The few New Yorkers who tuned in to watch last Wednesday’s debate between Mayor Bill de Blasio and a former city councilman who last held office in 1997 may be forgiven for wondering why no one else was there. Why is this mayor — never overwhelmingly popular and the beneficiary of all kinds of luck during his long-shot campaign four years ago — coasting to re-election? Is our political class truly gutless?
Yes…and no. There is the humdrum reality of politics in New York City, now more than ever dominated by registered Democrats. The only route to becoming mayor these days, other than spending tens of millions of your own dollars or arriving at a time of unique crisis, is to be a Democrat. And de Blasio, for all his flaws, has remained a Democrat capable of warding off serious challengers.
Polling bears this out. Even in the latest poll assessing his popularity — which is at a level that few pols would brag about — he had a 65 percent favorability among Democrats, which is still quite high. Only 25 percent had an unfavorable opinion of his mayoralty. (De Blasio is extremely unpopular with Republicans, but that can’t hurt him in a Democratic primary — a crucial fact glossed over by headlines pointing to his sinking numbers.)
Just about all the moneyed, better-known Democrats who could pose a threat to de Blasio in a primary know they can simply wait him out. Any prominent Democrat who contemplated a challenge to de Blasio — Comptroller Scott Stringer, Congressman Hakeem Jeffries, Bronx Borough President Rubén Díaz Jr., and Public Advocate Letitia James — would have had to run against the full force of the Democratic establishment, which would boil down to labor unions and progressive groups still loyal to the mayor. Instead, they’ve chosen not to risk their safe jobs for an unknown, preferring to wait for an open race in 2021 when de Blasio will be term-limited out.
An insurgent campaign would face significant obstacles. Unlike in 2013, when they couldn’t settle on a single candidate to unite around, labor unions and the Working Families Party would all have a reason to go to bat for de Blasio. Major unions like 1199 and 32 BJ SEIU, along with the Hotel and Motel Trades Council, all kingmakers in low-turnout Democratic primaries, have backed the incumbent ever since he quickly settled labor contracts that Bloomberg, a billionaire often disdainful of organized labor, had allowed to expire. And while the police, transit, and buildings trade unions have grown to despise de Blasio for a variety of reasons, they represent a relatively small slice of the unionized workforce in New York.
De Blasio has real accomplishments to tout, which shouldn’t be overlooked as people remember his habitual lateness (a problem early in his term), his occasional tone-deafness, and a hectoring nature that never endeared him to a large swath of New Yorkers. Introducing a universal prekindergarten program was a boon to the working and middle classes of the city, and at least partially counteracts his failures to wrangle a ballooning homelessness crisis or allegations that he’s running a corrupt administration, thanks to a number of federal and state investigations that dogged him into this year.
Despite the serious transit and housing crises the city faces, crime remains low and the economy — at least for the upper-middle class and above — continues to hum along. The population is growing. New York is nothing like it was in the 1970s and ’80s, when a large number of political watchers and academics wondered whether urban centers could ever thrive again. Absent such a dire climate, an incumbent would be expected to cruise to re-election — especially a Democratic incumbent.
For New Yorkers reared on twenty years of Republican mayors gutting out wins in quasi-competitive general elections, these feel like strange times indeed. Both Rudolph Giuliani and Michael Bloomberg were Republicans or independents governing in Democrat-dominated cities. By virtue of the banners they ran under, they could not glide to a second term in the same way de Blasio did.
In one sense, de Blasio’s sleepy re-election is a return to a municipal status quo many of us have forgotten. Yes, none of de Blasio’s rivals are compelling, and some mix in sound ideas — like Sal Albanese’s proposed voucher program to allow voters to contribute directly to candidates, or Albanese’s and Bob Gangi’s proposal to pursue affordable housing development primarily through nonprofit developers — with a great deal of fearmongering about de Blasio leading us into the bad old days of crime. But if we don’t seem to be getting the primary or general election we deserve, we haven’t always in the past, either.
Ed Koch was a more beloved (and ultimately more polarizing) mayor than de Blasio, and his initial honeymoon with a city crawling out of a fiscal crisis probably contributed to his easy re-election win in 1981. Koch crushed his lone Democratic opponent, a crusading liberal assemblyman from Brooklyn named Frank Barbaro, and then won the Republican nomination as well. His bid for a third term wasn’t much harder, though burgeoning corruption scandals doomed his attempt for a fourth term and ushered in David Dinkins as the first and only black mayor of New York.
Robert Wagner, a three-term Democratic mayor from 1954 to 1965, similarly dominated little-known opponents during his first re-election bid in 1957. Two Democrats, Abe Beame in 1977 and Dinkins in 1993, weren’t so lucky, but there were extenuating circumstances: a fiscal crisis for Beame, and racial politics in a city with many more white ethnic voters than exist today for Dinkins.
Would more Democrats of substantial standing take a shot at de Blasio if they knew he wouldn’t be term-limited out in four years? Maybe — but New Yorkers like term limits, and they revolted against the Democratic mayoral candidate who helped temporarily overturn the law against them, Christine Quinn.
Nonpartisan elections with the top two candidates facing off in a citywide showdown — as are now the norm in Los Angeles and Miami — could also invite more competition. But elected Democrats are unlikely to approve them. They like the status quo, which is why we’re looking at getting four more years of the same.