The second part of the strategy is painting De Blasio as a radical, untrustworthy, lefty ideologue. “He said to The Wall Street Journal that he wants to make sure the mayor acts like a community organizer,” Lhota tells me. “That is exactly what a mayor is not! He’s got a very, very different concept of the role of the chief executive officer of the city of New York.” Then he attacks the signature issues of De Blasio’s primary campaign. “I agree with the concept of universal pre-K,” Lhota says. “I don’t agree with the knee-jerk response that we have to raise taxes for it—in the city with the highest taxes in the country … There’s no room in this city for racial profiling. But there’s been a lot of hyperbole about stop, question, and frisk. Let’s fix the 5 percent [that are unconstitutional]. But whenever you handcuff the New York City Police Department—metaphorically—and prevent them from doing their job, that has catastrophic consequences. I don’t mean to conjure up any level of fear. But why are we blaming the NYPD, when in fact they are the ones who helped make this city a better place to live and to work?”
Hmmm … A weak, tax-and-spend liberal, holding back the cops … which recent Democratic mayor does that conjure up? Expect, in the coming weeks, to hear a great deal from Lhota’s boosters about De Blasio as the second coming of David Dinkins, for whom the Democratic nominee worked as a junior City Hall aide. Surrogates will draw parallels between the 2013 election and the 1993 contest between Dinkins and Giuliani. The electoral playing field is very, very different, however. Back then, crack was fueling a crime wave that pushed the annual homicide count above 2,000; drugs certainly aren’t gone, but murders are about to set another record low this year, possibly below 300. Things can of course go downhill again, but the lack of a current, palpable crisis makes the suggestion of a city at imminent risk a tough sell—as does the fact that half the citizenry doesn’t remember the bad old days, because they weren’t alive or didn’t live here at the time. The white-working-class coalition that was pivotal to Rudy’s win has aged and shrunk; the city is now majority minority, and De Blasio did a terrific job of assembling a polyglot coalition in the Democratic primary. He has already taken some small steps to make nice with the city’s business community, but De Blasio sees the general-election electorate as essentially the primary electorate writ large, so his campaign themes won’t change much. “We will stick to the inequality message—it’s what Bill believes, and it’s what got us here,” a key De Blasio strategist says. “And we’ll keep drawing the contrast with Bloomberg.” They’re already getting some help. David Koch, the right-wing billionaire, has made a six-figure contribution to a pac supporting Lhota. “The people running against us don’t seem to realize they are their own worst enemies,” a De Blasio adviser says.
Lhota—an unusual mix of live-and-let-live libertarian and law-and-order conservative—knows all this. “I can’t imagine this race turns into anything like 1989 or 1983,” he says. “We’ve had a government for too long that makes decisions in lower Manhattan and spreads it out to the rest of the community. My administration would be in every community, listening and working with everyone.” But if he runs as the candidate of incremental, Establishment-backed change, someone with practical experience who can extend the best of Bloomberg’s gains while being more inclusive, then Joe Lhota, another redhead raised on Long Island, could end up playing the Christine Quinn role in an instant sequel.