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Will Bill?

Bill Thompson is mild-mannered, relatively unknown, and not sure he wants to run. So how is it that the city comptroller may be the next mayor?


William Thompson, the city comptroller, was camped out at his favorite place for talking politics, a quiet corner table at the River Café, just under the Brooklyn Bridge. He was trying to convince me that Michael Bloomberg is vulnerable in 2005 to a challenge from . . . William Thompson.

“Does Bloomberg have a base?” Thompson wondered out loud. “There are parts of Manhattan that are comfortable with Mike, but that’s about it. I don’t think he has an identifiable base anywhere that’s his. Is there a vision for the future of New York City? I haven’t seen one. Where is this city going to be ten years down the road?”

The talk turned to the mayor’s leadership, or lack of it, and Thompson, naturally, continued his assault. He started micro: On Bloomberg’s refusal to go after the MTA over fare hikes, “there was no leadership from the mayor,” he said. Then he went macro: “Has the president been fair to New York City after September 11? The answer is no. Mike looks at things as, ‘If I don’t make the president mad today, I’ll have a shot at something tomorrow.’ You’d like to see the mayor fight for the city.

“As the mayor, your opinion counts,” Thompson went on. “You have an important national voice. Where is it?” He shook his head. “I mean, Mike doesn’t get it.”

You may have heard that a handful of Democrats out there want Mike Bloomberg’s job. There’s Gifford Miller, the precocious 33-year-old City Council speaker who couldn’t disguise his mayoral ambitions if he wanted to; Fernando Ferrer, the Puerto Rican former Bronx borough president who’s been running for mayor on and off since the mid-nineties; and Brooklyn Representative Anthony Weiner in the self-assigned role of scrappy Jewish outer-borough insurgent.

His low Q rating notwithstanding, Thompson is the would-be mayor with the best shot at beating Bloomberg.

Then there’s Thompson. Despite the fact that he holds the city’s third most powerful government office, the 50-year-old, bespectacled accountant-in-chief is not exactly a boldface name. To date, his greatest political coup has been taking on the mayor over the Snapple-in-the-schools deal, a battle that’s drawn its share of attention, but not very much of it for the person who’s waging it. But even if you’ve never heard of the man, here’s why you ought to know about him: His low Q rating notwithstanding, he’s the would-be mayor with the best shot at beating Bloomberg.

Do the electoral math. in the Democratic primary, Thompson starts out with perhaps the largest base—African-Americans. What’s more, as the only mayoral wannabe who’s won citywide office, he has shown he’s got something that his Democratic rivals have yet to display: crossover appeal. Sure, Ferrer has a fat lead in the primary polls and begins with a base of Latinos that rivals Thompson’s core black support. But Thompson may prove able to assemble a broader coalition than Ferrer, because he’s likely to enjoy broader appeal among whites. While Ferrer won over some white liberals in the 2001 Democratic primary, it was largely due to their disenchantment with Mark Green. Thompson, because of his moderate manner and Wall Street experience (he was an investment banker in the early nineties), may attract a broader spectrum of white voters—liberals, but also outer-borough Catholics and Jews. Miller, meanwhile, is untested among those outer-borough whites—voters who would be key to a primary victory for him. If Thompson holds his base and picks up just enough moderate Jews and Catholics and liberals from the Upper West Side and brownstone Brooklyn, he could win a primary. It’s worth noting that Thompson did reasonably well among whites in Manhattan and Brooklyn in the 2001 comptroller’s race, against a white opponent.

In the general election, Thompson also has advantages against Bloomberg that his rivals lack. He’d be able to assemble a coalition of blacks, Latinos, and labor, yet his acceptability to outer-borough whites, who generally dislike the mayor, might induce some of them to sit out the election. Thompson would also get a boost from a growing class of black homeowners in Queens and Brooklyn. And in an era when “career politician” is a lethal epithet (ask Mark Green), Thompson’s detour through Wall Street might blunt efforts by Bloomberg to paint him as a lifelong pol.

“If you’re asking who has the most strength against Bloomberg, there’s no question it’s Thompson,” says Bloomberg backer Ed Koch. “He has a black base to start with, he’s been a good city comptroller, and he has lots of friends among the other ethnic groups.”

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