Tale of One or Two Cities

Illustration by Andy Friedman

On a warm Monday night in late August, thousands of people were lining up to enter a free concert, Gladys Knight and the O’Jays, on Wingate Field in Crown Heights. Thousands of potential voters, in a slow-moving queue—the candidates swarmed. Bill de Blasio picked a prime spot mid-line, shaking an unending stream of hands, posing for photos, laughing as women yelled, “Where’s Dante?” The mood was electric. Twenty feet away, trying to slow people down as they passed, was Christine Quinn. She drew enthusiastic reactions—“That’s family right there! You got my vote!” But after about fifteen minutes, with another event to attend, Quinn, alone except for a bodyguard, turned and walked up Winthrop Street, literally into the sunset.

Three weeks later, Democratic-primary voters handed Quinn a crushing rejection, awarded De Blasio a big win, and left Bill Thompson clinging to the slim chance of a runoff. Barring any surprises, De Blasio should soon be the Dems’ official nominee, completing a startling late-summer surge. His finish was a classic of well-timed momentum, founded on months of smart moves and fortunate breaks. “Forty-five days out is when people start paying attention,” Bill Hyers, De Blasio’s campaign manager, told me several days before the vote. He turned out to be right, as were several of the key decisions made by De Blasio and his strategists. In early July, when Anthony Weiner was still gobbling up media oxygen, the fourth-place De Blasio campaign debated whether the candidate should get arrested at a Long Island College ­Hospital protest—would it look like a transparent stunt, and not “mayoral” enough? De Blasio decided to get cuffed, and it grabbed some badly needed attention. Then, in early August, he bet big money on TV airtime for an ad starring his 15-year-old son.

More important than those moments, though, was a larger context that the De Blasio campaign couldn’t quite believe. De Blasio told me way back in 2011 that he thought the key issues in this year’s race would be economic disparity and Bloomberg fatigue. The De Blasio campaign watched, amazed, as his chief obstacle, Quinn, stuck with a very different reading of the city’s likely Democratic voters. “This was clearly going to be a change election, and she was running on the theory that people were mostly satisfied with the direction of the city,” a top De Blasio adviser told me in early September. “We were baffled. That wasn’t the Democratic-primary electorate. The general—maybe.”

The next two months, and the next four years for De Blasio, will turn on that “maybe.” The Republican mayoral nominee, Joe Lhota, has an interesting life story and political career to talk about. He’s the 58-year-old product of a blue-collar family, the son of a city cop who grew up to make pretty good money working for an investment bank but ditched the financial industry for public service, quickly rising to become one of Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s most trusted aides, a sharp-elbowed, skilled steward of city bureaucracy. After nine years back in corporate life, Lhota felt the government itch again—this time pursuing a job as chairman of the MTA, and winning appointment by Governor Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat. As if raising transit fares wasn’t tough enough, Lhota also had to confront the chaotic aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. All of that gives Lhota a substantive record to campaign on, and to contrast with De Blasio’s much lighter administrative experience. “Is Bill prepared on day one like I am?” Lhota asks me. “Absolutely not. I’ve managed difficult budgets; he manages a $2.3 million budget. The budget of the city is $70 billion.” But this race is going to be about more than résumés.

The caller’s tone was pleasant enough. But her “poll” questions were mostly statements, and their edge was sharp. On the Monday evening before the primary vote, she reached a white, middle-class Brooklyn father of two and asked him to agree or disagree: Joe Lhota’s excellent management experience would help him be a strong mayor. Bill de Blasio is controlled by the labor unions. De Blasio would take the city back to the Dinkins years. And in a race between Lhota and De Blasio, how might the voter’s opinion change if one of the candidates were to be endorsed by, say, Mike Bloomberg or Rudy Giuliani?

A spokeswoman says the survey wasn’t conducted by Lhota’s campaign, and the candidate says he is the one who wants to unite the city, not divide it in two like De Blasio. Lhota will, however, be drawing stark contrasts with his opponent. His narrow hope of winning, in a city with a minuscule number of registered Republicans, has two components. Millions of Democrats stayed home on Primary Day, and Lhota is betting that many of them are moderates who want a change from Bloomberg’s top-down style but don’t want to lose the gains of the Bloomberg era. To become their plausible choice, a sensible centrist, Lhota will talk up his own record as a competent manager, just like Bloomberg, while emphasizing that he’s very much his own man. “I am not a continuation of anyone’s administration or anyone’s approach,” he says.

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.

E-mail: chris_smith@nymag.com.

Tale of One or Two Cities