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.