Primary Fight

New York City Mayoral Race Looks Wonderfully Like Democracy at Its Best

The field was lackluster and riven by scandal (hello, Carlos Danger). But somehow, with women deserting Christine Quinn and black voters dropping Bill Thompson, today’s mayoral primary turned into a true contest.

09.10.13 8:45 AM ET

There they were, whites and people of color and men and women and straights and gays and just about every other variety of New Yorker at Sunday’s big campaign rally on the steps of Brooklyn Borough Hall.

They had gathered to cheer with one voice for their candidate in the Democratic primary for mayor, Bill de Blasio, who is white and heterosexual and married to a black woman who once declared herself a lesbian.

With the voting just two days away, de Blasio was not only at the top of the polls. He was doing better among women than the only woman candidate, City Council Speaker Christine Quinn.

And he was doing better among blacks than Bill Thompson, the only black candidate.

Thompson had started out the race so confident he had the black vote in his pocket that he offered only muted criticism of the NYPD’s stop-and-frisk policies.

Now Thompson was behind de Blasio among black voters and could not even get the endorsement of the Rev. Al Sharpton.

“Right now, clearly black voters are in different camps,” Sharpton has been quoted as saying.

So were women voters and gay voters and just about every other voting bloc. The very fact that the candidates had seemed so dispiritingly lackluster had prevented groups from embracing any one of them. And that had caused voters to look for somebody who might represent their needs instead of just their sex or race or sexual orientation.

After nearly a dozen years of Mayor Michael Bloomberg, many voters felt a visceral need for change. They took for granted the decline in crime, the absence of another terrorist attack, the 311 system for contacting city services, and all the other changes of recent years. And they had become impatient for what had not changed.

That was particularly true in the black community, for whom life in what became the safest big city in America has also meant being stopped and frisked by the police. Thompson discovered that when he failed to take a strong stand on the issue.

The result was the first big surprise of the race, as Thompson found himself trailing Anthony Weiner even among blacks. Weiner had a troubled past, but he also seemed the most likely candidate to shake things up in the future.

Then came the revelation that Weiner had continued sexting for a considerable time after he was initially caught in 2011. Those who had been willing to forgive suddenly felt like chumps. He asked for what he called a second chance, but really it amounted to a third. He plummeted in the polls, including among blacks.

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The next big surprise came after de Blasio aired the now famous commercial featuring his 15-year-old son, the enormously appealing Dante. De Blasio Sr. surged in the polls and soon took the lead with talk of taxing the rich and ending a tale of two cities, one rich, the other struggling. He took Weiner’s former place among blacks and many others as the candidate of change.

Dante’s dad then got a boost from the man who might as well have been the head of the Committee to Elect Bill de Blasio.

Nothing could have helped de Blasio more than for Bloomberg to have called the candidate’s campaign racist. The billionaire accused de Blasio of using his biracial family to get votes, of being divisive for talking about the tale of two cities, and of seeking to tax the rich. Bloomberg then topped it all off by jokingly suggesting that Central Park could be named after him.

In a sense, the city really does sometimes seem to be cleaved in two: Bloomberg and everybody else.

Bloomberg was at the forefront of the fight against illegal guns long before the Sandy Hook massacre. And he saved tens of thousands of lives with his anti-smoking efforts and other health initiatives. But many New Yorkers had come to view him as a tiresome nanny. And his once fine manners had frayed from his own irritation with people who had the temerity to challenge him when he was doing what was clearly right because he was the one doing it.

If Bloomberg had really wanted to hurt de Blasio, he should have endorsed him.

That would have proved even more damaging than The New York Times’s endorsement of Christine Quinn, which came across as the seal of the status quo in this primary, closer to a kiss of death than a breath of life.

As the primary drew nigh, Quinn sought to rouse support among constituencies that she hoped would identify with her enough to forget that she had essentially sold her soul to help overturn term limits and facilitate Bloomberg’s third term. She is a married lesbian and she held a rally in outside the Stonewall Inn, where the struggle for gay rights began.

“We’re standing on hallowed ground, on a place where people before us said, ‘We’re not going to get pushed around anymore ... We’re not going to take it anymore!’” she declared. “And you know what? In the course of this campaign, we’ve taken a lot of hits. We’ve been attacked over and over by my opponents and by independent expenditures.”

She was really seeking to make a connection between her electoral troubles and the sufferings of those brave souls of the long ago Stonewall riots. The truth is that she is in trouble not because of her sexual orientation or because she is a woman, but because she is so closely associated with Bloomberg.

Meanwhile, Thompson continued to do all he could to drum up the black vote. One of his more recent ads about stop-and-frisk said, “I’ve lived it.” But if he lived it, why didn’t he speak up about it until it turned out he could not count on the black vote being his simply because he is black?

With the opening of the polls, the whole city was ahead. These lackluster candidates had despite themselves generated a contest that looked wonderfully like democracy at its best, where people vote as individuals and the winner will be the one who has convinced the most people that he or she will make a difference.

De Blasio is hardly spellbinding, but it is stirring to see the great variety of people who support him simply because they think he is the best candidate for the job.