New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s comments in an interview published over the weekend “shook up” the race to succeed him, as the Wall Street Journal describes it. Bloomberg took issue with what he thought has been an overly class- and race-based campaign by the current Democratic primary frontrunner, Bill de Blasio. While that may sound like exactly the sort of campaign a modern liberal Democrat would run–especially in New York City, where identity politics predominate–the charge was actually unfair.
What’s more, Bloomberg seemed realize this as he said it, as his explanation for his comments indicates:
Mr. Bloomberg said in the interview published Saturday in New York magazine that he thought Public Advocate Bill de Blasio, the front-runner, was running a “class-warfare and racist” campaign because he had persistently highlighted income inequality and his biracial family. Mr. de Blasio’s wife, Chirlane McCray, is African-American.
“I mean he’s making an appeal using his family to gain support. I think it’s pretty obvious to anyone watching what he’s been doing. I do not think he himself is racist,” Mr. Bloomberg said. “It’s comparable to me pointing out I’m Jewish in attracting the Jewish vote. You tailor messages to your audiences and address issues you think your audience cares about.”
Not to split hairs, but it’s not quite like Bloomberg pointing out his Jewish background. De Blasio isn’t black; given the degree of controversy over race-related issues both in the city and the country recently, it’s not outrageous at all that de Blasio would feel compelled to demonstrate that he can understand issues facing the African-American community through personal connection.
At any rate, what you sense from Bloomberg is frustration, not outrage. I don’t think Bloomberg cares about ethnic political appeals by de Blasio or anyone else. What most likely bothers him much more is that de Blasio appears to be a disaster waiting to happen. His ideas for the city range from the terrible to the dangerous. De Blasio is leading the “Dinkins Democrats,” as I referred to them here.
De Blasio attacked rival candidate Christine Quinn for her qualified support for Police Commissioner Ray Kelly, whose leadership of the NYPD has helped keep the city safe and make it a model for the rest of the country. Kelly’s name has even been floated to run the federal Department of Homeland Security, a suggestion supported by Republicans and Democrats. De Blasio’s idea of city governance is to locate what has worked in the past–a focus on safe streets and a pro-business atmosphere that has enabled the city to rake in the tax revenue that keeps services running and the social safety net intact–and promise to shred it.
So, if de Blasio is such an irresponsible choice for mayor–and to be fair, he may not intend to keep his promises (threats?) if he wins the election–why would he win in the first place? The answer is because a meager minority of Democratic primary voters will choose the Democratic nominee tomorrow, and because of the Democrats’ partisan advantage in the city that party’s nominee will become the favorite–though far from guaranteed victor–in the general election.
And de Blasio is poised to take a commanding lead into the primary because of the weakness of the rest of the field. Anthony Weiner has cratered in the polls after new scandals arose and he began speaking in a British accent and taunting elderly voters. (A strange, but perhaps not too unexpected, sentence to write.) That left the election without a traditional candidate from the boroughs, putting Queens in play and giving an advantage to the Brooklyn-based de Blasio.
Bill Thompson is another candidate whose weak poll standing has always hidden his strength in a second-round runoff, which takes place if no candidate gets 40 percent of the vote. And of course there is the once-putative frontrunner, City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, who has been startlingly unable to connect with voters and has run a campaign that suggests she never took her competition too seriously, inexcusably in the case of Thompson.
And that brings us back to Bloomberg. The mayor had tentatively sided with Quinn as his successor, but that was only among the likely candidates. He spent his final term in office undermining any credibility Quinn had by desperately casting about for a different successor. He was even willing to import one; he reportedly asked Hillary Clinton and Ed Rendell to run.
The whole circus left the impression that Bloomberg feared leaving his legacy in Quinn’s hands. But the recent Democratic primary contest suggests he feared a Quinn candidacy, not a Quinn mayoralty. He might have expected Quinn to fumble the handoff, which is exactly what happened. If that’s the case, Bloomberg gets points for prescience.
It’s surely possible Quinn could still win, of course. If there’s a runoff, the calculus changes–though, it should be noted, probably not to Quinn’s benefit, demographically. There is some irony here for Quinn. She ran to the left once she saw her rivals do so. That was probably a mistake, and it could cost her the election. Had she secured her place as the “responsible” Democrat, she could have portrayed de Blasio as the extreme candidate he is–well-meaning but eminently naïve and dangerous if given a job with real citywide responsibility, which he has never had.
Instead, Quinn may have convinced voters that there wasn’t enough daylight between her and de Blasio ideologically to make much of a difference. At that point, the election becomes solely about personality and, yes, identity politics. That’s where Bloomberg’s frustration finally boiled over, because that’s where Quinn is most likely to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.