On Staten Island, Bill Thompson was nearly stampeded by early-morning commuters charging onto the ferry. In Harlem, he had to follow the black-politico version of Hope and Crosby—the rascally, charismatic Charlie Rangel and the effortlessly suave David Dinkins. Now, in the Bronx, halfway through a one-day, five-borough campaign swing, Thompson’s opening act is Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr., an electric presence who switches seamlessly between Spanish and English as he charms a roomful of senior citizens. As Thompson steps up to speak, some of the old folks are trying to peer around him to watch The Price Is Right flashing on a giant flat-screen TV. At least the sound’s been put on mute.
Yet Thompson, a politician of modest oratorical talents, rises to the challenge and above the distractions, emptying the speechifying toolbox. Bonding generates applause: “My dad, he is going strong. He is 88 years old! He is still working five days a week.” Humor yields laughs: “If you run into somebody who says, ‘Hey, Bill Thompson, he’s my brother’—my father’s in such good shape he’s passing himself off as my brother! I just want you to know I don’t have any brothers!” A touch of policy talk—“You’re the ones who kept our neighborhoods going during the tough times. You didn’t move out! You didn’t run out! You didn’t give up! We owe you a debt of gratitude. They shouldn’t be talking about cuts to seniors, so that centers like this can continue to serve each and every one of you”—provokes churchy “Uh-huhs!” Thompson closes with a humble ask: “I would hope to have your support this September. And if I do, there is no doubt I will be the next mayor of the city of New York.” Cheers, whistles.
Petra Santos is highly impressed. She’s a volunteer at this senior center, teaching poetry after retiring from a long career as a teacher and an assistant principal at tough public schools here in Eastchester, and she’s unhappy about the current mayor’s overhaul of the educational system. “That’s why in 2009, I voted for the opposite of Bloomberg,” Santos says. “The Democrat. Whoever that was.”
Boring. Uninspiring. Forgettable. Those were the dismissive descriptives hung on Bill Thompson in 2009, when he was “the Democrat” who ran against and nearly shockingly defeated Mike Bloomberg. And those perceptions still dog Thompson—even after a lifetime in public service that has included seven years as city comptroller and five as president of the Board of Education, his name recognition six months into the 2013 campaign is at an anemic 52 percent among likely Democratic primary voters. Four years after losing to Bloomberg, and on the verge of turning 60, Thompson hasn’t become Mr. Excitement. But he is threatening to become politically interesting.
As the only black candidate in this year’s field, Thompson should enjoy an enormous mathematical advantage: The Democratic primary electorate is expected to be roughly 56 percent minority. Thompson is hardly ignoring his base, but he believes he’s virtually guaranteed a spot in the runoff—so he’s lately been seizing the opportunity to expand his appeal to the center. Take one of this year’s hottest issues, the overuse of stop-and-frisk by the NYPD. Thompson understands the outrage in minority neighborhoods and largely agrees with it—but instead of demagoguing the issue, he talks about how he doesn’t want his teenage stepson humiliated by cops or shot by thugs. Like all of his rivals—with the exception of John Liu—Thompson is calling for modification and improvement instead of eradication. “The problem with stop-and-frisk, the way it has been used, is it creates animosity, it creates separation and division,” he tells me. “That’s the downside, at least the way it’s been used. When you are stopping people for no other reason than who they are and what they look like, then there’s something wrong. It shouldn’t be tied to performance goals. If you’re using it the way it’s designed, you can still keep neighborhoods safe. We need to be getting officers out of their cars, looking at high-crime neighborhoods, and having more experienced officers there.”
Then there’s Thompson’s embrace of Al D’Amato. On issues and philosophy, the liberal Democrat and the former Republican senator have almost nothing in common. Yet Thompson didn’t hesitate when D’Amato, now a powerful lobbyist, offered to raise thousands of dollars for this year’s campaign. “People who know the both of us months ago suggested we have a cup of coffee together,” Thompson says carefully. “He has expressed a concern about the future of the city and who can best run the city. He felt I was that person.” D’Amato’s lower-minded motives—like the interests of his lobbying firm and his hatred of Quinn—might be unpleasant, but his support, and that of Merryl Tisch, the State Board of Regents head and Thompson’s campaign chairwoman, boosts his credibility with the city’s moneyed class.