The political fallout from Superstorm Sandy and Scott Stringer’s decision to run for comptroller rather than mayor provide us with a revealing insight as to where the 2013 mayoral race will play out: the outer boroughs.
Manhattan dominates Gotham’s finance and media industries—and hence the culture of New York—but the outer boroughs hold the vast majority of voters (in 2010 casting 69 percent of the Democratic primary vote and 74 percent of the general election vote). When things are either going smoothly or grave unifying challenges are looming, the outer boroughs are usually content to let Manhattan control mayoral politics (the Wagner, Lindsay and Bloomberg terms). But when the outer boroughs are feeling slighted or ignored, especially in times of crisis, they take back the helm (the Beame, Koch and Giuliani terms). I believe that in 2013 we should anticipate the latter scenario.
Bloomberg’s governing style and several third-term events—his mishandling of the December 2010 snowstorm and his recent tin ear on the marathon in the devastating wake of Superstorm Sandy—have put off outer borough voters and, I suspect, fixed a chip firmly on their shoulders.
Unlike in prior decades, this does not mean the 2013 electorate will be more conservative. Today’s outer borough concerns focus upon bread-and-butter issues like education, employment, housing and transportation, uniting rather than dividing working class and middle class voters.
How will the Democratic mayoral candidates react to the sharp political reflexes of outer borough voters? What was their reaction when Bloomberg failed to see that allowing the marathon to be run was saying to outer borough neighborhoods left ravaged by Sandy, from Gerritsen Beach to the Rockaways and Staten Island, that all was normal when it was not? To these devastated communities, the diversion of even one generator or policeman or a single hotel room in Staten Island to house a runner rather than a displaced family was seen as a thoughtless travesty.
When the marathon controversy struck that first Thursday after the storm, only Bill Thompson of all the mayoral candidates issued a clear statement in opposition. In a TV interview the night before, Public Advocate Bill de Blasio trumpeted running the marathon. Comptroller John Liu made a similar proclamation. Council Speaker Christine Quinn stood silent, reluctant to oppose Mayor Bloomberg, until she supported the mayor’s shift to cancelling the marathon.
There was no perceptible lasting damage to de Blasio, Liu or Quinn, nor great advantage for Thompson, since New Yorkers were not then focused on mayoral politics. Nevertheless, this was an early litmus test, measuring the candidates’ sensitivity and touch when it comes to outer borough voters. Only Thompson passed this test.
Which brings us to Stringer’s decision to run for comptroller rather than mayor. By opening up Manhattan’s West Side, a high voting bloc in primaries, Stringer’s withdrawal will likely provoke Quinn and de Blasio to draw a high stakes Maginot Line on the West Side. But as in World War I, the decisive action in 2013 will not be along Manhattan’s Maginot Line but along our equivalent of the Eastern front—the outer boroughs.
It is a significant factor that we have neither a Jewish nor a Hispanic candidate in this year’s Democratic mayoral primary. Outer borough Jewish and Hispanic voters will likely cast at least a 38 percent share of the Democrats’ overall primary vote (16 to 19 percent will come from outer borough Jewish voters and 20 to 22 percent by Hispanics, primarily from the outer boroughs). The candidate who wins the lion’s share of these swing voters will become the overwhelming favorite to win this primary.
To paraphrase one of the late Murray Kempton’s great columns on New York mayoral politics, the pundits will watch how the West Side votes, but the bookies will keep their eyes on the outer boroughs.
Bruce N. Gyory is a political consultant at Corning Place Communications in Albany and an adjunct professor of political science at SUNY Albany.