Fight Another Day

Illustration by Ray Frenden

For the most ardent enemies of Mayor Bloomberg, it’s a frustrating moment. The mayoral election is now a week away, and Bill Thompson, they fear, is holding back. “He has to stop being a nice guy and shout from the rooftops that Bloomberg is destroying our democracy and damaging the city,” says Stuart Appelbaum, the city’s retail-union chief and Thompson’s most visible campaign surrogate.

Since Bloomberg embarked on his bid for a third term a year ago, the soft-spoken city comptroller has been a vessel for rage at the mayor. The hope among Appelbaum and other Bloomberg foes was that Thompson would battle to the death. Even as Thompson insists he’s not pulling punches—“I think we’ve been pretty full-throated in the last couple of weeks; anybody who thinks we’re holding back hasn’t been watching him closely,” says Thompson campaign chief Eddy Castell—his allies are frustrated at his lack of scorched-earth campaigning. But Thompson never promised to be a martyr. He wants to have a career after this.

Four years ago, Freddy Ferrer squandered the dignity of the underdog, bickering with the press and foundering on gaffes. When the campaign ended, so did his political career. He’s now a lobbyist. Thompson’s hoping to avoid that fate. Electorally, Thompson’s chances seem grim: He’s down by sixteen points; an expected low turnout puts Thompson at a deeper disadvantage by making it more costly to draw out votes, say political analysts; Bloomberg is readying what the campaign promises to be the “largest get-out-the-vote operation in the history of municipal politics”; and the mayor’s also cut into Thompson’s potential labor support, depriving him of ground troops.

Politically, though, Thompson stands to emerge from defeat more widely known. Some in his party see him trying to unseat Democrat Tom DiNapoli as state comptroller in next year’s primary.

Thompson’s strategy, then, is to avoid a humiliating landslide while steering clear of the more vicious, desperate tactics that could injure Bloomberg but also blow up in his face. To that end, the campaign says it’s hitting the same theme—more term-limit attacks—but at a louder volume, as Thompson burns through the rest of his cash on television and radio ads. He’ll also be spending more time in African-American neighborhoods, trying to maximize votes from his most supportive base. In his speech last Thursday, he loftily cited Martin Luther King Jr. and the Declaration of Independence.

That’s left Thompson’s labor supporters to engage in the rough stuff. The Communications Workers of America have spent $500,000 on an anti-Bloomberg campaign, including a trio of attack ads. One ridicules the mayor for taking a helicopter to a U2 concert and on golf trips; another, called “Ugly Side,” was a series of unflattering photos of the mayor. The union also plans to ambush Bloomberg with a fake reporter asking questions like, “How many homes do you own?”

Such attacks would backfire on Thompson if they came directly from the campaign, says CWA Local 1180 head Arthur Cheliotes. “Thompson is too much of a gentleman to do that.” Perhaps. But more to the point, “he’s somebody who will always make his living in government or around it,” says a well-known Democratic operative. “So I don’t see him burning down the house.”

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Fight Another Day