The Little Neck–Douglaston Memorial Day Parade is one of New York’s great big-city small-town events. It begins with an appropriately somber wreath-laying ceremony at the local veterans’ monument. Then there are free burgers for kids and vets at St. Anastasia’s Parish Hall and American flags waving all along the mile-long march down Northern Boulevard. The parade touts itself as the country’s largest Memorial Day commemoration—making it a magnet for politicians every year. This year, though, the mayoral candidates nearly outnumber the marching bands.
The pomp is perfectly timed. Memorial Day marks the true, if unofficial, start of the race for City Hall. The contenders have been out there for months already, of course, glad-handing at grocery-store openings and chattering through double- and triple-header candidate forums. But Primary Day is now just fifteen weeks away; important endorsements will be landing shortly; the press is dialing up its attention. It’s pure coincidence, but this year the holiday marker arrives at an especially appropriate moment: The four major Democratic candidates are closer than ever in the polls, with a fifth, wild-card contender jumping in last week to scramble the field even more.
Oh, and after Memorial Day, the voters will be watching more closely. True, most civilians will be busy going to the beach. But in between the fun stuff will come moments of civic clarity, sharpened by the growing realization that after twelve years of Mayor Bloomberg, leadership of the city is truly up for grabs: One third of likely primary voters say they’re willing to switch horses. That’s a huge, highly persuadable bloc. As the race resets and the summer campaign unfolds, here are five pivotal trends and twists to scrutinize.
(1) Anthony Weiner will own June.
What promises to be the weirdest mayoral candidacy ever (sorry, Jimmy McMillan) is off to a fittingly weird start. Weiner posted a video in the middle of the night announcing his run, then spent the rest of the day refusing to emerge from his apartment while reporters camped outside the building. The next day, a roiling horde of cameras and microphones surrounded him from Harlem to Soho to the Bronx. Weiner immediately became the campaign’s biggest story. Just how big depends on how much he cracks wise and how much he stays on the high road of talking about issues. Either way, Weiner will dominate coverage for the next several weeks. This is good news for Christine Quinn, in the short run: It denies her rivals the spotlight they very much need to gain name recognition and ground, and it takes more time off the clock. But Weiner could be a serious headache for the vulnerable front-runner, if he chooses to aggressively articulate the case against her and grabs a decent share of outer-borough white votes. We’ll know whether Weiner is a real force or a sideshow by July 4. First, though …
(2) The labor unions will flex their muscle.
There are four, maybe five labor unions that matter in local elections, because they have sizable memberships and sophisticated political operations. “Each one has specific policy issues it cares about,” a labor insider says. “But what they all care about most with their endorsements is backing a winner.” SEIU 1199, the hospital-workers union, got an early jump, endorsing Bill de Blasio—an absolutely essential boost for the candidate as he tried to get ahead of Weiner’s entry and pry minority votes away from Bill Thompson. Two smaller but highly potent unions—the Hotel Trades Council and 32BJ, which represents building-service workers—are very much in play. Quinn, as Council speaker, has helped pass legislation friendly to both. De Blasio has deep ties to the movement. Racial politics would seem to favor Thompson: Hotels and 32BJ have sizable minority memberships. And John Liu has won hearts. “We had a candidates forum, and afterward John hung around for 35, 40 minutes, going around and connecting with the hardest-core activists we’ve got,” says a union boss who is still on the fence. “John is a great campaigner.” Then there’s the United Federation of Teachers. With 200,000 members and an experienced get-out-the-vote machine, the UFT is probably the biggest prize. It also has a leader, Michael Mulgrew, who isn’t shy about playing kingmaker. “We don’t pick winners, we make them,” he says, shrugging off the suggestion that his anointed candidate will look beholden to the UFT. “We’ve been in a street war for four years with this mayor, okay?” Mulgrew says. “My membership dislikes [Bloomberg] probably more than any individual in the history of the union. They didn’t like Giuliani, but they really don’t like this guy.” Which would seem to bode ill for Quinn. The UFT announces its choice on June 19. There’s a frantic effort going on to get the teachers, hotels, and 32BJ behind the same Democrat. But if the unions split their endorsements, it increases the likelihood that …
(3) The non-Quinns will attack one another.
Quinn is likely to stay in first place, if underwhelmingly. Which means that everyone else will have a crucial decision to make in mid- to late summer: when to fight explicitly for second place. Thompson, De Blasio, and Liu have been bashing Quinn for months, with little to show for it. The first two have been stuck in the low double digits, and Liu scored just 6 percent in the most recent Quinnipiac poll. Weiner entered the race with 15 percent—and extraordinarily high negatives. Thompson and De Blasio could face a stark choice: In order to reach a runoff against Quinn, they may need to turn their fire against each other and possibly against Weiner. “It isn’t overt—yet—but behind the scenes they’re already very much trying to undercut one another,” an unaffiliated Democratic strategist says. The infighting is fiercest over minority votes. Thompson is temperamentally and strategically reluctant to assail his fellow Democrats. He’s trying to look like the moderate adult in the field and believes his history of attracting black and Latino support practically guarantees him a spot in the runoff. De Blasio’s personality is better suited to throwing elbows, but if he attacks Thompson, he’ll need to do it surgically. Speaking of trimming down …
(4) The candidates will get thinner.
“I always lose weight in summer campaigning,” Thompson says. “But I enjoy it—subways in the mornings and the afternoons, street festivals, block parties, talking to people about the issues they think are important.” Thompson says he already senses a different mood from four years ago, when he was trying to unseat the incumbent, Bloomberg. “I came out of a nephew’s birthday party at Red Rooster in Harlem late the other night. People were on the street, and the reaction was incredibly positive. They care. People realize it’s a contest this time around.” The shift from repetitive forums to retail politicking is an opportunity for Quinn: Instead of sitting onstage and absorbing gibes from her fellow candidates, she’ll be deploying her large personality directly. The ground game is a necessity for all the candidates (and healthy for democracy). They all have about the same $6 million to spend that’s allowed by public-campaign-finance rules. “Somebody may go up on TV early as a show buy—maybe in July—to get everyone in the press to write about it,” a campaign strategist says. “But you won’t see any real paid media until late August.” Which is when temperatures soar, raising the danger that …
(5) John Liu will spontaneously combust. A recent, typical itinerary: up before dawn to read; deliver son to school; eight hours in the comptroller’s office; four campaign stops, dashing from the West Village to Bay Ridge to Sunnyside to Howard Beach for a church pastor’s anniversary banquet that ends after 11 p.m. Liu’s next day starts with an early-morning appearance on CNBC and ends near midnight in the Bronx. His ambition has always been formidable; now he’s got bitterness driving him as well. Liu believes he’s been unfairly harassed by prosecutors and trashed by the English-language media. As the most stridently anti-Bloomberg Dem, though, he’s been racking up political-club endorsements. Liu may not win, but he cannot be stopped, unless by exhaustion. He scoffs at that, too: “Summer campaigning is energizing,” Liu says. “The heat? That’s all in the mind.”
There’s no way that this five-way fight stays cool. Quinn, her poll numbers trending down, can’t simply play defense until September. Thompson, already running a more vigorous campaign than four years ago, needs to fend off De Blasio, who knows how to play crafty and rough. Liu is burning to prove that he’s being underestimated by the Establishment. Weiner? He’s merely trying to live up to his wife’s expectation that she was marrying a future mayor. And all of them will be trying to show they’re capable of taking charge of the city’s fragile post-Bloomberg future. It’s going to be a serious summer—setting up a furious sprint after Labor Day.