Scott Stringer, the city comptroller, is strongly considering running for mayor. He remains in the drawn-out, time-honored posture of playing coy, which means getting a lot of ink — like a recent spread in the New York Times — for thinking about doing something. One of the more enjoyable parts of being a semi-high-profile politician is existing in this state of unvarnished potentiality. You feel important. You dream.
Now Stringer is shopping for consultants and rearing up to take down Mayor Bill de Blasio, who people seem to either despise or shrug off. A few nights ago, I rewatched Neil Barsky’s Koch, the brilliant documentary about the late mayor, and was reminded of why de Blasio, for all the good he’s done, has failed to connect. “I decided early on you have to get the attention of the public. You gotta get them to follow you and you can only do that by being bigger than life,” Koch says. “It’s theatrics! Everybody has a role and so long as you understand that role, you’re not gonna get mad.”
It’s a lesson de Blasio, limping into his re-election campaign next year, never learned. He’s the first incumbent since David Dinkins, who faced a far more racially polarized and crime-ridden city, not to soar into term two: both Rudy Giuliani and Michael Bloomberg were at the height of their powers as they sought re-election, saving their worst scandals and policy failures for the later innings.
De Blasio is facing a wide array of overlapping state and federal investigations (of varying merit) into, among other things: his fundraising, his mismanagement of a Lower East Side land deal, and the dubious sale of Long Island College Hospital. These are all problems of this year; 2014 and 2015, when de Blasio wrangled with the fallout of Eric Garner’s death, the murder of two cops, and the petulant back-turning of police, were not much better.
So de Blasio is in a funny place. Crime is low, the economy is good, and people want to live here. When other first-term incumbents struggled to win a second term — John Lindsay, Abe Beame, and Dinkins — New Yorkers were breathing apocalyptic fumes. For Lindsay and Beame, the challenge was trying to figure out how to govern a city that had lost its manufacturing base and teetered on fiscal ruin. Dinkins contended with the wrath of the white outer-borough ethnics and their prosecutorial id, Giuliani.
But de Blasio, who never grasped the theater of his job — the idea that New Yorkers want to pretend their mayor works 24-7, always shows up on time, and wants to be seen — is up against more hard-to-define forces, like a millionaire class resentful of his anti-Bloomberg campaign and his own worst instincts. For example, it somehow took de Blasio more than a year to realize that he needed to appear on the radio every week and hold town halls outside of Manhattan.
Stringer sees all this and thinks he’s the guy to pluck the mayor’s low-hanging fruit. I’ve covered Stringer for about four years now, and I’ve been chastised by his minders, sometimes rightfully so, for underrating him. I’ve called him “nebbishy.” He is not Kochian and we know politics remains an image game. Bloomberg was short in stature but had money. Stringer — who looks exactly like someone you’d imagine managing multibillion-dollar pension funds — has a lifetime of Democratic ladder-climbing. He’s living the dream of ambitious New York pols everywhere, methodically office-hopping from the assembly to the Manhattan borough president’s office to comptroller. Much easier said than done, to his credit.
Any oddsmaking over Stringer’s chances must account for how difficult it is to dethrone an incumbent. Unless an indictment is handed down, de Blasio will have a stranglehold on the African-American voters who determine the course of New York primaries, and the support of the labor unions that matter. Gadflies like the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association, stacked with non–New York City residents, and the Transport Workers Union, no longer a political power, can’t unmake a mayor.
Stringer’s bigger problem, as outlined by Nicole Gelinas today, is what his campaign will really be about. De Blasio critics think crying corruption will be enough, but it won’t be. A candidate needs a compelling, soundbite-ready vision to advance to primary voters, and as of October 2016, Stringer is lacking. His pitch to the city is something akin to Hillary Clinton’s to the nation: a beefing up of the status quo. Stringer wants to improve de Blasio’s housing plan and triple the city’s earned income tax credit. Admirable, sure, but not a reason to abandon the incumbent, who’s advancing a liberal vision as quickly as democracy and bureaucracy will allow.
What is Stringer’s organizing philosophy, his ideology? How would you explain his candidacy to your friends?
Until these questions are answered, Stringer will never be mayor.