People have whined for months that the mayoral election is depressing, but they should cheer up. As they vote this week, New Yorkers have real alternatives on big issues.
Twelve years ago—the last time we elected a new mayor—it was hard for voters to discern policy differences among the candidates (everyone, including Mike Bloomberg, wanted to spend more money). This time, it’s easier.
Of the three front-running Democrats, Public Advocate Bill de Blasio is the classic ’60s liberal. His remedy for inequality is to make the rich a little poorer. He’d ask Albany to hike taxes on people making above $500,000, so that every New York child can go to a pre-K class taught by a well-paid teacher.
Reform public sector retirement benefits to pay for pre-K instead? Not interested.
On everything else—from mass transit to public housing—his answer is to beg Washington for cash.
City Council Speaker Christine Quinn and former comptroller Bill Thompson are more pragmatic. Neither wants to raise taxes, although neither of them rules it out. On public sector benefits, both have said they won’t negotiate in public.
The difference between Thompson and Quinn on this issue is that Quinn has signed off on Bloomberg-era budgets in recent years that have set aside no money for public sector raises, effectively agreeing with the mayor on a position the unions hate. Thompson has taken the endorsement of the teachers’ union, putting him in a more delicate spot when it comes to refusing back pay. Still, neither Quinn nor Thompson has announced big spending plans like de Blasio has.
Fiscally, the Republican candidates are stronger. All have said they want public sector workers to pay for some of their own healthcare premiums, which would save hundreds of millions of dollars a year. And in the Aug. 28 GOP debate, the two top-polling candidates, former MTA chief Joe Lhota and oil refinery mogul John Catsimatidis, said they’d like bigger reforms to public sector pensions as well (although, like de Blasio on taxes, they’d need permission from Albany).
On another top issue, public safety, de Blasio is a radical, and the others are not. De Blasio has repeatedly said he’d “end the stop-and-frisk era.” Quinn and Thompson want it both ways. They don’t want to alienate voters who are upset about seemingly excessive stops, but they don’t want to alienate police or watch crime rise.
On another important issue, pedestrian and bicycle safety, de Blasio again has the clearest position. He wants to see zero traffic deaths. Quinn is strong here too, promising to halve deaths. Thompson and Lhota are more circumspect. Lhota has been inconsistent on bike lanes and pedestrian plazas, although he did praise bike lanes in the late August debate. (Catsimatidis has sounded ignorant here, insisting with no evidence that pedestrian plazas and bike lanes have slowed ambulances, while ignoring data on lives saved.)
There’s one critical topic the candidates won’t bring up: quality-of-life issues. No one wants to be the candidate who takes on the nightclub industry for illegal noise, or the construction industry for illegal work. New Yorkers who want a candidate who will fairly enforce all laws against all-powerful interests have no real choice.
Nobody is going to close charter schools, because it would anger motivated parents. Only de Blasio thinks the only education answer is more money.
But on the rest: If you want an old-style liberal, you’ll pick de Blasio.
If you don’t like Republicans—both Catsimatidis and Lhota voted for Mitt Romney, something the Democratic nominee is sure to remind voters about his or her rival come the general election—but you want a relative measure (compared with de Blasio) of fiscal sanity and order on the streets, you’ll choose between Quinn and Thompson.
If you don’t mind Romney Republicans and you’re really worried about the next mayor’s ability to plain old run the city, you can pick Lhota, the guy who has the experience (under Giuliani) of actually having run New York.
If, on the other hand, you worry more on a day-to-day basis about getting hit by a lawless trucker than about being shot by a drug dealer, you’ll think about it again.
This line of reasoning has helped me make my decision. Tomorrow night, I’ll see if New Yorkers agreed with me in round one.
Nicole Gelinas (@nicolegelinas on Twitter) is a contributing editor to the Manhattan Institute’s City Journal.