On Staten Island, Bill Thompson was nearly stampeded by early-morning commuters charging onto the ferry. In Harlem, he had to follow the black-politico version of Hope and Crosby—the rascally, charismatic Charlie Rangel and the effortlessly suave David Dinkins. Now, in the Bronx, halfway through a one-day, five-borough campaign swing, Thompson’s opening act is Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr., an electric presence who switches seamlessly between Spanish and English as he charms a roomful of senior citizens. As Thompson steps up to speak, some of the old folks are trying to peer around him to watch The Price Is Right flashing on a giant flat-screen TV. At least the sound’s been put on mute.
Yet Thompson, a politician of modest oratorical talents, rises to the challenge and above the distractions, emptying the speechifying toolbox. Bonding generates applause: “My dad, he is going strong. He is 88 years old! He is still working five days a week.” Humor yields laughs: “If you run into somebody who says, ‘Hey, Bill Thompson, he’s my brother’—my father’s in such good shape he’s passing himself off as my brother! I just want you to know I don’t have any brothers!” A touch of policy talk—“You’re the ones who kept our neighborhoods going during the tough times. You didn’t move out! You didn’t run out! You didn’t give up! We owe you a debt of gratitude. They shouldn’t be talking about cuts to seniors, so that centers like this can continue to serve each and every one of you”—provokes churchy “Uh-huhs!” Thompson closes with a humble ask: “I would hope to have your support this September. And if I do, there is no doubt I will be the next mayor of the city of New York.” Cheers, whistles.
Petra Santos is highly impressed. She’s a volunteer at this senior center, teaching poetry after retiring from a long career as a teacher and an assistant principal at tough public schools here in Eastchester, and she’s unhappy about the current mayor’s overhaul of the educational system. “That’s why in 2009, I voted for the opposite of Bloomberg,” Santos says. “The Democrat. Whoever that was.”
Boring. Uninspiring. Forgettable. Those were the dismissive descriptives hung on Bill Thompson in 2009, when he was “the Democrat” who ran against and nearly shockingly defeated Mike Bloomberg. And those perceptions still dog Thompson—even after a lifetime in public service that has included seven years as city comptroller and five as president of the Board of Education, his name recognition six months into the 2013 campaign is at an anemic 52 percent among likely Democratic primary voters. Four years after losing to Bloomberg, and on the verge of turning 60, Thompson hasn’t become Mr. Excitement. But he is threatening to become politically interesting.
As the only black candidate in this year’s field, Thompson should enjoy an enormous mathematical advantage: The Democratic primary electorate is expected to be roughly 56 percent minority. Thompson is hardly ignoring his base, but he believes he’s virtually guaranteed a spot in the runoff—so he’s lately been seizing the opportunity to expand his appeal to the center. Take one of this year’s hottest issues, the overuse of stop-and-frisk by the NYPD. Thompson understands the outrage in minority neighborhoods and largely agrees with it—but instead of demagoguing the issue, he talks about how he doesn’t want his teenage stepson humiliated by cops or shot by thugs. Like all of his rivals—with the exception of John Liu—Thompson is calling for modification and improvement instead of eradication. “The problem with stop-and-frisk, the way it has been used, is it creates animosity, it creates separation and division,” he tells me. “That’s the downside, at least the way it’s been used. When you are stopping people for no other reason than who they are and what they look like, then there’s something wrong. It shouldn’t be tied to performance goals. If you’re using it the way it’s designed, you can still keep neighborhoods safe. We need to be getting officers out of their cars, looking at high-crime neighborhoods, and having more experienced officers there.”
Then there’s Thompson’s embrace of Al D’Amato. On issues and philosophy, the liberal Democrat and the former Republican senator have almost nothing in common. Yet Thompson didn’t hesitate when D’Amato, now a powerful lobbyist, offered to raise thousands of dollars for this year’s campaign. “People who know the both of us months ago suggested we have a cup of coffee together,” Thompson says carefully. “He has expressed a concern about the future of the city and who can best run the city. He felt I was that person.” D’Amato’s lower-minded motives—like the interests of his lobbying firm and his hatred of Quinn—might be unpleasant, but his support, and that of Merryl Tisch, the State Board of Regents head and Thompson’s campaign chairwoman, boosts his credibility with the city’s moneyed class.
The most intriguing move is Thompson’s latest: an attack on Quinn over the construction of a garbage-transfer station on East 91st Street. Two weeks ago, Thompson went to the Upper East Side site and blasted the front-runner for supporting the plan to build the waste facility between a playground and the Asphalt Green recreation center. Quinn returned fire, calling Thompson’s criticism “environmental racism,” because for decades, minority neighborhoods have been saddled with an unfair share of the pollution from the city’s sanitation system. Quinn was trying to score points with Latino voters in neighborhoods like Williamsburg and the South Bronx, but the sniping was a publicity boon to Thompson on two fronts: with Times-reading brownstone belters and with the nycha residents who live near the East 91st Street site. Building a case for Thompson as the sane, safe, palatable alternative for liberal and moderate whites has already delivered some prizes, like an endorsement last week by eighteen unions representing cops and firefighters and an uptick in campaign fund-raising.
Thompson campaigned across demographic and ethnic lines four years ago, and he has deep ties in Brooklyn’s Jewish communities. But unlike 2009, when Thompson was essentially unchallenged in the Democratic primary, this time around Quinn, Liu, and Bill de Blasio are competing aggressively for minority votes. Quinn is targeting Latino women; De Blasio is married to a black woman and has the backing of SEIU 1199, a heavily minority labor union; and Liu, himself a Taiwanese immigrant success story, is highly effective selling his stick-it-to-the-man message. “Thompson’s move on stop-and-frisk is either clever or stupid,” says an unaffiliated political strategist. “It’s clever if he can take minority votes for granted and it pulls him some white votes; it’s stupid if black voters feel passionately about stop-and-frisk—which they seem to—and Liu is surging.” Thompson’s camp is highly confident, calculating that its man would have to tumble from 75 percent to 40 percent with black voters to miss the runoff. “Bill is interested in expanding his coalition, but don’t overstate it,” says a Thompson ally. “He will have a coalition that’s broader than what people think of for a typical black candidate. It’s organized around basic progressive issues: affordability, schools, and equal treatment everywhere. He’s done some things to make it clear his coalition is broader than traditional identity politics. But Bill’s natural base is ingredient No. 1.”
Which makes political sense, given that his record at the Board of Ed was mixed and that voters barely know what a comptroller does. Four years ago, Thompson rode a wave of fresh anger at Bloomberg over term limits. Some of that emotion still exists, but Thompson can’t count on being its repository again—one reason that he’s been mired in the low double digits in recent polling. So the candidate has shaken things up a bit for 2013, adding the feisty Clinton-Obama veteran Jonathan Prince as campaign manager to his longtime team of advisers, which is led by Luis Miranda, Roberto Ramirez, and Eduardo Castell. Thompson’s instincts haven’t changed: He’s preternaturally cautious and conventional, whether he’s insisting on “an educator, someone with classroom experience,” as the next school’s chancellor or declining, on his five-borough tour, to declare any special affection for Brooklyn, where he was born and raised. He’s maddeningly vague on the specifics of what he’d do as mayor. Yet there’s something different this time, a sharpness and opportunism that Thompson demonstrated on the Upper East Side. He was silent about the East 91st Street garbage-transfer site in 2006 when it was approved by the City Council and in 2009 during the mayoral campaign. “I did not get to the decision lightly,” Thompson says. “When I was finally able to go out and walk that site, it became clear this is a bad idea. And for Chris to use the word racism in this context was inflammatory and insulting.”
No one will ever accuse him of being inflammatory. “I’m somebody who will work for all New Yorkers, somebody who will fight for New Yorkers,” he tells me. “But I don’t know what’s the one five-second sound bite.” His willingness to admit nuance on complicated subjects is in many ways admirable—and running as the moderate, black, well-adjusted adult when your two main obstacles, Quinn and Weiner, are high-strung Caucasians is not a bad position to be in. But if Thompson loses this time, he’s finished as a candidate. That prospect seems to have changed him—only a little, but maybe just enough.