If you can pity a politician, pity Bill Thompson. The minimally-exciting former comptroller of New York City was the Democrats’ sacrificial lamb in 2009, when Mike Bloomberg successfully purchased a third term. Other, more-buzzy candidates, like City Council Speaker Christine Quinn and Rep. Anthony Weiner, passed on the race, expecting to have an easier time in 2013. Thompson was outspent better than 10 to one; he went into election day trailing by 13 points. But thanks to a minor voter revolt, a preview of the 2010 midterms, Thompson only lost by 5 points. (This led to some classic pot-stirring by Ben Smith, then at Politico, who got Anthony Weiner on the record trashing the White House for not backing Thompson, and an anonymous White House aide trashing Weiner for not “manning up” and running.)
An experience like that would give anyone some hope in the voters and mistrust in the polls. Thompson ran again in 2013, winning endorsements from the most powerful education and law enforcement unions, polling ahead of most rivals in any runoff. Alas, to get to a runoff, he needed no candidate to crack 40 percent of the vote in the primary. Bill de Blasio won 40.2 percent of the vote on election night. Thompson hoped that a recount would cut that margin, but a crawling count and recanvass since then revealed de Blasio’s total growing to 40.5 percent. Bowing to reality, after some out-of-sight brooding, Thompson has finally conceded.
This leaves New York City voters and reporters with the most predictable general election in a decade. De Blasio, the candidate of the Democratic and Working Families Party, will face Republican Joe Lhota and Independent Adolfo Carrion.* No one has polled this match-up since June (a Marist survey); in that poll, conducted when de Blasio was running fourth for the Democratic nod, he still led Lhota by 37 points. The path to a Lhota victory is so narrow as to be basically non-existent.
But here’s the path as Lhota allies see it. They will hammer de Blasio for being “divisive,” for wanting an unworkable tax hike, for scaring the rich, and for trying to bring the city back to the David Dinkins era. Lhota’s been elevating Dinkins, the city’s first (and only) black mayor, for months, chastising him for saying race was a factor in his loss. And Chris Smith recapped a poll (not officially endorsed by the Lhota campaign) that made the de Blasio = Dinkins argument.
Her “poll” questions were mostly statements, and their edge was sharp. On the Monday evening before the primary vote, she reached a white, middle-class Brooklyn father of two and asked him to agree or disagree: Joe Lhota’s excellent management experience would help him be a strong mayor. Bill de Blasio is controlled by the labor unions. De Blasio would take the city back to the Dinkins years. And in a race between Lhota and De Blasio, how might the voter’s opinion change if one of the candidates were to be endorsed by, say, Mike Bloomberg or Rudy Giuliani?
Lhota’s taking advantage of the Official Narrative of Modern New York City History. It goes something like this: New York foundered under Democratic rule, until Rudy Giuliani came along and saved the city. It’s not entirely wrong! But this narrative has always been tough on Dinkins, who defeated Ed Koch in a 1989 primary and inherited the city at its absolute worst. Violent crime peaked in the late 1980s and early 1990s, but actually started falling at the end of Dinkins’s one term. There were 2,605 murders in 1990, Dinkins’s first full year – the worst in city history. That slowly fell under Dinkins, who appointed Ray Kelly as police commissioner. Kelly, of course, is once again police commissioner, presiding over historically low crime and being tipped as a possible Homeland Security secretary. I’m not arguing that Dinkins was a fantastic mayor, only that it’s innacurate to say New York crime was worse under his tenure, and asking a lot for voters to remember what it was like in 1993.
*The presence of an Indepedence candidate is actually noteworthy. In every single one of his wins, Bloomberg took advantage of fusionism and got the Independence Party’s ballot line – in 2009, more voters chose Thompson on the Democratic line than Bloomberg on the Republican line.