“Yes, I’m Black—Duh”

Illustration by André Carrilho

It’s a cold and rainy Tuesday night in Washington Heights, giving the stony, grand exterior of the Church of the Intercession, on West 155th Street, an ominously gloomy feel. But inside a small, crowded meeting room the mood is buoyant. Conversation veers back and forth between Spanish and English. This is the monthly gathering of the New York Dominican Officers Organization, a group of mostly cops and corrections officers. They’d all probably rather be home—some are here after finishing work, others before beginning a graveyard shift. But at least there’s a special guest.

Four years ago, Bill Thompson came within four points of pulling a shocking upset of Mayor Mike Bloomberg. He could have retired from politics with pats on the back and gone off to make real money. Instead, Thompson is functioning on four hours sleep after arriving back in the city at 3 a.m. thanks to an odyssey of flight delays. He’s tired, but he’s also fired up. He jabs Bloomberg and zings Christine Quinn. He outlines ideas for improving public schools and fighting crime. He doesn’t pander when a cop asks about contract negotiations. This is a tough, wised-up crowd—a Brooklyn narcotics cop sits to my right, a guard from Rikers on my left—but they’re impressed. When the candidate finishes, the applause is long and enthusiastic. Thompson says he’s happy to take questions—but one last thing first. “There are people who talk about diversity as if there’s something wrong with it,” he says, slowing down and pausing for emphasis. “It makes us better and stronger. I believe in diversity. And it is one of the things that you should expect to see in a Thompson administration.”

Diversity—of race, age, gender, perspective—is indeed a good thing. Yet Thompson’s closing words to a roomful of potential Latino voters were also a striking demonstration of what’s shaping up to be unusual about the 2013 mayoral campaign: It could be both the least and most racially obsessed in modern city history. The first, hopeful part is largely tonal. For three decades, beginning in 1977, every city mayoral race was altered or haunted by racial ugliness. Since 2001, though, there’s been a breathtaking decline in the drama and frequency of racial conflicts. Not that the city has become a utopia of ethnic harmony and color blindness. Last week’s protests and mayhem after a police shooting in East Flatbush showed how much anger simmers below the surface. But if things remain relatively placid, race won’t be an overt, consuming issue.

Tactically, though, racial politics will be more important, and more complicated, than ever in determining a winner. The ­alliance of outer-borough white Catholics and conservative Jews, crucial to electing Koch and Giuliani and Bloomberg, has been crumbled by age; one alternative axis, the black–brown–Manhattan liberal coalition, has been only fitfully productive, sending David Dinkins to City Hall for a single term. Bloomberg’s third and final victory signaled a major, if underappreciated, turning point. The 2009 election produced the first minority-majority turnout in New York history. “We mostly held on to outer-­borough whites and Jews,” a Bloomberg campaign strategist says, “but we don’t win unless we get enough Latino votes.”

This fall the Latino, Asian, African-­American, and multiracial share of the Democratic-primary vote should be about 58 percent—up from 49 percent in 2001. The slices of the pie are shifting too: The black vote, long about 25 percent of the total, is slowly declining. The Latino vote will likely crack 20 percent for the first time—while growing more varied, as the number of Dominican voters catches up to Puerto Ricans, with Mexicans and Central Americans also registering in significant quantities. “No one or even two groups can elect a mayor anymore,” Democratic strategist Bruce Gyory says, “which puts a premium on coalition-building skills. And you have to knit a much broader coalition than before.”

All the candidates are trying to figure out the new landscape. They’re emphasizing affinities: Bill de Blasio highlights his African-American wife and biracial kids. John Liu plays up his Taiwanese-immigrant roots and his stick-it-to-the-man attitude. But the stakes, and the opportunities, are highest for Bill Thompson.

“Yes, I’m black—duh,” he says, holding up his hands and laughing. Thompson, 59, is endearingly disarming about the obvious. He’s also deeply proud of his family’s Caribbean-American heritage. He is not, however, running as The Black Candidate. He speaks in every borough and to every demographic, and in as much detail about his experience as city comptroller for eight years as he does about the need to modify stop-and-frisk. With a four-candidate Democratic field and an increasingly variegated city, the scramble for votes plays out in a thousand small acts: Thompson, Quinn, and Liu, for instance, went to Williamsburg to sit shiva for Raizy and Nachman Glauber, the young Hasidic couple killed in a car collision.

But Thompson’s ancestry is his greatest strategic asset. He has attracted a reliable voting bloc in three citywide races—most recently, pulling about 80 percent of the black vote and nearly two thirds of the ­Latino vote versus Bloomberg in 2009. “There’s such a thing as ‘muscle memory’ in politics,” one adviser says. Yet Thompson isn’t assuming his base will automatically turn out for September’s Democratic primary. “You can’t just show up and be supported because you’re black or Latino,” he says. “What do you bring to the table? My support is based on vision and a lifetime of work with people.” This time around, Thompson says, his message is the same for everyone, and focused on improving public schools, increasing affordable housing, and reducing crime. Those themes, he says, resonate strongly in minority neighborhoods. “Particularly in black and Latino communities, you hear about the school system failing their children,” he says. “Gang activity and high unemployment are definitely concerns in communities of color. They’re worried that their children have no future.”

All of the Democratic candidates see the Latino vote as the biggest up-for-grabs bloc. Thompson is courting it with historical ties and an organic connection; Quinn is deploying her front-runner status and her leverage as City Council speaker. Her State of the City speech in January was aimed at the Latino community, Latino women in particular, with proposals like an expansion of adult-education programs. She’s also doing something thematically intriguing: trying to cast her own rise as a gay woman from a middle-class family as consistent with Latino aspirations to become the country’s new political and cultural force. But here’s one example of how complex the racial calculus is this year: It’s better for Quinn if Liu stays in the race, because he’ll siphon some minority votes from Thompson … but Liu staying in the race makes it tougher for Quinn to hit the magic 40 percent mark that would allow her to avoid a Democratic runoff.

Another consequence of the unsettled nature of ethnic politics is that no one is quite sure about the value of endorsements this time around. The labor unions are seen as valuable proxies for minority voters, but after that things get very murky. “For a long time there were a handful of people whose endorsement you really wanted: Al Sharpton, Charlie Rangel, Floyd Flake,” an adviser to one of the Democrats says. “They would move votes. Now, in the Latino community, there are no leaders who can move votes in the same way. There are a couple of people who are important—Ruben Diaz Jr., Nydia Velazquez—but they’re not that well known outside the Bronx and Brooklyn. The Latino community is more splintered, and that’s why everyone has a chance at getting their piece.”

State Senator Adriano Espaillat, who represents Washington Heights, and ­former Bronx borough president Freddy Ferrer will also be significant, and both are longtime friends of Thompson’s. The candidate says he’s leaving the machinations to others while hammering home a message he thinks will attract minority support. “What people have seen in city government for almost the last twenty years doesn’t represent the strengths of the city in its diversity,” Thompson tells me. “People want to see the best and the brightest, but to indicate that the best and brightest aren’t ­Latino or Dominican or African-American or Caribbean-American is to shortchange the communities of this city. When I was comptroller, I had a diverse office and a strong team. But otherwise people feel like they’ve been left out of city government.”

To win, Thompson needs to convincingly explain how he’d be better than his rivals in managing the schools, the cops, and the budget. He needs to keep Quinn from grabbing all the big union endorsements. And while Thompson’s anodyne personality is in some ways a strength, he needs to shake off the perception that he’s too nice for a town that’s in many ways as tough as ever.

Walking out of the event in Washington Heights, he passes Trinity Church Cemetery. Two weeks earlier, Ed Koch was laid to rest there. Koch’s mayoral campaigns rose and fell on explosive racial divisions. Today, that relentlessly fractious city seems a distant memory, and the late Jewish mayor is buried in a Wasp graveyard in a Dominican-American neighborhood. The statistics say New York has entered a new minority-­majority era. But Latino votes delivering a black man who is Ed Koch’s temperamental opposite to City Hall would make 2013 something between political irony and poetry.

E-mail: chris_smith@nymag.com.

“Yes, I’m Black—Duh”