The most intriguing move is Thompson’s latest: an attack on Quinn over the construction of a garbage-transfer station on East 91st Street. Two weeks ago, Thompson went to the Upper East Side site and blasted the front-runner for supporting the plan to build the waste facility between a playground and the Asphalt Green recreation center. Quinn returned fire, calling Thompson’s criticism “environmental racism,” because for decades, minority neighborhoods have been saddled with an unfair share of the pollution from the city’s sanitation system. Quinn was trying to score points with Latino voters in neighborhoods like Williamsburg and the South Bronx, but the sniping was a publicity boon to Thompson on two fronts: with Times-reading brownstone belters and with the nycha residents who live near the East 91st Street site. Building a case for Thompson as the sane, safe, palatable alternative for liberal and moderate whites has already delivered some prizes, like an endorsement last week by eighteen unions representing cops and firefighters and an uptick in campaign fund-raising.
Thompson campaigned across demographic and ethnic lines four years ago, and he has deep ties in Brooklyn’s Jewish communities. But unlike 2009, when Thompson was essentially unchallenged in the Democratic primary, this time around Quinn, Liu, and Bill de Blasio are competing aggressively for minority votes. Quinn is targeting Latino women; De Blasio is married to a black woman and has the backing of SEIU 1199, a heavily minority labor union; and Liu, himself a Taiwanese immigrant success story, is highly effective selling his stick-it-to-the-man message. “Thompson’s move on stop-and-frisk is either clever or stupid,” says an unaffiliated political strategist. “It’s clever if he can take minority votes for granted and it pulls him some white votes; it’s stupid if black voters feel passionately about stop-and-frisk—which they seem to—and Liu is surging.” Thompson’s camp is highly confident, calculating that its man would have to tumble from 75 percent to 40 percent with black voters to miss the runoff. “Bill is interested in expanding his coalition, but don’t overstate it,” says a Thompson ally. “He will have a coalition that’s broader than what people think of for a typical black candidate. It’s organized around basic progressive issues: affordability, schools, and equal treatment everywhere. He’s done some things to make it clear his coalition is broader than traditional identity politics. But Bill’s natural base is ingredient No. 1.”
Which makes political sense, given that his record at the Board of Ed was mixed and that voters barely know what a comptroller does. Four years ago, Thompson rode a wave of fresh anger at Bloomberg over term limits. Some of that emotion still exists, but Thompson can’t count on being its repository again—one reason that he’s been mired in the low double digits in recent polling. So the candidate has shaken things up a bit for 2013, adding the feisty Clinton-Obama veteran Jonathan Prince as campaign manager to his longtime team of advisers, which is led by Luis Miranda, Roberto Ramirez, and Eduardo Castell. Thompson’s instincts haven’t changed: He’s preternaturally cautious and conventional, whether he’s insisting on “an educator, someone with classroom experience,” as the next school’s chancellor or declining, on his five-borough tour, to declare any special affection for Brooklyn, where he was born and raised. He’s maddeningly vague on the specifics of what he’d do as mayor. Yet there’s something different this time, a sharpness and opportunism that Thompson demonstrated on the Upper East Side. He was silent about the East 91st Street garbage-transfer site in 2006 when it was approved by the City Council and in 2009 during the mayoral campaign. “I did not get to the decision lightly,” Thompson says. “When I was finally able to go out and walk that site, it became clear this is a bad idea. And for Chris to use the word racism in this context was inflammatory and insulting.”
No one will ever accuse him of being inflammatory. “I’m somebody who will work for all New Yorkers, somebody who will fight for New Yorkers,” he tells me. “But I don’t know what’s the one five-second sound bite.” His willingness to admit nuance on complicated subjects is in many ways admirable—and running as the moderate, black, well-adjusted adult when your two main obstacles, Quinn and Weiner, are high-strung Caucasians is not a bad position to be in. But if Thompson loses this time, he’s finished as a candidate. That prospect seems to have changed him—only a little, but maybe just enough.