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Bill Thompson: Contender?

Six strategies for how this year’s Democratic underdog for mayor could, just possibly, pull off an upset over Mike Bloomberg.

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Illustration by Nathan Fox  

On paper anyway, the strategic contours of this year’s mayoral election aren’t that different from the last time around. Which proved, of course, disastrous for the Democrats. Again, Mike Bloomberg, the post-partisan plutocrat and technocrat, liked but difficult to love, is opposing a Democratic-machine candidate with a built-in ethnic base but little fund-raising prowess, whose campaign message revolves around painting the mayor as out of touch. In 2005, Freddy Ferrer lost to Bloomberg by nineteen points; the smart money, this time around, has always been that Bill Thompson will suffer the same fate. And yet, even after being outspent thirteen to one, Thompson is within ten points of Bloomberg in the polls. So how could he, improbably enough, win?

1. Keep repeating “Mayor for life, mayor for life.” Thompson will need to win at least a third of the white vote. (Ferrer drew slightly less than a quarter.) A reliable bet is to stoke anger over Bloomberg’s defiance of term limits, a simple issue that resonates with educated white voters, who have high turnout rates. “He should say ‘Mayor for life’ every time he talks,” says one Thompson adviser. “New Yorkers don’t want an imperialist mayoralty.” While Bloomberg says he’s ruled out a fourth term, Thompson should try to convince voters that the mayor will try to run again. Says a campaign aide: “I strongly believe it was what changed the people’s perception of him. It opened the door for us.”

2. Don’t bother introducing yourself: With only a few million dollars to spend, Thompson can’t afford to try to sell his bland life story (though he is a Trekkie). But with 55 percent of New Yorkers saying Bloomberg doesn’t deserve a third term, all Thompson has to do is say why it’s okay to feel distaste for the incumbent. “The campaign doesn’t have to introduce Thompson as much as redefine Bloomberg,” says a Democratic operative.

3. Ride the anti-Republican wave: Sure, today Bloomberg’s a registered Independent who supports gun control and gay marriage, but he did bring the 2004 GOP convention here, and he’s on that party’s ballot. The trick is to shackle him to the right wing. Says a senior Thompson aide: “It’s just Republican philosophy to say ‘Don’t tax the rich.’” Look for Thompson to employ catchphrases like “the Bush-Bloomberg economy.”

4. It’s the middle-class economy, stupid: Drawing in middle-class voters is the heart of Thompson’s campaign strategy, as it was for Ferrer. But this time, particularly with the rise in property taxes, sales taxes, water rates, and subway fares and unemployment, the charge that Bloomberg has neglected them could very well stick. Thompson, who likes to refer to a recent study that claims that 151,000 middle-class residents left the city in 2006, will try to make the case that Bloomberg has rendered the city unaffordable.

5. Appeal to Latinos by talking about schools: Hispanics won’t turn out in the numbers they did in 2005, when Ferrer won them with 66 percent. Thompson needs to put a dent in the shift back to Bloomberg. Because Latinos represent the largest ethnic population of public-school students, Thompson will go after the mayor’s education policies, criticizing classroom sizes and questioning claims of improved standardized-test scores.

6. Get under his skin: Turn Bloomberg’s occasional outbursts into an anger-management issue to get voters to dislike him. Bloomberg’s on-camera sneering at an Observer reporter (“You’re a disgrace”) generated a surprising amount of coverage, suggesting that maybe the voters suspect he’s dismissive and imperious. “Anything that points to his hypocrisy—that’s what he freaks out about,” notes a senior Thompson aide. “When he’s under attack, he says dumb things,” notes another Democratic operative. The two debates in October offer Thompson his best opportunity to rattle the mayor—that is, if Bloomberg shows up.


Related:

Fall Preview 2009

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