Disowning Bloomberg now would be impossible for Quinn, even if she wanted to. She’s quick to list issues where she’s differed with the mayor, but she’s also doubling down on her bid to be Bloomberg’s heir. “Whoever the next mayor is should do everything they can to keep Ray Kelly the police commissioner,” she tells me. “He’s done an extraordinary job.” But even Kelly’s crop-duster-blasting missiles won’t be able to protect Quinn if Bloomberg’s third term continues to unravel.
Two hours later and two blocks east, Bill Thompson walks into an Italian restaurant. Not a single head turns. There are no welcoming shouts of “Billy!” Thompson has been in public life for more than 30 years and has won election to citywide office twice; two years ago, he nearly pulled off a shocking upset, losing to Bloomberg’s $108 million reelection campaign by just four points. He is smart and adult. Mr. Excitement he is not.
Yet Thompson, the former city comptroller, will be a formidable player in the 2013 contest, if only because of race: He will probably be the single person of color running in a Democratic primary that is increasingly dominated by black and brown voters. “Thompson has a huge advantage,” says a strategist close to the city’s politically potent labor unions. “Not just because minority voters in general will vote for him, but because union membership is largely minority, and they won’t endorse a white candidate if there’s a minority candidate in the race.”
Which is certainly how the calculations have played out in the past. Thompson, 58, will have serious competition from De Blasio and Quinn for union support, and knows he can’t simply coast to City Hall, especially because he has been off the radar so long, passing up every opportunity to take shots at Bloomberg. “Everybody expects me to be the Bloomberg critic. I don’t think that serves me well,” Thompson tells me over a bowl of split-pea soup. “I don’t want to be the bitter guy from ’09. This isn’t about ’09. The next election is about ’13. I think New York City wants a mayor who represents all five boroughs, and you haven’t had that since Mike’s first term. That will be the difference in 2013. Represent us. Understand us. Stand up for us, dammit. And I don’t think they’ve gotten that in a while.”
Thompson does have distinct policy differences with Bloomberg, but even the contrasts somehow come out anodyne. “If we’re really trying to change the school system and make sure children are better prepared, that they are more competitive, how do we go about it?” Thompson says. “You’re going to have discussions in the next campaign about curriculum, but also about the issues of comprehension and critical thinking. How do we do that better? I think it is letting teachers have more of a chance to teach. I talked about stop-and-frisk in ’09. It is a valuable police tool, but it’s been excessively used and, some would say—I would say—inappropriately used. Is the next mayor going to allow it to continue in the same way? I think that’s a valid and legitimate question.”
Thompson’s allies believe his black base makes him a lock to reach a Democratic-primary runoff; their challenge is to get him to 40 percent and win the primary outright. With multiple white candidates in the field, Thompson might not even need to expand beyond his base to do it. The only thing standing between Thompson and that magic number is voter enthusiasm. He declared his candidacy in January but says people regularly ask whether he’s really running, so he has started juggling his day job at a municipal-bond underwriting firm with appearances at political dinners and ramping up fund-raising calls. What did he learn from his loss in 2009? “I don’t know that I have to be better or different,” Thompson says. “The campaign becomes different because you don’t have to run against $108 million.” True. Though something less than a stirring rallying cry.
John Liu can’t bring himself to leave the room. Each time he nears the door of the Bronx senior-citizen center, a kind of invisible political gravitational force pulls him back to shake more hands. He’s behind schedule; his aides are standing near the exit trying to will Liu out. But he keeps going back—to a lunch table he missed, into the kitchen—until he has chatted up every last person. “He’s in charge of the money!” one oldster shouts to a tablemate after hugging the current city comptroller.
“It’s my fundamental belief that government is not contained in an ivory tower,” Liu says while riding in the back of a city-owned SUV. “It’s far too comfortable staying in the office and pretending to be busy with a lot of different things. I think it’s far more valuable for an elected official to understand what is happening in every part of the area he serves, in my case New York City.”