Ask members of New York City’s political class about what they think of Jack Hidary, and the response is usually an uncomfortable silence, followed by a bit of fumbling, as if they were getting hit with a pop quiz they hadn’t prepared for.
Remind them he’s the tech multimillionaire who launched a long-shot bid to become the next mayor of the nation's largest city last month, and the politicos can stammer out a response about how they haven’t been paying much attention to him.
That’s due in large part to Hidary running as an independent, and the races for the Democratic and Republican nominations, to be decided during the primary next month, are taking up far more oxygen than anyone could reasonably expect to inhale, what with Carlos Danger, Sydney Leathers, “You’re a tough guy, now, Grandpa,” civil-disobedience arrests, mall cops, wildly fluctuating poll numbers, and slutbags.
Through it all, Hidary has largely kept out of sight. When The Daily Beast asked last week if the candidate was holding any public events, the answer was “No.”
Hidary’s invisibility is partly by design, said Joe Trippi, the former Howard Dean consigliere who is advising the campaign.
“The plan is to continue to let them blow themselves up, and once there is a nominee, come in with everything we have got a make a push,” he said. “To make a push now would be crazy.”
Still, when Hidary blew into a Flatiron District Le Pain Quotidien on Tuesday where the waiters know his name, he was cresting on a bit of good news. Bill de Blasio, the city’s public advocate and the most unapologetic liberal among the Democratic frontrunners, had vaulted into the lead, according to a new poll. The prospect of de Blasio or someone like him winning the Democratic nomination is the best chance that Hidary (or someone like him) has to win.
Tucking in to an iced green tea and what he called “one of those chai pudding things,” Hidary explained that the rise of de Blasio meant the voting public was dissatisfied with what they have seen so far of the existing field.
“I think it is clear that since these polls have been bouncing up and down like a rubber band these past few months, that the voting public is saying very clearly, ‘We are not happy with this whole group,’” he said. “If there was any one person running away with it, you would see that, but there isn’t. Everyone is taking a turn.”
More to the point, de Blasio’s rise has crystallized a fear that has gripped a certain segment of the New York City electorate since it became clear that at long last, Mike Bloomberg would be vacating City Hall: that whoever comes next wouldn’t somehow get “it” in quite the same way Bloomberg did.
“It” is an understanding of what makes New York City tick: finance, real estate, media, businesses large and small; a city that is not a disparate collection of interests but a global capital, and one that must continue to attract the best and brightest if it hopes to remain so.
And Hidary wants to be their candidate. To be another Bloomberg, but without Bloombergism. That is, not to carry the flag for party machine politics but not to finger-wag over large sodas or e-cigarettes, either.
In a number of ways, Hidary fits the bill. Brooklyn born into the city’s quietly influential Syrian Jewish community, he was an investor in the city’s tech scene and is now thought to be worth more than $100 million. Since taking Earthweb, his first company, public in 1998, he has embarked on the big money–big ideas circuit, raising funds for Democrats thought to get entrepreneurs, such as Gavin Newsome and Cory Booker, speaking at the Aspen Ideas Festival, helping launch the Clinton Global Initiative, and convincing New York City taxi drivers to trade in their Crown Vics for hybrids.
“I think it is now clear that to a lot of New Yorkers, the candidates who are there today, the choices that are there today represent people who are tired, who have been around.”
And so when he approaches some of the major issues facing the city, Hidary can come across like Bloomberg, with a few caveats.
On stop-and-frisk: “We want to maintain the trend of keeping crime low, but we want to have multiple tools in our tool chest.
On schools: keep innovating, increase accountability, but downshift the emphasis on test scores.
The living-wage and paid-sick-leave bills that set progressives and labor against Bloomberg? “Neither a great stimulator of jobs nor a great inhibitor of jobs. People get very worked up about these bills but economically, pretty much a wash.”
Congestion pricing? According to the London example, not as effective as a robust car-sharing plan and dynamic parking rates.
“Look at London. I went to London, and I met with TFL—Transport for London. I doubt any other candidate has met with TFL, and look at the numbers: while it did initially bring down some of the congestion in London, it ends up becoming built into people’s psyche in terms of what that extra dollar amount is. So, actually, the traffic has flowed back up.”
Still, in the end, what will likely hinder Hidary is that he is not Bloombergian enough. The billionaire spent $74 million to win his first campaign, threw another $85 million to win his second, and splashed out $102 million for his third. And even though he has been a crusader for independent, nonpartisan politics, he swallowed those ideals and made nice with the city’s GOP power brokers to run as a Republican. Hidary is putting some of his own money forward—he declined to say how much, only that it was into the six figures—but is participating in the city’s campaign-finance system, which limits spending to around $7 million. And he is running as an avowed independent, which means that the city’s 400,000 or so Republicans will have one of their own on the ballot.
Hidary, who volunteered for the Obama campaign in Florida and Pennsylvania in 2008, said he believes that with advances in technology he will be able to micro-target his voters and won’t need to carpet-bomb airwaves and mailboxes in the same way that Bloomberg did.
So did the mayor overpay?
“He was right at that time,” Hidary said. “This is a different year. This year you have a group of candidates who are a throwback to machine politics. And you really didn’t have that kind of bevy of candidates when Mike Bloomberg was running.”
The Daily Beast pointed out that on the contrary, when Bloomberg ran, and won, he too faced candidates with long careers in Democratic precincts—indeed, one of his opponents, former comptroller Bill Thompson, may very well win the Democratic nomination again. If it cost Bloomberg, whose name is on buildings across New York and who had nearly all the city’s Republicans voting for him, more than $100 million, how can Hidary do it for $7 million?
“I think it is now clear that to a lot of New Yorkers, the candidates who are there today, the choices that are there today represent people who are tired, who have been around,” he said. “So I think the fact that it is the same candidate makes my case even more. It was a different time. Even four years ago, many of the tools and technologies did not exist.”
And his opponents, he said, are scared.
“My being in the race adds a completely new element to this race,” he said. “And the fact that one of the campaigns—I am not going to name names—sent a spy in to our campaign, and we caught that person and then ejected that person quickly, means that these campaigns see us as a threat.”
The Hidary message, he said, will be spread by others.
“Well, for example, the community of Malians in Harlem,” he said. “We engage with them because many of them are taxi drivers. We have a natural affinity because of my work on taxis. They recognize me and say, ‘Jack, you are the one who helped us save $6,000 a year, every year, since 2005.”
He slapped his hands together at each word for emphasis.
“Is there another candidate who has done that for them?” he asked. “I don’t believe so. I was the only candidate to show up, and so that community then has been spreading the word for us, engaging, things like that.”
If he wins, then, Hidary’s will be the first mayoralty won on the strength of Malian taxi drivers.
Those who have been around the city’s political block a few times remain skeptical.
“If, as a virtual unknown, you were to spend $20 million on a mayor’s race, you may get around 30 percent,” said Bill O’Reilly, a top GOP consultant. “You come with no natural constituency, and you can’t groom a natural constituency without huge sums of money. Unless he is really going to open up the checkbook, he may really want to reconsider.”