Preet Bharara has a Broadway producer’s flair for the dramatic and a stand-up comic’s sense of timing. So it would have been a characteristically bravura, publicity-grabbing touch if the U.S. Attorney had chosen the end of last week to unveil a federal indictment of Mayor Bill de Blasio on campaign-finance-related charges — while de Blasio was out of town, jetting to Chicago and Fort Lauderdale and Beverly Hills raising money for his reelection campaign.
Bharara did indeed generate headlines Friday, but on an uglier, more urgent issue. The U.S. Attorney for the Southern District announced the arrest of a St. Louis man for making bomb threats against Jewish community centers.
His investigation of the mayor and several aides appears to be nearing a conclusion, however. Bharara’s prosecutors have been reviewing whether de Blasio traded government favors for campaign donations since at least April 2016; a grand jury has heard testimony; and two weeks ago Bharara’s lieutenants grilled the mayor for four hours. Separately, Manhattan district attorney Cy Vance has been looking into whether de Blasio’s operatives improperly funneled campaign dollars through party committees to help Democratic candidates for the New York State senate.
So the 2017 mayoral race is poised to become either wildly complicated or crashingly dull. The handicapping among city political insiders shifts rapidly, though the current speculative consensus has the mayor dodging an indictment. De Blasio partisans interpret every day that goes by without bad news as a good thing, believing Bharara and Vance wouldn’t want to drop a bombshell close to Election Day and be accused of “pulling a Comey.” Which may be wishful thinking: Judicial vets believe the investigations would have been closed by now if nothing incriminating had surfaced. Neither prosecutor’s office is commenting.
Where the calculations would get really interesting is if Bharara were to render a split decision: declining to charge de Blasio, but indicting one or more of his aides. If there were a Las Vegas line on the outcomes, this one would be the chalk bet. An even thornier, less likely scenario? Bharara names the mayor as an unindicted co-conspirator, a middle path he’s taken in cases involving hedge-fund billionaire Steve Cohen and real estate tycoon Leonard Litwin. For de Blasio, that outcome would be nearly as politically damaging as being charged.
In the meantime, there is a campaign going on, sort of; you are forgiven for not noticing, unless you are a sought-after donor or a blood relative of one of the little-known candidates. But whether there will be an actual competitive contest is up to Bharara and Vance. “The playing field is frozen by the investigations,” says Bradley Tusk, the political consultant who was co-manager of Michael Bloomberg’s successful 2009 reelection bid, and who has spent much of the past year unsuccessfully trying to recruit a credible challenger to de Blasio. “That’s his biggest vulnerability, and if the prosecutors clear him, I don’t think anyone of note will step up.”
Donald Trump’s presidential win should instill permanent humility in anyone dismissing the chances of long-shot candidates. Yet the existing mayoral field isn’t causing de Blasio any worries. On the Republican side, there’s real estate executive Paul Massey Jr., who has spent more money ($2 million) than he has raised ($1.6 million); Michel Faulkner, who played one season as a defensive lineman for the Jets and is now the pastor of a small Baptist church in Harlem; and Darren Dione Aquino, an actor and an activist for the rights of the disabled. Donald Trump Jr. is apparently too busy cashing in on his dad’s new gig to mount a bid, after dropping hints that he might last summer.
The willing Democrats are greater in number if not plausibility. Sal Albanese, a former city councilman from Brooklyn, has run twice before, finishing a distant third and eighth. Tony Avella, a Queens state senator, has lately been posing for photos with a 180-pound pig that the city is trying to evict from a Staten Island residence. Neophytes Eric Armstead, an East New York security manager, and Michael Basch, a field organizer in Hillary Clinton’s Wisconsin presidential campaign, also say they’re in. Ex-NYPD detective and current Fox News contributor Bo Dietl, thwarted in his efforts to switch his party registration from Republican to Democrat, says he’s now aiming for the Conservative and Independent ballot lines.
Other potential candidates are more formidable … potentially. Their ranks include Chris Quinn, who in 2013 rapidly went from consensus favorite to dispiriting third-place defeat, and for the past two years has done admirable work running a nonprofit group that helps homeless families. Scott Stringer skipped the crowded 2013 City Hall race and instead beat Eliot Spitzer in a nasty contest for comptroller. Ruben Diaz Jr., the Bronx borough president, and Hakeem Jeffries, a Brooklyn congressman, are personal friends who could become political rivals in a mayoral field. Melissa Mark-Viverito, the city council speaker, and Dan Garodnick, an East Side councilman, are both about to be out of jobs due to term limits; Tish James, the public advocate, has won a citywide race and could cut into de Blasio’s share of black votes.
All of them are keeping an eye on what happens with de Blasio, but none show any signs of putting together a campaign apparatus. And there are strong reasons to wait until 2021 to run. De Blasio has delivered on several of his big first term promises — expanding prekindergarten, raising the city’s minimum wage, and building new affordable-housing units. The mayor has presided over a continuing decrease in crime — while smoothly handing the NYPD’s reins from Bill Bratton to Jimmy O’Neill — plus a rise in employment, and he’s reoriented City Hall priorities after 12 years of its being run with an eye toward New York’s elites.
“To beat an incumbent mayor, you need a significant event. With Abe Beame, it was the collapse of city finances. With David Dinkins, it was crime,” says Joe Lhota, the Republican nominee for mayor in 2013 who lost in a landslide to de Blasio. “And there is no cataclysmic event now. The city’s numbers are fine. So the fact that De Blasio is incompetent doesn’t make him unelectable.”
Lhota’s phrasing may come with, oh, just a slight personal edge. But he’s poking at de Blasio’s soft spot: the mayor’s image as a poor manager who is more interested in waging ideological crusades than in efficiently delivering city services. That reputation is reflected in de Blasio’s schizophrenic poll numbers. The two most recent surveys, by Quinnipiac and Marist, show him demolishing any and all possible opponents this fall. Yet Marist recorded a mediocre 39 percent of city residents rating the mayor’s job performance as good or excellent. Quinnipiac showed de Blasio scoring his highest job-approval number in a year … all the way up to 50 percent. A decent 52 percent credited him with “strong leadership qualities.”
That was after a Trump bump. The mayor has seized every opportunity to promote himself as the rhetorical and policy leader of the resistance, rallying along with paleoliberals like Michael Moore and Susan Sarandon and vowing to maintain New York as a sanctuary city in the face of Trump’s anti-immigrant push.
The demographics of a Democratic primary are also in de Blasio’s favor. Anyone attempting to unseat him would likely need to win more than two-thirds of the white vote and close to half of the black and Latino vote, in a primary where 500,000 or fewer of the city’s 4.5 million registered Democrats show up. That meager turnout skews heavily toward liberal whites and union members, who are mostly black and Latino. De Blasio has sufficient support from the first group, and is on solid footing with the second. He’s already trotted out endorsements from ten unions, including heavyweights like the UFT, DC37, and SEIU 32BJ, plus the union-backed Working Families Party. “We wanted to have a very early, very muscular operation, to begin to communicate with the people of New York about the mayor’s record and where he wants to take the city in the next four years,” says Phil Walzak, a key mayoral adviser who shifted from City Hall to the reelection campaign in October. “We’re not complacent.”
Absent any major surprises, Quinn seems loath to risk a second defeat to de Blasio, something that could end any future hope of elective office. Stringer looks content to bide his time and exercise a decent amount of power as comptroller until the mayoral seat is open again. And Jeffries was recently given a House Democratic leadership role by Nancy Pelosi.
For now, it’s all idle chatter to occupy the few moments that pols don’t spend obsessing over Trump. “I don’t worry about it, because I know that at the end of the day the mayor and our people are going to be fully vindicated,” Walzak says. “I know that the mayor and our people are honest and ethical and law-abiding. And I think that will be revealed when this whole thing comes to a close.” One of the possible mayoral candidates predicts that, short of the mayor himself being indicted, de Blasio ends up basically unopposed in a Democratic primary. And then says, “But who knows what’s gonna happen?” Well, two prosecutors do.