Twelve years ago Rudy Giuliani introduced voters to the squeegee men. In fact, they needed no introduction: Everybody knew how irritating those exit-ramp extortionists could be. But Rudy inflated the squeegee men into a symbol of all that was supposedly wrong in David Dinkins’s New York and what the 1993 election was about.
The squeegee man of 2005 has yet to make an appearance. Amid the roasting of Freddy Ferrer over his Diallo comments and stock-transfer tax proposal, or the suggestion (per the Times‘ Joyce Purnick) that Virginia Fields might be a stalking horse for Bill Thompson, or the impression that Anthony Weiner and Gifford Miller are lightweights laying groundwork for future races, no clear case has emerged for why voters should dump Michael Bloomberg.
Those who will make that case—people from the current campaigns, activists, and others involved in the city’s body politic—say it boils down to this: Bloomberg is “an out-of-touch billionaire who doesn’t understand the concerns of ordinary New Yorkers,” as a rival camp’s aide put it.
But wait: Bloomberg was a billionaire four years ago, and he won. His riches don’t seem to repel people. There just isn’t the same kind of passion against Bloomberg as there was against Ed Koch in 1989 or Dinkins in 1993. Nor is the 2005 race like the elections of ’97 or ’01, which were referenda on Giuliani. “He’s definitely not Rudy,” says one political operative about the current mayor, “so there’s no animus against the guy.”
The “billionaire” tag looks like an attempt to introduce a little of that old-fashioned polarization into this year’s race. The mayor certainly has provided his rivals ammunition, like his line that “there aren’t that many people that work at the minimum wage” or his reaction to MOMA’s steep ticket prices: “Some things people can afford, some things people can’t.” But as John Kerry can tell you, polarization doesn’t always win campaigns. So Democrats are going to try to connect Bloomberg’s billions to his shortcomings on education, housing, and general livability in the city.
Those issues usually rank high in polls of voters’ concerns, but that doesn’t mean a campaign can successfully be built around them. Eight years ago, Ruth Messinger talked about education and no one listened.
This year, however, the schools issue comes with two twists: mayoral control and the recent ruling in the Campaign for Fiscal Equity court case, which found that the state had shortchanged city schools. Democrats will give Bloomberg credit for assuming mayoral control, and then try to hang him with it. After all, Mayor Mike did say back in 2002 that he wants “to be held accountable for the results,” and Democrats can point to flat reading-test scores and attendance rates in giving Bloomberg’s school performance an F. Meanwhile, the looming CFE payout—assuming the $5.6 billion a year actually gets paid—gives candidates a “historic opportunity to really revolutionize schools,” in one staffer’s phrase, with little concern for the normal budget constraints. Ferrer departed from this formula when he proposed the stock-transfer tax as a way to pay for the city’s likely share of the CFE bounty, but his rivals are unlikely to follow him.
Housing issues actually hit home harder: New Yorkers face one of the tightest housing markets in the country, with a bottom-scraping vacancy rate and rent bills that take a major bite out of family income. Those who decide to buy rather than rent face steep purchase prices, and established homeowners are paying rising property tax bills because of the soaring value of their property.
In December 2002, the mayor launched a plan to create or rehabilitate 65,000 units of affordable housing, and just last week he announced a plan to devote Battery Park City fee payments to financing 3,000 more units. But Democrats can argue that in the city’s major development projects—Hudson Yards, the Williamsburg-Greenpoint waterfront, ground zero—the Bloomberg administration has failed to push for enough affordable housing.
Another issue that cuts across the board is mass transit. The subway benefits everyone: You either take it, or you ride on less-congested roads because other people do. So, the argument goes, the rash of service outages is a major threat to livability in the city. The mayor doesn’t control the MTA, but he has obvious influence there—enough to get the agency to approve his stadium plan. If transit woes continue, expect Democrats to hammer the mayor over them.
The tricky thing is getting the media to cover this message. Campaign staffers complain to the Voice that the daily papers’ recent buzz about the Democrats’ allegedly weak field was premature. It’s only April and few voters are paying attention to the race.
But it’s bad news for the Democratic candidates when party leaders like Charlie Rangel and Denny Farrell start echoing that buzz.
As Messinger tells the Voice, “It then becomes the go-to line for Democrats who haven’t been actively involved in figuring out way in advance who they want to see run, haven’t contributed to suggesting to the candidates what they see as the key issues but find it a convenient bandwagon to jump on. It’s hard to run against an incumbent and have leaders in your own party step on your toes.”
History suggests it’s hard to beat an incumbent mayor, period. When Giuliani beat Dinkins in ’93, it was the first time in 60 years that an incumbent mayor was unseated in a general election (two—Abe Beame and Koch—were dumped in primaries). After 1933, incumbents have gone nine for 10 in November elections. Term limits may have only strengthened the incumbents’ grip, because strong candidates and opposition party leaders can opt to bide their time and seek an open seat.
As November grows near, Bloomberg will have tens of millions to spend on ads and glossy mailings. Democrats can only afford to let Bloomberg use that dough defensively, to counter months of fierce attacks by Democrats. They can’t give him the chance to define the race. Even now, Bloomberg is craftily erecting defenses on his vulnerable fronts: reaching out to the black community, luring labor unions with his stadium plans, and announcing the new affordable-housing funding.
Sure, it’s early. But as veteran political strategist Hank Sheinkopf tells the Voice, “This takes time. You can’t do it out of nowhere. . . . Especially when you’ve got a candidate who will be able to dominate the airwaves and the mailboxes.”
Last week’s Marist poll indicates that the Democrats are in trouble: Bloomberg shot way ahead of Ferrer, and the other Democrats didn’t fare much better.
The danger for Democrats is the self-fulfilling prophecy: If Bloomberg looks like a winner, there’ll be less enthusiasm about trying to defeat him. Messinger’s reasoning: “There’s an incumbent who seems to have a good chance of winning re-election; therefore, people find it sort of comfortable to throw a bone to that side—’Not all of what we say can be too strong against him because we may have to deal with him for the next four years.’ ”
Democrats won’t necessarily embrace Bloomberg; they could just stay home. As Reverend Al Sharpton said recently when he announced that he wasn’t making a primary endorsement, “We don’t have to be at the dance unless the dance is something along the lines that we feel is more than compelling.”