August 25, 2005
New York, NY —
Mayoral Candidate C. Virginia Fields has been in government for more than 15 years, as a City Councilmember from Harlem and as the current Manhattan Borough President. She’s now hoping her experience will propel her to become the first woman elected Mayor. As part of our ongoing series about the candidates, WNYC’s Beth Fertig hit the campaign trail this week with Fields.
REPORTER: There are candidates who shake hands with voters because they have to. And there are some who genuinely like pressing the flesh. But C. Virginia Fields appears to be that rare candidate who would be out there meeting with people even if she wasn’t running for office.
FIELDS: How are you good morning, how are you? How are you?! I’m pumped now, girlfriend!
REPORTER: It’s 8 a.m. outside the Church Avenue subway stop in Flatbush and Fields IS pumped. She smiles broadly while a campaign aide encourages voters to elect the city’s first African American woman mayor.
AIDE: C. Virginia Fields making history, C. Virginia Fields making history, making history in New York!
REPORTER: Whether it’s the chance to make history, or just meeting a well-known politician, most voters here are eager to meet the candidate. Especially black women. To them, sixty-year old Virginia Fields is an icon.
WICKHAM: I always wanted to meet you. FIELDS: Hi! WICKHAM: I say you yesterday for the Golden Cross and I always wanted to meet you. FIELDS: Thank you so much, I’m here to ask for your vote on the 13th. WICKHAM: You sure have it m’am. FIELDS: Thank you, have a blessed day.
REPORTER: Patricia Wickham saw Fields recently on television. She’s still learning about the Democratic candidates. But she says she’s naturally drawn to Fields.
WICKHAM: As an African American woman she stands for the African American people. She can do it.
REPORTER: Fields also generates the warmth of her Southern upbringing. Dressed in a cream-colored suit, she’s relaxed and confident. She’ll cheerfully greet anyone who crosses her path and wishes them a blessed day, reflecting her religious faith.
FIELDS: Good morning officers. I’m fine how are you. Have a blessed day. How long you been on the force?
REPORTER: Fields stays at the subway stop until about 9 a.m. A half hour later she’s schmoozing with voters in Junior’s Restaurant.
FIELDS: One of the things I talk about is health. (DIP UNDER)
REPORTER: She tells one woman who’s caring for her elderly mother about her plan to help senior citizens.
FIELDS: I think it’s important that we begin to focus more on is helping seniors stay in their own homes and live independently, while recognizing that there are some who can’t. Let’s give tax credits to children, other relatives who provide care.
REPORTER: She also tells a couple with children about her proposals to improve the public schools.
FIELDS: I want to expand math, science classes so those students who want to move forward and become the next noble peace prize winners.
REPORTER: Fields does an interview over breakfast with a writer for the Gay City News. Then, she’s whisked off to City Hall for a press conference to endorse Public Advocate Betsy Gotbaum. As she leaves the press conference, Fields is approached by a producer from the Caribbean television show “What’s Up New York.” He asks her his trademark question.
MAN: Who do you want to say what’s up to? FIELDS: What’s up! MAN: Who do you want to say what’s up to? FIELDS: What’s up with (pause) What’s up with (pause) MAN: Like who do you want to say hi to? What’s up. FIELDS: OK. MAN: Ready and go… FIELDS: Well I just want to say What’s UP Caribbean community. I love you, I’ve been campaigning in your community and I look forward to having your support on September 13th. MAN: Thank you so much. FIELDS: Oh I didn’t know what you were saying at the moment.
REPORTER: Fields leaves City Hall and drops into a waiting car.
FIELDS: Get on the other side.
REPORTER: We’re going to a couple of senior centers in Chinatown. But first she wants to make sure there’s room in the back seat.
FIELDS: Wait, wait, wait. Alright. See why nobody ever rides in my back seat? FERTIG: What have you got in your backseat? FIELDS: Uh. Newspapers that I take an opportunity to try to read through between stops. Schedules.
REPORTER: There are also a couple of books.
FIELDS: Well the 2 that are in here now, and I finished most of this one: “Stirring the Pots in American Politics, Cooking with Grease” by Donna Brazille. Very interesting she uses analogies of cooking with the whole idea of what happens in politics.
REPORTER: Fields keeps a bottle of hand sanitizer and lotion to stay fresh on the trail. It’s about 11:30. She takes a quick look in a mirror to re-touch her makeup. Her short-cropped hair is easy to manage but she’s constantly running out of lipstick. She uses so much, these days, she says she sticks with the cheap stuff.
FIELDS: This one came from probably a local drug store.
WOMAN: Speaks in Chinese urging people to applaud, then in English adds "Everyone support C. Virginia Fields!"
REPORTER: In Chinatown, Fields gets a big round of applause at the Open Door Senior Center. She’s a familiar face because she gave the center money from her budget as Manhattan Borough President. She really loosens up at the City Hall senior center – where she tries her hand at ping pong.
FIELDS: One more come on I can do this!
REPORTER: She then joins a group of women performing Tai Chi. It’s her first time but she gamely follows their moves for about five minutes.
FIELDS “They know the steps see that’s not fair!”
REPORTER: As she leaves the senior center, Fields is trailed by a few reporters. She’s asked about her performance in a recent mayoral candidates’ debate – where she declined to say whether she would cut any city programs to pay for her proposals.
FIELDS: I’m saying I think it’s unrealistic to say I will cut here, here or here because it is a process in terms of negotiations and budget considerations.
REPORTER: Fields is also asked about her standing in recent polls, which show her statistically tied for second place with 2 of her rivals.
WNBC PRODUCER: Is this primary a race now for second place and where do you shape up in that? FIELDS: Yes I think it has always been basically the idea of a runoff and I intend to be part of that runoff with most likely Freddy Ferrer and we’re continuing to go out and campaign, talk with voters.
REPORTER: Fields is trailing her competitors in fundraising. And she’s the only mayoral candidate who has yet to run any television ads. She also took some knocks over a campaign mailing that included doctored images of Asians to create the look of a diverse coalition. The mailing led to a shakeup in Fields’ campaign.
REPORTER: At her campaign headquarters in a Harlem brownstone, Fields’ campaign manager, Chung Seto, insists the candidate will go the distance despite what she calls distractions.
SETO: We will be competitive and we will get our message out.
Seto believes her candidate’s biography will also inspire voters. Virginia Fields grew up in racially segregated Birmingham, Alabama. She went to jail protesting with Doctor Martin Luther King, Junior. And she was a social worker before entering New York politics. If she doesn’t appear as aggressive as her competitors, Seto says that’s in the eye of the beholder.
SETO: I think your listeners may be tainted with the level of testosterone among the other candidates but she certainly has the passion. She’s been an elected official, social worker, civil rights activist.
REPORTER: Later in Brooklyn, at a Spanish restaurant, Fields elaborates on her campaign style over a quick dinner of chicken, rice and beans.
FIELDS: I do really want this job. It’s not so much a fire in the belly as Maya Angelou would say it is the stride, the walk, the look and so many other things. We’re changing terminology for women candidates! But it is about passion, it is about knowing what government can do.
AIDE: First woman mayor! That’s what she’s going to do. We can do this, we can do this, I can feel this!
REPORTER: Outside a subway stop on Nostrand Avenue, Fields is clearly the favorite candidate. Black women stop to take their photos with her, and ask questions. Twenty-nine year old Tamara Beach wants to know what Fields will do for the schools.
WOMAN: What is the plan for special education? FIELDS: First of all to make it a priority again.
REPORTER: Afterwards, Beach says she’ll vote for Fields. But it’s not just because she’s a black woman, like herself.
BEACH: Everybody listens to their own extent, everybody listens for the betterment of themselves. I would think she has more of a compassion. She definitely has my vote.
REPORTER: Fields will have to convince a lot more voters that she has both the compassion and passion to win the Democratic nomination. For WNYC I’m Beth Fertig.