On a warm Monday night in late August, thousands of people were lining up to enter a free concert, Gladys Knight and the O’Jays, on Wingate Field in Crown Heights. Thousands of potential voters, in a slow-moving queue—the candidates swarmed. Bill de Blasio picked a prime spot mid-line, shaking an unending stream of hands, posing for photos, laughing as women yelled, “Where’s Dante?” The mood was electric. Twenty feet away, trying to slow people down as they passed, was Christine Quinn. She drew enthusiastic reactions—“That’s family right there! You got my vote!” But after about fifteen minutes, with another event to attend, Quinn, alone except for a bodyguard, turned and walked up Winthrop Street, literally into the sunset.
Three weeks later, Democratic-primary voters handed Quinn a crushing rejection, awarded De Blasio a big win, and left Bill Thompson clinging to the slim chance of a runoff. Barring any surprises, De Blasio should soon be the Dems’ official nominee, completing a startling late-summer surge. His finish was a classic of well-timed momentum, founded on months of smart moves and fortunate breaks. “Forty-five days out is when people start paying attention,” Bill Hyers, De Blasio’s campaign manager, told me several days before the vote. He turned out to be right, as were several of the key decisions made by De Blasio and his strategists. In early July, when Anthony Weiner was still gobbling up media oxygen, the fourth-place De Blasio campaign debated whether the candidate should get arrested at a Long Island College Hospital protest—would it look like a transparent stunt, and not “mayoral” enough? De Blasio decided to get cuffed, and it grabbed some badly needed attention. Then, in early August, he bet big money on TV airtime for an ad starring his 15-year-old son.
More important than those moments, though, was a larger context that the De Blasio campaign couldn’t quite believe. De Blasio told me way back in 2011 that he thought the key issues in this year’s race would be economic disparity and Bloomberg fatigue. The De Blasio campaign watched, amazed, as his chief obstacle, Quinn, stuck with a very different reading of the city’s likely Democratic voters. “This was clearly going to be a change election, and she was running on the theory that people were mostly satisfied with the direction of the city,” a top De Blasio adviser told me in early September. “We were baffled. That wasn’t the Democratic-primary electorate. The general—maybe.”
The next two months, and the next four years for De Blasio, will turn on that “maybe.” The Republican mayoral nominee, Joe Lhota, has an interesting life story and political career to talk about. He’s the 58-year-old product of a blue-collar family, the son of a city cop who grew up to make pretty good money working for an investment bank but ditched the financial industry for public service, quickly rising to become one of Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s most trusted aides, a sharp-elbowed, skilled steward of city bureaucracy. After nine years back in corporate life, Lhota felt the government itch again—this time pursuing a job as chairman of the MTA, and winning appointment by Governor Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat. As if raising transit fares wasn’t tough enough, Lhota also had to confront the chaotic aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. All of that gives Lhota a substantive record to campaign on, and to contrast with De Blasio’s much lighter administrative experience. “Is Bill prepared on day one like I am?” Lhota asks me. “Absolutely not. I’ve managed difficult budgets; he manages a $2.3 million budget. The budget of the city is $70 billion.” But this race is going to be about more than résumés.
The caller’s tone was pleasant enough. But her “poll” questions were mostly statements, and their edge was sharp. On the Monday evening before the primary vote, she reached a white, middle-class Brooklyn father of two and asked him to agree or disagree: Joe Lhota’s excellent management experience would help him be a strong mayor. Bill de Blasio is controlled by the labor unions. De Blasio would take the city back to the Dinkins years. And in a race between Lhota and De Blasio, how might the voter’s opinion change if one of the candidates were to be endorsed by, say, Mike Bloomberg or Rudy Giuliani?
A spokeswoman says the survey wasn’t conducted by Lhota’s campaign, and the candidate says he is the one who wants to unite the city, not divide it in two like De Blasio. Lhota will, however, be drawing stark contrasts with his opponent. His narrow hope of winning, in a city with a minuscule number of registered Republicans, has two components. Millions of Democrats stayed home on Primary Day, and Lhota is betting that many of them are moderates who want a change from Bloomberg’s top-down style but don’t want to lose the gains of the Bloomberg era. To become their plausible choice, a sensible centrist, Lhota will talk up his own record as a competent manager, just like Bloomberg, while emphasizing that he’s very much his own man. “I am not a continuation of anyone’s administration or anyone’s approach,” he says.