For more than an hour, Ray Kelly’s answers had been clear, emphatic, and expansive. But when I asked him about City Council speaker Christine Quinn’s statements that if she’s elected mayor in 2013 she wants Kelly to continue as police commissioner, his responses abruptly turned clipped. Had Quinn talked with Kelly directly about her proposal? “Well, she said it publicly,” he replied. Right, but wouldn’t it have been good form, at a minimum, to talk about the idea with him directly? “I don’t recall my conversations with her.” Silence. “I had some discussions with her, but I don’t recall that specifically.”
Part of Kelly’s success as commissioner has been his ability to avoid overt political maneuvering. But maybe he and Quinn have different notions about who should follow Michael Bloomberg in City Hall. Certainly some of the PC’s powerful friends do, and they’re pumping up a Kelly-for-mayor boomlet.
In response, Kelly has repeated what he’s been saying for years—that he’s focused on his current job and has “no plans” to run for office. Kelly could shut down the talk completely with two phone calls, to Post owner Rupert Murdoch and Daily News boss Mort Zuckerman. But all the players involved in this game have reasons to hope the chatter continues.
Local politics is a yawn right now, with public attention devoted to the Obama-Romney slimefest until November 6. So the tabloids—whose owners love to use their papers to elect mayors, from Ed Koch in 1977 to Bloomberg in 2009—are creating something more fun. A Post “exclusive” described planning by Bill Powers, who was state Republican Party chairman eleven years ago, to encourage Kelly to run. The News got into the action a day later by commissioning an “exclusive” poll and headlining the results “Run, Ray, Run! City Voters Want Kelly in Mayoral Race.” Well, 46 percent do, according to the News’ poll, but “Less Than Half of City Voters Want Kelly in Mayoral Race” just doesn’t have quite the same kick.
That the draft-Kelly push started at the state level is a reminder of how badly the city Republican party needs something to breathe life into it. Yes, Republicans have won four of the past five mayoral races, but Rudy Giuliani and Mike Bloomberg were essentially one-man bands, with Bloomberg renting the GOP line in 2001 to avoid the Democratic primary. Local Republican bosses are desperate for a 2013 candidate they can ride to relevancy; the other option, Gristedes owner John Catsimatidis, isn’t that man. He is, however, one of the rich guys who see a long-in-coming chance to play kingmaker. Dick Grasso, the former stock-exchange chairman, says he’s rallying wealthy friends, including Ken Langone, the former Home Depot chairman, and Hank Greenberg, the former AIG chairman, to fund the Kelly cause.
Of course, the prime beneficiary is Kelly himself. After enduring a rugged six months of police misbehavior and press scrutiny, having important people say he should run provides timely image-buffing. But while the Democrats who would be mayor might not see it, the Kelly talk is good news for them too. True, they don’t want to face a highly popular, well-funded, tough-on-crime Republican. But Kelly is still a long shot to run: He’d have to leave his dream job early to spend months groveling for votes, all to risk a deflating loss—or a win that means he gets to deal with Albany for four years. Meanwhile, the Kelly speculation gives Quinn, Scott Stringer, Bill de Blasio, John Liu, and Bill Thompson an opportunity to combat complaints that they’re all cautious, conventionally left-of-center political lifers by laying out their own plans, beyond tinkering with stop-and-frisk, to keep the city safe. The greatest political significance of the Kelly campaign to the Dems, though, is the fact that it’s his name being floated: After more than a year of searching, the restless business community still hasn’t been able to enlist one of its own. There’s still plenty of time, but the longer the Kelly talk continues, the less the Dems have to worry about the emergence of a Bloomberg Jr.