For the first time since 2001, the mayoralty of New York City will be an open seat, and there are a lot of people grabbing for it.
Depending on how you count the candidates—most are still technically undeclared—there are at least a dozen hopefuls vying for the job, and possibly as many as 20. And though quite a few of the would-be mayors will likely not make the ballot, with the passage of a 2010 referendum reducing the number of signatures required to qualify by 50 percent—to 3,500—it is likely that the victor will ultimately have to vanquish a crowded field of challengers in order to prevail.
And who will the big winner be? The answer is anyone’s guess.
A year and a half ago the smart money was on Rep. Anthony Weiner. Then came the “sexting” scandal that led to Weiner’s resignation from Congress and brought an abrupt end to his mayoral aspirations—a glaring reminder that the political wisdom of one day can swiftly be exposed as foolishness the next.
Now the “front-runner,” as the media often describe her, is Council Speaker Christine Quinn. There is ample reason that the speaker has attained this status. Quinn, the sole candidate in the race to have already raised the maximum amount of money permissible under the New York City Campaign Finance Board’s rules, is also leading significantly in the polls. In the latest Quinnipiac voter survey, released on Jan. 16, Quinn was ahead of her nearest Democratic opponent, Public Advocate Bill de Blasio, by 24 points, a margin that has grown since the first post-Weiner Quinnipiac poll was taken in July 2011.
Were Quinn to be elected, she would be both the city’s first female and first openly gay mayor, and many women’s groups and LGBT organizations are fired up to ensure that the speaker makes history in November.
But Quinn has her troubles, too. She has never run citywide, nor even borough-wide, and though she has registered strong name recognition, Quinn has never demonstrated that she can win over voters outside of her council district—a unit that encompasses a mere 160,000 or so New Yorkers. Moreover, since the role of speaker was created in 1986, it has hardly proven an effective stepping stone to reach the mayoralty. Despite promising starts, Peter Vallone Sr. finished third in the 2001 Democratic primary, and his successor, Gifford Miller, came in a measly fourth in the 2005 Democratic primary.
Even Quinn’s electoral performance within her district has been less than dominant. In 2009 she fended off two challengers to win re-election but garnered only 52 percent of the vote. Her low total was likely a backlash against Quinn’s leading role in extending term limits that year—a move that angered many voters and is widely considered Quinn’s major Achilles’ heel in her bid for mayor.
Another plausible candidate this cycle is former City Comptroller Bill Thompson, the Democratic Party’s 2009 nominee for mayor. Last time around Thompson exceeded expectations by coming within less than five points of upsetting Mayor Michael Bloomberg, though some experts argue that Thompson was principally the beneficiary of a protest vote against Bloomberg for seeking a third term.
Thompson, like his opponents de Blasio and current City Comptroller John Liu, has won citywide before. In addition, he is relatively recognizable to voters as the Democrats’ previous nominee. But so far that familiarity has not translated into much traction in the polls. In the aforementioned January 2013 poll, he trailed de Blasio by a point, and led Liu by a mere 1 percent. Thompson appeared to get a slow start on the 2013 race but his pace has quickened of late, and in the last filing period he raised the most money of all the candidates, pulling in over $1 million.
Nonetheless, not only Quinn but also de Blasio and Liu have outraised Thompson overall to date. Both de Blasio, who was previously a councilman from Brooklyn, and Liu, who represented Queens in the Council, have positioned themselves similarly in the race, trying to build a coalition of union support, progressives and outer borough voters. Both candidates were seen as worthy contenders to win the support of the Working Families Party—the labor-backed third party that endorsed both de Blasio and Liu in their respective successful bids for citywide office in 2009—but de Blasio now appears to have the greater likelihood of scoring the WFP line, in part as a result of the ongoing investigation into Liu’s campaign fund-raising, which has dimmed the comptroller’s once-bright chances of moving up to City Hall.
If de Blasio does get the WFP nod, he will have at his disposal the WFP’s famously fierce and effective get-out-the-vote operation, though if he is unable to overcome Quinn’s lead in the polls to win the Democratic nomination, it is not clear whether the benefit of the line will be enough to keep him competitive in the general election.
If a Democrat is victorious in November, she or he will bring an end to a 20-year drought for the party in mayoral elections—a shockingly long time in the wilderness for a party that enjoys a 6-to-1 registration advantage over Republicans within the five boroughs.
Many experts predict that Democrats will finally break through in this election, bolstered by their growing number in the city, the electorate’s shift to the left, a distaste among local Democrats for the national GOP platform and the rise of minority voters in the city.
Yet the Republican Party has hardly ceded the mayoralty to its rivals, and though initially it struggled to attract a standard-bearer, over the last couple of months a host of GOP candidates have thrown their hats into the ring, and more are moving toward a run—further proof of how even the makeup of this race remains in flux.
Currently leading in the polls on the GOP side is former MTA Chairman Joe Lhota. Lhota, who only filed papers to run for the position on Jan. 17, is the most recent entry into the race, but he has already received significant media attention and excited the faithful supporters of former Mayor Rudy Giuliani, in whose administration Lhota served as first deputy mayor.
Lhota, a hard-nosed and outspoken figure, fits the traditional no-nonsense mold of New York’s mayors, and won recent accolades for the speed at which he got the city’s transit system back online following Superstorm Sandy, but mathematically his path to victory is fuzzy. Though in the latest Quinnipiac poll—the first to include him—Lhota led his nearest Republican opponent by 14 points, he still only registered 23 percent of the vote, with the option “Don’t Know” (i.e., undecided) more than doubling his total at 53 percent. And in head-to-head matchups with his possible Democratic opponents, the numbers were discouraging. According to Quinnipiac, if the election were held today Quinn would beat Lhota 62–17 percent, Thompson would trump him 55–19, and de Blasio would top him 57–17.
Lhota is further hamstrung by being a first-time candidate, a weakness that some say was exposed last week when he turned in a somewhat lackluster performance in the first mayoral candidate forum in which he participated. And, far more importantly, he has yet to officially raise a single dollar of the many millions he will have to pour into his coffers if he is going to be competitive.
In second place on the Republican side in the latest poll, with 9 percent, is another first-time candidate, billionaire supermarket mogul John Catsimatidis. Catsimatidis has spent much of the last year flirting with the possibility of running for mayor but has still not yet definitively declared his intentions—though he has seeded a campaign account with $1 million of his own money and enjoys the enthusiastic support of many Republican leaders.
If Catsimatidis does end up running, he is expected to aim to replicate Mayor Bloomberg’s successful 2001 campaign playbook, using his vast fortune to make the case that his business background best qualifies him to lead the city. However, though Catsimatidis is unquestionably wealthy, it is not yet clear whether he intends to commit the staggering sums that Bloomberg invested in his three campaigns. Even if he does, political observers are quick to point out that it was not just money that won Bloomberg election in 2001 but a concatenation of virtually impossible circumstances to re-create, including the tragedy of 9/11, which shook up the race in its final days and elevated the importance of then Mayor Giuliani’s endorsement of Bloomberg astronomically.
Mayor Bloomberg has not yet publicly tried to anoint a successor, and it remains to be seen if he will, but it is widely believed that he supports Quinn—though he may refrain from openly declaring his preference out of the belief that his endorsement could potentially be disadvantageous to her, particularly among liberal Democratic voters.
Whether the ultimate winner is Quinn, Thompson, de Blasio, Liu, Catsimatidis, Lhota or any of the other candidates currently vying for mayor or still to jump into the fray, the only thing certain about this election is that nothing is certain.
Bloomberg’s almost universally unforeseen come-from-behind victory in 2000 is itself a monument to the unpredictability of the race. At this moment it is not even settled whether the primary with be held in June or September—which in itself will have major implications for its outcome.
While the polls and the media will continue to weave a narrative that casts the race in one light or another, in the end all that will matter is who the voters of the City of New York decide they want to be their next mayor.
Tags: Anthony Weiner, Bill De Blasio, Christine Quinn, Gifford Miller, joe lhota, John Catsimatidis, John Liu, LGBT, Michael Bloomberg, MTA, Peter Vallone, Quinnipiac Poll, Rudy Giuliani, Working Families Party