By Jared Chausow
By Katie Toth
By Elizabeth Flock
By Albert Samaha
By Anna Merlan
By Jon Campbell
By Jon Campbell
By Albert Samaha
This is an odd story about an even odder couple, and the surprising ties that bind them. It's a tale of intrigue about a mayoral contest that left New Yorkers feeling so cheated fewer of them voted than in any election since 1917. It also reveals how one of these odd partners compromised the other, subverting the independent checks and balances required of a mayor and comptroller by law.
As the curtain opens on 2010, the stars of the year in city politics, Mike Bloomberg and William Thompson, who were awkwardly allied since being inaugurated together eight years ago, are each moving on to new and uncertain phases of their public lives.
Bloomberg, who has suffered recent stunning setbacks in the City Council, has already discovered that third terms and narrow wins can diminish even mogul mayors. Thompson—entertained at Gracie Mansion at a post-election private breakfast and praised by Bloomberg as "a quality guy" who the mayor hopes "stays in public service"—is still considering a 2010 race against our unelected senator, Kirsten Gillibrand, or unelected state comptroller, Tom DiNapoli ("Go for it," cheers Bloomberg). Friends of Thompson expect him to try, like loser Rudy Giuliani did in 1989, to stay in play on the sidelines and run for mayor again in four years, when a departing Bloomberg might throw him an endorsement or some checks.
Research assistance by Steve P. Ercolani, T.J. Raphael, Kate Rose, Amanda Sakuma, and Grace Smith
Thompson, who only promises he will run again sometime for something, has suddenly become a darling of the media, which are now overcompensating for relying too obsessively on inaccurate polls that failed to anticipate a four-point margin of victory. Thompson, it turns out, got virtually the same total vote Fernando Ferrer did in 2005, while Bloomberg pulled in 180,000 fewer votes than he received last time. Thompson's close margin was less a result of his underappreciated strengths—the Times' Mike Barbaro correctly reported two weeks before the election that his "biggest obstacle" was "his own undisciplined campaign"—than they were of a result of Bloomberg fatigue. Thompson, in fact, had an "oddly relaxed" campaign schedule, with a single event some days, observed Barbaro, and was "chronically late" and often failed to appear at all. He spent more than half his money before the mid-September nominal primary, forcing him to rely on blink-of-an-eye, 15-second TV commercials in November.
But that wasn't enough. Thompson's real role, for Bloomberg at least, was to help force the feared congressman, Anthony Weiner, out of the race, a goal that Bloomberg guru Howard Wolfson has openly acknowledged. Thompson obliged, giving up a sure third term as comptroller. Weiner himself explained in a Times op-ed when he withdrew in May that "running a primary against Thompson would only drain the ability of the winner to compete in the general election." Having lost to Ferrer in 2005 by 11 points, Weiner understood that minority candidates have won all but one of the Democratic mayoral primaries since 1985. So when the leading black politician in the city decided to make his improbable run, Weiner had nowhere to go but out. Thompson and Bloomberg might as well have had a first-round victory party together that night.
Like other powerful New York pols, Mike Bloomberg wanted to pick his own opponent. Gillibrand and Chuck Schumer spent a year setting the table for 2010, and, as one-time putative opponents Steve Israel and Carolyn Maloney can attest, the incumbent pair used every knife and fork available. Ed Koch picked his opponent when he derailed ex-congressman Herman Badillo and won a third term in 1985, and Giuliani did it when he submarined a possible challenge from Alan Hevesi in 1997. Faced with internal polls that we now know rarely put Bloomberg above 50 percent, he preferred an opponent whose vulnerabilities were well known to him, having already exploited them for years.
Thompson couldn't, for example, attack Bloomberg's development policies since, as a member of the city's Industrial Development Agency, he had voted 876 times in favor of the $9.6 billion in bonds that underwrite the projects, opposing them only five times. Charged under the city charter with assessing Bloomberg's budgets and auditing his agencies, Thompson had instead gushed about the mayor for most of his two terms, leaving him with virtually no viable way of distinguishing himself from his golf buddy when the two ended up on opposite sides of the ballot.
What Bloomberg got with Thompson was a made-to-order challenge, so tame at times that a reporter, frustrated by Thompson's unwillingness to say a single critical word about Bloomberg at one September press conference, asked why he'd called it, and so over-the-top at other times (as when he promised to fire Police Commissioner Ray Kelly), that he looked grotesquely out of touch. The Daily News' Adam Lisberg captured it in a classic headline: "Nice-guy Thompson can't find the jugular." Thompson curiously decided to make schools the core of his attack on Bloomberg even as his key campaign consultant, Roberto Ramirez, was lobbying in Albany on behalf of a Bloomberg-tied group championing mayoral control. Thompson often looked like a befuddled shadow-boxer, tied to Bloomberg at the hip while serving up obligatory campaign lip. As for Bloomberg, he'd contended in 2008 that all the term-limits extension did was give voters the additional choice of voting for him, a supposed "expansion" of the franchise even as he overrode the result of two referendums. Then he maneuvered successfully in 2009 to narrow that choice to the opponent he wanted to face.