Thursday, February 25, 2010

Thompson Candidacy Assisted Bloomberg By Blocking Weiner

Was Thompson Manchurian?

Thompson Candidacy

Assisted Bloomberg

By Blocking Weiner

By Henry J. Stern
January 7, 2010

Former City Comptroller William Thompson announced this week (on NY1 Tuesday evening) that he will not run for public office this year, but will seek the Democratic mayoral nomination in 2013, when Mayor Bloomberg's third term will expire. It has been widely reported (and bruited about) that his strong showing against the incumbent mayor would make him a first-tier candidate for the succession four years hence. We doubt it.

The 2009 election result, in percentages, was 51 to 46. Bloomberg received 585,466 votes and Thompson received 534,869. But it is difficult to interpret this result without historical context. The Democratic candidate for mayor against Bloomberg in 2005, Fernando Ferrer, received 503,219 votes (to Bloomberg's 753,089), and the 2001 contender, Mark Green, won 709,268 votes (to Bloomberg's 744,757). Bloomberg's total includes the Independence Party (three times) and the Liberal Party in 2005. Green and Thompson were endorsed by the Working Families Party (Ferrer was not endorsedthe party ran its own nominee). In 2009 Thompson had 506,995 Democratic votes and 27,874 on the Working Families line.

It is clear that the major change from 2005 to 2009 was that Bloomberg received 159,291 fewer votes when he sought a third term. This was a sharp drop, 22.3% of his total disappeared. Many voters, upset over Bloomberg's last-minute extension of term limits despite two referenda, decided either to vote against him or to stay home on Election Day. But Thompson, running on the Democratic line and facing a much weaker Bloomberg in a year characterized by incumbent fatigue, still ran only 3776 votes ahead of Ferrer's 2005 total. Adding the Working Families vote, Thompson ran 31,650 ahead of Ferrer, an increase of only about six per cent. Including his WFP line, Thompson's vote exceeded Ferrer's by just 6.3%. A stronger Democrat very well may have beaten the mayor. The county executives of both Westchester, Andrew Spano, and Nassau, Tom Suozzi, were both surprisingly defeated by little-known Republican challengers.

Another relatively unpublicized election result is that the 2001 race, in which Bloomberg beat Mark Green 50-47, was closer than the 2009 election. And nobody congratulated Mark Green on his strong showing; in fact it was cited as another link in his chain of electoral losses.

Thompson's campaign in 2009, according to the Times, was characterized by a notable lack of urgency. The candidate sometimes did only a single event a day, and invariably showed up late. There are no accounts of energetic activity by Thompson or his staff, in part because of the general expectation that Bloomberg would win by a large margin. Nor were there any memorable new ideas expressed in the Thompson campaign. Affordable housing and job creation are the mantras of the year; they are both highly desirable, but candidates tend to avoid specifics on how to get there, or how to pay for them.

Wayne Barrett, the veteran investigative reporter at the Village Voice, has a theory. Incumbent Bloomberg and challenger Thompson, he charges, were basically on the same side, whether Thompson knew it or not. His article, BLOOMBERG AND THOMPSON: THE (REALLY) ODD COUPLE: Now It Can Be Told: The Surprising Ties Between the Billionaire Mayor and the Poor Slob Who Ran Against Him, is the cover story in this week's Voice. You can link to it here.

Prior to 2009 the two city-wide elected officials had gotten along reasonably well. The mayor and comptroller praised each other on TV, as both pointed out in their later commercials, which they ran to refute the negative commercials that each had run against the other. The pair avoided the public hostility that marked the Koch-Goldin and Giuliani-Hevesi relationships between mayor and comptroller. To the extent there was an outsider at City Hall, it was Public Advocate Betsy Gotbaum.

We quote Barrett on Thompsons existential purpose in his final year as Comptroller.

"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."

Whether Thompson knew this or not, it is clear that the effect of his candidacy was to drive out Weiner and other potential challengers, leaving only Anthony Avella, a councilmember from Bayside, and Roland Rogers, a complete unknown, in the race. Avella had no media or political support. He had been isolated on the Council, sometimes voting as the lone dissenter. Rogers had no political background, and his petitions were unlikely to have withstood a challenge if anyone who could afford a lawyer had an interest in knocking him off the ballot. Nonetheless, Thompson received just 71% of the vote to Avella's 21% and Rogers' 7.7%. Neither Avella nor Rogers received any matching funds from the Campaign Finance Board because their contributions were too meager; Thompson was given $1,623,554 of tax dollars just for the primary. That is not what one would call "leveling the playing field" so underdogs can compete.

The reason Weiner decided not to enter the Democratic mayoral primary in 2009 is essentially the same reason that he withdrew from the 2005 runoff against Fernando Ferrer, at the time Bronx borough president. Even if Weiner had won the runoff, hard feelings after a bruising primary would have hampered his efforts against Bloomberg.

In the original count of the 2005 primary, Ferrer was just short of the 40% needed to win the Democratic mayoral nomination without a runoff. Weiner, then a relatively unknown outer-borough Congressman, surprised everyone with his strong showing of 29%, eclipsing both the Manhattan borough president, who polled 15.8%, and the Council speaker, who polled 10.3%. It was at that point, after a preliminary count, that Weiner withdrew from the race. Link to his statement here. When the count resumed, with some doubtful results unchallenged because there was no longer a contest, Ferrer's vote was announced to be 40.15%.

It is likely that by diligent counting and appropriate challenges by the Weiner side, Ferrer could have missed 40%. Or he might have achieved the 40%. We do not know for certain, and the votes are not going to be recounted five years later. In any event, it could have taken weeks before the Board of Elections and the courts determined the winner, and if Ferrer had fewer than 40%, there would have been a runoff two weeks later, with Ferrer starting 11 percentage points ahead. Assuming that Millers votes went to Weiner, and Fields' vote split evenly, the outcome would have been very close.

We believe it is likely that Weiner, who was on a surge, would have won, but what would he have won? The nomination of a badly divided party, with half its voters feeling that their man had been counted out, and the chance to go against a highly popular mayor who would, and did, spend $80 million on his campaign. Weiner would in all likelihood have lost to Bloomberg, as Ferrer did, and would have been blamed for the Democrats' disunity and the Republicans' re-election. He would be viewed as having denied the Latino borough president the chance to be mayor, even though, in fact, Bloomberg defeated Ferrer by 249,870 votes. If he wanted to remain in public life, Ferrer should have run for a Congressional seat from the Bronx when one of the incumbents retired. But the bug of Gracie Mansion has a powerful bite.

Back to Comptroller Thompson. His first task will be to find a job. His advance announcement that he wants to leave the job he finds to seek the mayoralty will make it more difficult for him to find employment, since any company or charity that hires him will find its interests viewed skeptically by others who wants to run for mayor in 2013. or their funds. If he works for a nonprofit that seeks city funding, as many do, his prospective candidacy may complicate the relationship.

We would suggest the judiciary as a suitable next step for the Comptroller. He will still be able to comment on public issues if he cares to, without fear of reprisals from potential clients or employers. The Comptroller has as a role model his distinguished father, Supreme Court Justice William C. Thompson Sr., who is widely held in high regard. At 56, he could be a judge for twenty years if he gets three two-year-extensions when he turns 70. He would also be an excellent candidate for advancement to the Appellate Division, if the governor is so inclined. He already has enough years in the pension plan so that his retirement is assured. And he would be able to do justice, which is a noble calling. Just a suggestion, but think about it.

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