If It’s Series Time, Can The Election Be Far Away?
It is hard to believe that we are so close to the mayoral election.
There is a feeling that what little campaign took place this year is close to an end: over nine-tenths of the electorate having largely settled on the candidate of their choice. The Marist poll (taken Oct. 19 to 21) resulted in Bloomberg 52, Thompson 36, other 7, undecided 5. The poll claims to be accurate within 5 percent for likely voters.
How can this result be predicted in a city where voter registration is 66 percent Democratic and 13 percent Republican? The last four municipal elections, 1993, 1997, 2001 and 2005, have been won by candidates running on the Republican, Independent and Liberal party lines. The four Democrats who were defeated in those elections are Mayor Dinkins, Ruth Messinger, Mark Green and Fernando Ferrer. All were elected officials who had held lesser offices.
Here are some possible causes of the dichotomy between voter registration and the predicted but uncertain vote in 2009.
For eight years, the Bloomberg administration has provided honest, reasonably effective government, in sharp contrast to the mess in Albany,
The mayor purchased an enormous advertising campaign, using television, radio, the internet, daily newspapers and community weeklies.
There was a lack of enthusiasm for Comptroller Bill Thompson, who said nothing remarkably new in the campaign. He had not been hostile to Bloomberg for seven years, until the mayor decided to try to change term limits, which adversely affected his plan to run in 2009, as it did Anthony Weiner’s intention to seek the mayoralty. Weiner, who is 45 years old, pulled out of the race; Thompson, who will be 60 in 2013, may not have been as confident about his future.
The power of incumbency, and media exposure for eight years, made the mayor much better known than his rival. There was no particular civic or fiscal issue with which Thompson was identified. His five years as president of the Board of Education (1996-2001) were derided by Bloomberg. (Thompson had been appointed to the Board by Brooklyn Borough President Howard Golden. He was regarded as friendly with the United Federation of Teachers. Known as a moderate, he was not criticized during his tenure at the Board. He left when he was elected Comptroller.) Thompson in turn attacked Chancellor Joel Klein and Bloomberg’s role in the school system. The difference was that the Bloomberg campaign said it repeatedly on television.
During his eight years in office, the mayor inevitably made enemies. He also made friends, many of whom in the non-profit area were beneficiaries of his charitable contributions, which exceeded $200 million per year. Whether or not there were elements of self interest in his gifts, the fact remains that they were extremely helpful for many organizations engaged in human service and the arts. He is one of the most generous people in America. Although it is true that he can afford to be, it is also true that many other people of wealth do not make gifts anything like Bloomberg does. He has earned the gratitude of people and organizations he has helped over the years.
In areas such as gun control, and restricting cigarette smoking, he has become a national figure. He forms organizations to seek legislation in these areas, and to increase enforcement of existing laws.
In any such record, there are flaws, and issues on which reasonable people can differ. When I told him I was opposed to congestion pricing, he told me “You have a right to be wrong.” Anyone involved in many public issues will disagree from time to time.
The most jarring episode in the Bloomberg administration was the manner in which the City Charter’s term limits provisions, adopted by the people in 1993 and upheld in a 1996 referendum, were changed by the City Council at the insistence of the mayor. We frequently criticized this maneuver, and believe that it violated the spirit of the Charter, if not the letter. This issue became the basis of the Comptroller’s campaign and he forcefully raised it in the first debate on October 13. The mayor, however, did not give himself a third term. He gave himself the right to run for a term, which he otherwise did not have because of the referenda. Whatever interests of the city he might advance in a third term did not extend to the Councilmembers, who voted to extend his eligibility because the bill also provided for them. Their votes for the extension were directly motivated by self-interest, which is perfectly understandable but not totally excusable. This is particularly true because many of the members only held their seats because their predecessors (in some cases their father) had been forced out by term limits in 2001. To us, it was a scandal.
We can put the question of whom to support in 2009 thusly: who is likely to act more effectively on behalf of the people of the City of New York over the next four years? Which man is stronger, and better able to stand up to the enormous pressures he will face? The three billionaire publishers who supported the extension of term limits, to the displeasure of many of their reporters, acted in what they thought was in the best interest of the city, in which they have a great economic stake. They are acting in their own economic interest, but they want New York City to prosper.
The financial crisis does change the situation, not because Bloomberg is a financial genius who will solve the problem of deficit spending, but because a strong mayor will be badly needed to resist the militant spenders who will oppose any attempt to reduce expenses, no matter how necessary it will be. The mayor, who will presumably be barred from running again in 2013, will exert more resistance to excessive spending than someone who was seeking union support for his next race. This is an argument for a two-term limit (rather than three), because then at least half the time (the second term) the mayor will be relatively immune from the pressure to tax and spend.
Newspaper coverage has been relatively sparse because of the Yankees participation in the playoffs. With them in the World Series, public attention will be drawn away from the election for another week. If they should defeat the Phillies and win the World Series, that would be favorable for the incumbent, just as the Mets’ victory in the 1969 World Series, and the Jets’ success in Super Bowl III, were considered as creating a mood which helped underdog Mayor John Lindsay win a second term on the Liberal Party line. Sadly, that was 40 years ago.
The Marist poll showing a 16-point margin for Bloomberg, 52-36, was surprising, because we all thought the race was closer than that. A wide margin discourages contributors from giving to the prospective loser, since many gifts are based on anticipated favors. It certainly does not stimulate volunteers to join the campaign. Mayor Bloomberg does not solicit funds, but he is not amused when New Yorkers, especially those receiving municipal largesse in one form or another, bite the hand that feeds them. It is the converse of Pay to Play. “If you play, you will pay.” That is not morally uplifting, but human nature being what it is, such things occur. Perfection is not on the ballot.
Other polls will be released and may well indicate a narrower gap between the candidates. It is, however, highly unlikely that later polls will predict a different outcome on Election Day.