Commentary Magazine


Identity Politics in the Empire City

The recent political history of New York City would suggest that Bill Thompson, the former city comptroller, should be in pole position heading into the 2013 mayoral election. That’s because when Thompson challenged current Mayor Michael Bloomberg in 2009 he went into the election the longest of long shots and managed to come within five points of the mayor, who also happens to be a billionaire and global brand.

That the election turned out to have been winnable for the unknown Democrat left the national Democratic Party–which completely ignored its nominee–furiously shifting the blame. Anthony Weiner (remember him?), who considered running against Bloomberg that year, suggested one of President Obama’s futile trips out to New Jersey to help the sinking political fortunes of Jon Corzine might have been better spent helping Thompson. “Maybe,” the White House viciously shot back, “Anthony Weiner should have manned-up and run against Michael Bloomberg.”

But for obvious reasons, Weiner won’t run for the Democratic mayoral nomination this time either, and Bloomberg will not attempt to run for his third second term. So it should fall to Thompson, logic tells us, to become New York’s next mayor. Yet Thompson is already an underdog. The frontrunner is City Council Speaker Christine Quinn.

Quinn has establishment support and is generating some excitement for the fact that the city has never had a woman mayor. She is also openly gay, and planning to marry her partner this year. Identity politics are never far from the spotlight during New York mayoral elections, but the fact that Quinn is running against Thompson, who is black, virtually guarantees this element of city politics will be present during the 2013 contest.

And in New York, such politics often place New York’s Finest, the NYPD, at the center of attention. The police department’s stop-and-frisk policy has come under fire from minority advocates claiming racial profiling, which is how to understand this part of Thompson’s platform, as reported by the New York Times:

He pledged to replace the current police commissioner, Raymond W. Kelly, and he said he would oppose any tax increases.

Kelly, however, is currently enjoying a 64 percent approval rating (ten points higher than the mayor), and the NYPD earns an approval rating of 63 percent from New Yorkers. But black New Yorkers give Kelly only a 51-percent approval rating, and give his NYPD only 42. (Fifty percent of the city’s black voters disapprove of the NYPD.) So if you’re Christine Quinn, and the city’s minority residents are giving the NYPD a bit of the cold shoulder, how do you support the very popular police commissioner and his very popular police department without alienating black voters?

Quinn had an answer. While Thompson responded to the stop-and-frisk policy by threatening to fire Kelly, and Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer, who is also likely running for the Democratic nomination, lashed out at both the possible profiling element and the efficacy of the policy, Quinn took a more thoughtful tack. She suggested some changes to the policy in a letter to Kelly, but did not advocate scrapping it. She also included some praise for the policy: “We understand the vast majority of the lives saved were men of color and that part of the NYPD’s policing strategy that led to this decline is based on stop, question and frisk.”

“Politically, that line is important,” wrote Capital New York’s Azi Paybarah. It’s also true, and carries echoes of the unmatched and dramatic drop in crime in New York City that began in the 1990s. As Heather Mac Donald recently reflected on that time:

This massive crime rout has transformed the entire metropolis, but the most dramatic benefits have been concentrated in minority neighborhoods. Mothers no longer put their children to sleep in bathtubs to protect them from stray bullets, and senior citizens can walk to the grocery store without fear of getting mugged. New businesses and restaurants have revitalized once desolate commercial strips now that proprietors no longer have to worry about violence from the drug trade. Over ten thousand minority males are alive today who would have been killed had homicide remained at its earlier levels; the steep decline in killings among black males under the age of twenty-five has cut the death rate for all young men in New York by half.

New York is still a liberal city with liberal sensibilities, but if the NYPD’s poll numbers are any indication, it remains a city with a deep and abiding respect for its renowned police force. That respect is hard-earned and well-deserved, and it’s no surprise that the candidate who appears to share that sentiment has found herself at the front of the pack.

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