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Gotham Gazette

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Citizens Union

Elections

Low-Turnout Primary Becomes Referendum On Bloomberg

by Cristian Salazar, Sep 12, 2013

De Blasio and family

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NEW YORK — After a months-long election season that often played more like a circus sideshow than a considered debate on the issues, few registered voters turned out Tuesday to cast ballots in primaries that will help shift the political landscape of New York City.

The paltry turnout — an estimated 21 percent of registered Democratic voters in the mayoral race and 11 percent of registered Republican voters — was not unusual for a primary election.

But there may have been some hope that voters would show up in greater numbers this time around after a deluge of tabloid-ready news about the elections and a mayoral race that became a referendum on Michael Bloomberg’s legacy after three unprecedented terms.

In the mayor’s race, Public Advocate Bill de Blasio came from the back of a crowded Democratic field to surge ahead with almost enough votes to secure the nomination without a runoff. Not only that, exit polls showed that he beat out his rivals in key demographics — among blacks, Hispanics, women and gay and lesbian voters. It was as if what his daughter said in introducing him at his election night party was true: Her dad, Chiara de Blasio said, had become a “bold representation of the wants and needs of every one of us.”

Speaker Christine Quinn, who earlier this year was the front-runner in the race, fell to third place, while Anthony Weiner, the sexting-prone former congressman who had whipped the media into a frenzy with his comeback bid for mayor, trailed in fourth place. “There's no doubt about it," Weiner said at his concession speech at Conolly's Pub in Midtown Manhattan. "We have the best ideas. Sadly, I was an imperfect messenger."

But second-place candidate Bill Thompson, a former comptroller who nearly knocked Bloomberg out of office in 2009, refused to back down. “We're going to wait for every voice to be counted,” he said, referring to paper ballots that were still to be counted. Democrats around the city braced for a possibly divisive, knock-down runoff in the race if the voting numbers changed ever so slightly in Thompson’s favor.

Democratic power brokers are pushing to avoid a runoff that could damage the candidates and benefit the Republican nominee in the general election. And they are lining up behind de Blasio in a public way: Big-name unions, the Working Families Party and key politicians endorsed him at a rally at Brooklyn Borough Hall on Thursday. Many of Quinn's supporters are now backing de Blasio.

The city Board of Elections said it could be next week before the results from Tuesday’s primary are certified and paper ballots counted. Thompson has until Friday night to decide whether he wants to stay on the ballot.

Not waiting for the outcome in that race, former transit chief Joe Lhota, who beat out billionaire supermarket magnate John Catsimatidis and Doe Fund-founder George McDonald, for the Republican nomination in the party primary on Tuesday night, made it clear in his victory speech that he expected to run against de Blasio in the general election.

"I hear an awful lot coming from the other side about the ‘tale of two cities’ and how they want to tear down the progress that's happened over the last twenty years,” he said. “This ‘tale’ is nothing more than class warfare. An attempt to divide the city.”

The other most-watched race, the Democratic primary for comptroller, was more decisive: Scott Stringer, the mild-mannered Manhattan borough president who had been a shoe-in for the job until former governor Eliot Spitzer resurfaced mid-summer to run for it, eked out a victory.

But it wasn’t just the comptroller and mayor’s race that were competitive. There were also key races for the little-known citywide office of public advocate that ended in a runoff; the offices of borough president in Queens, Brooklyn and Manhattan; Brooklyn district attorney; City Council; and state Assembly.

THE MAYORAL RACE

The towering De Blasio didn’t just win because his son, Dante de Blasio, had a killer Afro.

But it certainly helped get across his campaign’s message when his son appeared in a televised ad and pronounced that his father would break from the status quo on a key issue for black and Latino voters across the city: stop-and-frisk.

Combining that message with a clear, overarching theme that income inequality had grown unsustainable under Bloomberg, De Blasio was able to cobble together a winning coalition of voters.

Back in June, Gotham Gazette Demographics Columnist Andy Beveridge wrote that this year’s candidates, if they had any hope of getting to Gracie mansion, would “need to build coalitions of supporters willing to get to the polls on primary day and Election Day from an increasingly diverse voter roll.”

De Blasio, who served as Hilary Clinton’s campaign manager during her 2000 race for U.S. Senate, did exactly that, Beveridge said in a post-primary interview with the Gazette.

But, more surprising to Beveridge, whose company, Social Explorer, provided demographics for The New York Times’ splashy elections breakdown, was that there was “virtually no polarized vote.”

“He's a white guy and he got half of the black vote,” Beveridge said of de Blasio. The other half of the black vote went for Thompson, the only black candidate in the race.

John Mollenkopf, the director for the Center for Urban Research at the City University of New York, said it was not just his family that made de Blasio appealing to black voters. “Obviously, it’s a signal, but I think he also raises issues that are very much of concern about black and immigrant communities,” he said. “There are strong patterns of voting, but I would not say they were motivated by ethnic similarities.”

After all, Mollenkopf said, de Blasio did well with not only voters in traditionally black neighborhoods but also the Upper West Side of Manhattan.

“The black neighborhoods of Crown Heights and Bed-Stuy voted for the white candidate instead of the black candidate,” he said. “That is really quite remarkable.”

He said the Thompson campaign appeared to miscalculate de Blasio’s appeal to their candidate’s base. “The Thompson candidacy was predicated on the belief that … blacks and Latinos would line up pretty solidly just the way they had in 2009, and [Thompson] went around telling people that … The racial and ethnic arithmetic made him the inevitable winner,” Mollenkopf said. “Which turned out not to be true.”

Thompson’s campaign lead strategist Jonathan Prince did not immediately respond to a request for comment about the candidate’s efforts.

Exit polls also showed that de Blasio carried a lot of other groups as well —Hispanics (38 percent), Protestants (40 percent), middle-class earners of $50,000 to $70,000 (40 percent), LGBT (47 percent) and college graduates (42 percent).

The exit polls also showed that De Blasio’s campaign message that he was the clear anti-Bloomberg choice for voters stirred them to his side. “If you wanted to vote against Bloomberg, you wanted to vote for de Blasio,” Beveridge said. “And a lot of people wanted to vote against Bloomberg.”

Even the Thompson campaign appeared to be impressed with de Blasio’s ability to cut across categories. Thompson’s own campaign chairwoman, Merryl H. Tisch, told The New York Times that the primary results showed it was a “clear victory” for de Blasio.

But Thompson’s supporters were chanting “three more weeks” — in reference to the Oct. 1 runoff date — on election night.

He was also backed by powerful interests, including the United Federation of Teachers and police unions.

Detective Endowment Association President Michael Palladino said that it was Thompson's measured approach on stop-and-frisk that brought out police union support for the candidate.

“Bill is the most realistic," Palladino said. "He realizes that safety is important but that you have to balance that with the civil rights of the people of this great city."

The UFT president said they would continue to fight for Thompson. "We're sick and tired of people's voice being silenced," Michael Mulgrew told Capital New York.

With the Thompson camp playing the waiting game to see whether the math would work out for him and spark a runoff, Democratic insiders were signaling that they didn’t want a damaging battle ahead of the general election.

Doug Muzzio, a political scientist at Baruch College, said he did not think Thompson would pursue it given the demographic blowout by de Blasio.

“Is he really going to bloody up de Blasio for Lhota? And how does he win this time?” Muzzio said. “With all those demographics against him, how will he win all the Quinn voters and Liu voters? I don't think he will be able to hold on to his own voters. My gut tells me he doesn't.”

Lhota’s win against his Republican rivals was decisive but less impressive. It’s estimated just about 57,000 votes were cast — or 10 percent — of total registered Republican voters. As Colin Campbell of The New York Observer put it, that was about as many votes that Democrats Erick J. Salgado (2.4 percent) and Randy Credico (2 percent) were able to secure during the primary.

Beveridge agreed. “Lhota has gotta cross over and pull in moderate democratic voters,” he said.

But the former transit chief is running on a message that he is the best man to continue the Bloomberg era of relatively low crime and upward mobility of quality of life.

“I think people are sick of Bloomberg,” Beveridge said. “It's a 64-ounce Pepsi too far.”

THE SCANDAL-TAINTED CANDIDATES

All of the candidates dogged by recent scandal and hoping for a second chance lost in the primary.

This included Spitzer, who resigned from the governor’s office amid a prostitution scandal, in the comptroller race; former Assemblyman Vito Lopez, who had been accused of groping his female staff, and was running for Brooklyn’s 34th Council seat; and Assemblyman Micah Kellner, who faced sexual harassment allegations, and was running for Manhattan’s 5th Council district.

“It turns out sexual misconduct is a fast track to a concession speech,” Sonia Ossorio, president of the local branch of the National Organization for Women, said in a press release on Wednesday. “This election makes it clear that voters will reject candidates who fail to treat women with respect and dignity.”

After a five-year hiatus from government, Spitzer tried to make a political comeback and seemed to be heading for an all-but-certain win against little-known Stringer for the Democratic nomination for comptroller.

But Spitzer lost by a small margin. Stringer, who was backed by the Democratic establishment, won with 51.98 percent of the vote; Spitzer had 48.02 percent.

OTHER KEY RACES

A runoff will decide the other citywide race — for public advocate — between candidates City Councilwoman Letitia James and state Sen. Daniel Squadron. The city's Campaign Finance Board released over $740,000 in public funds to the candidates for the runoff on Oct. 1.

In the borough-wide races, among the most notable were the wins by Gale Brewer in the race to be borough president of Manhattan; and by Melinda Katz, in the race for Queens borough president.

But perhaps most surprising was the win that former federal prosecutor Kenneth Thompson pulled out against six-term incumbent Charles Hynes for the office of Brooklyn district attorney. While Hynes had been inundated by bad press, it was widely said that Thompson was running an ineffectual campaign.

However, when the tallies came in on election night, it was clear that there had been a mandate for change in the leadership of district attorney: Thompson won by 55.43 percent of the vote; Hynes had 44.7 percent.

“I think folks knew the record I had,” Hynes said in his concession speech. “I guess folks came to the conclusion that it was my time.”

While he was also running on the Republican and Conservative lines, all indications are that he will not be competing in the general election.

DOWN-BALLOT RACES

Mel Wymore, who would have been the first transgender City Council member, lost his bid for the 6th City Council District to Helen Rosenthal. But Carlos Menchaca, who will likely be the first Mexican-American on the Council, was able to grab Brooklyn’s 38th seat from incumbent Sarah Gonzalez.

In the end, of the 51 Council districts, about 20 ended up being competitive.

Other notable wins included Ben Kallos winning the 5th district over two other candidates, including Assemblyman Kellner; Chaim Deutsch in the competitive race for Brooklyn’s 48th district, which was hard-hit by Hurricane Sandy; and John Mancuso in Staten Island’s 50th district.

There were also two important Assembly races that drew little attention, but were significant.

The race to replace Assemblyman Nelson Castro in the Bronx’s 86th Assembly District will likely come down to a recount with newcomer Victor Pichardo and former district leader Hector Ramirez with unofficial tallies showing both candidates hovering at about 22 percent of the vote.

Ramirez’s success was a surprise to many observers who saw the candidate as an also-ran. Pichardo enjoyed the backing of Rep. Chuck Schumer, Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr., Sen. Gustavo Rivera and Assemblyman Carl Heastie. Ramirez mostly had name recognition and community support.

Meanwhile, a Lopez ally got his old 53rd State Assembly District seat: Maritza Davila, a former employee of the Ridgewood Bushwick Senior Citizen Center founded by Lopez. She defeated her two opponents by a large margin in the Democratic primary.

State Government Editor David Howard King and City Government Reporter Chester Soria contributed to this report.

Last Updated (Feb 05, 2014)