Mayor Mike Bloomberg’s stunningly narrow re-election in New York was a moral defeat for the billionaire incumbent, and a profound embarrassment for a Democratic establishment – from the White House on down — that abandoned his rival, City Comptroller Bill Thompson, as a hopeless loser.
Bloomberg’s meager five-point win left Democrats pondering what might have been if New York’s Democratic donors hadn’t turned their back on Thompson, if its politicians had worked for him, and most of all if President Barack Obama had offered anything more than the lamest words of praise.
“Maybe one of those Corzine trips could have been better spent in New York. Who knows?" remarked New York Rep. Anthony Weiner, who weighed his own run for mayor, referring to the White House’s devout attention to the New Jersey contest.
“Maybe Anthony Weiner should have manned-up and run against Michael Bloomberg,” shot back a White House official, who attributed the night’s results across the board to anti-incumbent fervor.
The New York race deepened the impression that a White House that prides itself on resisting conventional political analysis had badly misjudged the key contests Tuesday — committing itself most heavily to a New Jersey election that Republican Chris Christie won handily, studiously avoiding a referendum to preserve same-sex marriage that was defeated in Maine and giving up too early in New York City.
But Obama wasn’t alone in abandoning Thompson. The city’s Democratic donors – source of millions for the likes of Obama and Senator Chuck Schumer – closed their wallets to the Brooklyn-born Thompson, who spent less than 10 percent of the $90 million spent by Bloomberg.
The city’s top politicians also kept their distance, with City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, a Bloomberg ally, endorsing Thompson so late that he, out of pique, refused to appear with her to accept her backing.
But the president’s tepid endorsement appeared particularly calculated, and held particular sting.
Obama’s spokesman at first refused even to say Thompson’s name. And Obama’s late, weak backing did little to soothe irritation among New York’s black leaders that the first black president – who had already tried to torpedo the state’s floundering African-American governor – kept the African-American mayoral candidate at such a distance.
For Obama, the political reward was in associating himself with the independent Bloomberg and his non-partisan national image, not a fellow urban politician – and especially one who had appeared headed for a crushing defeat. That might have been the smart, unsentimental political choice, but locally, it made Obama seem just a bit too infatuated with the billionaire mayor.
Thompson, in his concession speech Tuesday night, declared a kind of moral victory, looking as buoyant as he ever had in the course of a bruising campaign.
“Some told me to sit this one out,” he said. “This campaign was about defying conventional wisdom. This campaign was [about] never backing down in the face of a formidable challenge.”
Bloomberg, in turn, made no reference to the unexpectedly slim margin, but downplayed his differences with Thompson, whom he’d pummeled with endless negative television advertisements.
The mayor appeared to write off the surprising squeaker – he beat Thompson 51 percent to 46 percent -- to anti-incumbent sentiment.
“The public has been very clear and some incumbents have learned that they are tired of politics as usual,” Bloomberg said, and indeed, a neighboring executive, Nassau County Executive Tom Suozzi appeared Tuesday to be struggling to hold on Tuesday in another surprising outcome.
Bloomberg could not have run with more institutional support. He had the backing of dozens of newspaper editorial boards, including the major papers – the New York Times, Daily News, and Post – and a score of ethnic publications. The city’s main Russian-language newspaper seemed to capture the spirit of the race on the Friday before the election with a front page endorsement under the headline: “There is only one choice: Mike Bloomberg.”
Voters, however, clearly saw two choices, and the result shocked and confounded the city’s political class.
“I’m stunned,” said Doug Muzzio, a professor of public affairs at Baruch College who closely follows city politics. “Good thing he spent $100-plus million -- unless the relentless multimedia barrage reminded folks that Bloomberg was an arrogant, out of touch plutocrat.”
Others said a round of Democratic primaries should have pointed to an electorate ready to push back.
"The primary proved that voters were deeply unhappy about term limits," said a consultant to incoming Public Advocate Bill de Blasio, Rebecca Kirszner Katz. "The runoff showed that polling is highly unpredictable in this environment."
And Bloomberg’s aides found themselves explaining a narrow margin that is well under the numbers posted even by incumbents more widely viewed as embattled, like Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who won reelection earlier this year with 55 percent of the vote.
Bloomberg aide Howard Wolfson defended the mayor’s victory to reporters at Bloomberg’s victory party at a Manhattan hotel, the New York Observer reported.
"This is the most difficult environment for incumbents that I've seen since 1994," he said. “You know, whether the Yankees win in four, or five, or six or seven, they're going to be world champions. On January 1, Michael Bloomberg is going to be the mayor of New York."
I think the end of this article explains why Bloomberg almost lost. Howard Wolfson was working for him. In other news we apparently have a Howard Wolfson tag.