Tuesday, July 16, 2013

The Silly Season

Every four years this country goes through the misery of a presidential election. The only good thing about them is that they usually produce some very interesting books (The Making of the President, The Boys on the Bus, Game Change, etc.), giving us naifs the behind the scenes drama of the campaigns and putting them into some kind of social/historical context.

There are still two months to go until the primaries, and four months until the general election, but I certainly hope that some ambitious journalist will produce a book about the 2013 NYC elections -- 'cause they're wild!

In a way, it was always destined to be so.
In 2005, virtually every incumbent was re-elected. In 2009, there were low-key elections for comptroller and public advocate but the public paid them very little attention and, of course (thanks to the outrageous term-limits change), the mayor and virtually every other city office holder was re-elected.

This year, however, the mayor and most other incumbents are term-limited so it has set-off a mad dash for the various public offices that govern NYC. We are poised to elect a new mayor, new public advocate, new comptroller, new borough presidents for Staten Island, Manhattan, Brooklyn and Queens, as well as a chunk of the city council. And it has invited a new slew of candidates, including some very controversial ones.
But more on that later.
First, the mayor's race.  Both the Democrats and Republicans are having some brutal primaries and it's very unclear who will win either.
Republican Mayoral Primary
This race is between Joe Lohta (former MTA chairman, former Deputy Mayor under Rudy), John Catsimatidis (a.k.a Johnny C., owner of the Griestedes supermarket chain), and George McDonald, founder of the Doe Fund. McDonald is pretty much a non-entity in this race but the contest between Lohta and Johnny C. is intense. Lohta has the resume and institutional support (Rudy backs him, most Republicans in NYC back him) but Johnny has money -- lots of it -- and he's already running TV commercials. Plus he can argue that his business background makes him more like Bloomberg than the others.

This primary is reminiscent of the 1989 Republican primary that pitted Rudy vs. billionaire Ronald Lauder. Rudy had just left his job as US Attorney and had almost 100% Republican establishment support. However, Lauder spent $11 million in the primary and made it competitive. Rudy still beat Lauder but, many believe, the primary hobbled Rudy in the general election against Dinkins. Rudy had no significant primary in 1993 when he finally won the mayoralty.
The big question mark over the 2013 Republican primary is: will Johnny C.'s money overwhelm Lohta establishment support? Most Republican primary voters will probably vote for Lohta since they know he's Rudy's guy. But Johnny C.'s money gives him the advantage of doing an early, full-court press on these voters and it might help him with them. Also, McDonald could prove to be a spoiler. Some Republican primary voters might not want to vote for Lohta since, as head of the MTA, he oversaw toll increases. But they might not know or trust Johnny C. So McDonald might do better than expected and even force a run-off. This primary is almost impossible to predict but it will result in the first Republican candidate for mayor in more than two decades whose last name isn't either Giuliani or Bloomberg. And either he will follow in their footsteps or fail.
Democratic Mayoral Primary
This primary is, on the other hand, a zoo.

As usual, the other city-wide elected officials, the Comptroller (John Liu), the Public Advocate (Bill De Blasio) and the City Council Speaker (Christine Quinn) are running as well as the former Comptroller (Bill Thompson) who came within 4% points of beating Bloomberg in 2009. There are also a few minor candidates: a former city councilman who's been out of office for more than ten years, plus a church pastor and a comedian. But, of course, this primary was shaken up recently by the entry of Anthony Weiner, the former congressman who was forced to resign two years ago for Tweeting naughty pictures of himself.

For a while, Christine Quinn was easily leading the primary field in the polls but then a few things happened: Weiner entered the race and, shockingly, vaulted to the top of the polls; then Bill Thompson gained unexpected support in endorsements and money. Meanwhile, the anti-Christine Quinn forces have run TV ads against her, and her poll numbers have fallen badly. So, for the moment, Quinn and Weiner are tied in the polls with Thompson in third place. De Blasio is doing his best to gain more support but, so far, hasn't. John Liu would probably have been a leading player but, a few months ago, his campaign treasurer and one of his former fundraisers were both convicted of fraud so his candidacy has gone nowhere.
Because there are so many candidates, the primary field seems very fluid -- anyone of them could rise or fall quickly. At the moment, I would put my money on Quinn going into a run-off against either Thompson or Weiner. If it's Thompson, I think he will win the run-off since the people who hate Quinn really hate her and Thompson would be an acceptable alternative. But if she ends up in a run-off against Weiner, then she will probably end up winning because of Mr. Weiner's scandal. This will be especially interesting to watch.
Until recently, this was a sleepy race. The Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer was the only Democratic candidate and it looked like he would avoid a primary. But then, just days ago, the hooker-loving former Governor Elliot Spitzer jumped into the race and suddenly an election that wasn't even getting any attention in NYC was getting international coverage. And now Spitzer is leading in the polls!
There's also a Republican candidate named John Burnett (who's also black!) so this race has suddenly gone from sleepy to wide awake.
Public Advocate
This is the probably the least exciting of the big time elections in NYC. This race is refreshingly scandal free, and all of the candidates are certainly qualified for this job that requires so few qualifications.
There are four major candidates in the Democratic primary: State Senator Dan Squadron, Councilwoman Tish James, former Deputy Public Advocate Resha Saujani and a college professor named Cathy Guerriero.  Squadron is a young guy who has been in the state senate for four years and seems like the hyper-ambitious type who probably views this job as stepping stone to the mayoralty and beyond (I'm sure he has dreams of being president, he seems like that type). Tish James is from Brooklyn and used to actually work for Elliot Spitzer when he was Attorney General. Saujani is best known for her disastrous congressional run in 2010 and for her work in the PA's office under De Blasio -- as well as for her connections to Wall Street and the tech sector. Ms. Geurriero is the only totally fresh political newcomer; in addition to teaching, she successfully coordinated former Pope Benedict's trip to NYC in 2008.
There hasn't been much polling in this race, although I saw one where Ms. James and Ms. Geurriero were effectively tied. As a black woman with high name recognition in Brooklyn, James is probably getting a lot of support from minority and Brooklyn voters. Ms. Geurriero's last name has apparently garnered her support from white ethnics in the outer boroughs. So, at the moment, it looks like it's a race between these two ladies but I'd put my money on Tish James, since she's getting all of the establishment support and has the strongest qualifications.
Borough Presidents
There are competitive races in each borough except for the Bronx, where Ruben Diaz Jr. is up for reelection. As usual, each of the races in Queens, the Bronx, Brooklyn and Staten Island has tons of candidates. Whichever candidates are lucky enough to win the coveted New York Times endorsements will probably win their primaries and general elections (i.e. whoever wins the Manhattan, Queens, and Brooklyn Democratic primaries will win the general and whoever wins the Staten Island Republican primary will win the general -- although a New York Times endorsement will probably mean very little in that race).
Don't know much else about these elections. Don't much care either, since the borough presidents have virtually no power.
City Council
There are fifty-one races. In about forty-five of them, whoever wins the Democratic primaries will win the general elections and, in two of them, whoever wins the Republican primaries will win the general elections. There are about four competitive races -- both in primaries and/or general elections -- out in Queens but I don't know much about them and can't, at the moment, find much info to share.  
Mr NYC's Analysis
As indicated numerous times above, the polls in these various races are unclear and anything can happen. But, to me at least, looking at the dynamics and potential dynamics of this election, a few things are becoming clearer.
In the mayor's race, the Republican candidate will be either Lohta or Johnny C. While neither is as formidable or rich as either Giuliani or Bloomberg were, they are both potentially very strong candidates who could appeal to the Giuliani/Bloomberg coalition that has kept Democrats out of the mayor's office for twenty years. Lohta can claim to have been part of the 1990s turnaround of NYC. Johnny C. can claim to be an unbought, skilled manager like Bloomberg. Both candidates have committed gaffes recently (Lohta compared Port Authority cops to mall cops; Johnny C. compared taxing rich people to the Holocaust); also, as first time candidates, either might wilt under the spotlight of a general election. But, assuming neither doesn't, either one is well positioned to keep the mayor's job away from a Democrat.
Right now, it looks like the Democratic mayoral candidate will be either Quinn, Thompson or Weiner -- unless De Blasio or Liu suddenly surges. Either Quinn or Thompson would be strong in a general election: they are respected, have solid records in public service, and are progressive but acceptable to the business community. Should De Blasio suddenly do well, he could be strong in a general election as well.
Weiner, on the other, is detested by just about everyone except for a core of the Democratic primary electorate. He may have enough support to get into a run-off but it's difficult to imagine him winning it.
Gaming out various general elections scenarios is hard but certain scenarios seem clear.
Quinn or Thompson could probably defeat either Lohta or Johnny C. in a general election. Without an incumbent mayor running, Democrats have a natural home field advantage. Also, unlike 1993 (with high crime) or 2001 (with the recent horror of 9/11), at the moment it doesn't look like this election will be taking place in an atmosphere of crises  -- unless another crises suddenly emerges like it did twelve years ago. No crises and no incumbent means that most Democratic voters will probably gravitate towards the Democratic candidate. Crime and terrorism are no longer the urgent problems they were, but the cost of living and a declining middle class are -- and this makes the climate more favorable for the Democratic candidate.  
But ... if Weiner were somehow to emerge as the Democratic candidate in the general election ... then it's very possible that we will have our third Republican mayor in row. It seems impossible to me that a majority of New Yorkers will vote for this guy. While NYC is a Democratic town, NYC voters have become comfortable voting for non-crazy Republicans for mayor. And if Democrats end up nominating a toxic candidate like Weiner, either Mr. Lohta or Johnny C. can win.
Liu's problems make him basically unelectable, either in the primary or general election, but at the moment it looks unlikely that he'll even make it into a primary runoff.
This "toxic" problem extends to the comptroller's race as well. I recently saw a disturbing poll that put Spitzer ahead of Scott Stringer in the Democratic primary. If Spitzer gets through the primary, then the Democrats will have nominated for city-wide office an admitted whore-monger who was forced to resign his job as governor in disgrace. Suddenly, the Republican candidate might become a whole lot stronger in the general election. Voters will say "Spitzer? Ew! I might vote actually vote for the Republican."  Usually the winner of the Democratic primary wins the general election easily -- and this will happen with Stringer -- but if it's Spitzer ... then NYC might have a second competitive city-wide general election and might have it's first non-Democratic comptroller in 70 years.
You can be excused for shooting yourself in the foot once, but not twice.
Imagine: two disgraced former politicians at the top of the city-wide Democratic ticket. If this happens, I predict that the general election will be a disaster -- and the opportunity our city has to finally have a real progressive mayor in decades will be shamefully and inexcusably lost.

And it'll go deeper than just losing the mayoral and comptroller's race. NYC voters will think, rightfully, that Democrats have lost their minds and may start voting Republican in the competitive city council races and even for public advocate (I don't know who the Republican public advocate candidate is -- or if there even is one -- but who knows?). The trickle-down effect of nominating these guys could be horrible.

Then, in 2014, instead of finally having a mayor who cares about the middle class, we will have another plutocrat mayor -- plus a plutocrat ally in the comptroller's office -- who will do everything in their power to cater to the rich, hurt working people, cripple unions, allow "developers" to destroy neighborhoods, and continue with the economic regression that has been plaguing this town for decades.

The stakes for this election are incredible high. This is a "hinge of history" election where either our city will start address its social and economic problems -- or let them get worse. 

To be continued.

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