Lhota Must Be His Own Man

Lhota Must Be His Own Man

Lhota Must Be His Own Man
January 30, 2014

The result of the Democratic primary was shocking, not because Bill de Blasio won, but because it represented a referendum on the limits of Michael Bloomberg’s money and influence. Despite the mayor’s open disdain for de Blasio’s campaign and desperate efforts to elect Christine Quinn, voters had the last word over a man more accustomed to manipulating systems of democracy than conforming to them. De Blasio might not have outperformed expectations quite so dramatically, and avoided a runoff, had the mayor been able to contain himself.

Throughout the primary, whenever de Blasio invoked his “Tale of Two Cities” theme, the mayor would often have an unsightly tantrum and deploy members of his administration to respond to the perceived slight. Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott published editorials and held a press conference to defend the administration’s record on education. Deputy Mayor Howard Wolfson regularly took to Twitter to demean de Blasio’s ideas as dangerous and out-of-date. Police Commissioner Ray Kelly was relentless in a series of tone-deaf articles, editorials, and public appearances on the virtues of stop-and-frisk. Yet the administration’s efforts fell flat, and Bloomberg only further marginalized himself with voters by making hysterical statements such as calling de Blasio a “racist” for featuring his mixed race family in his campaign. With enemies like that, who needs friends?

What’s so stunning about de Blasio’s victory—and Bloomberg’s loss—is that the public actually managed to neutralize the mayor’s money and power. Historically, the mayor has managed to buy off or maneuver around the democratic process. From overturning term limits to paying half a million dollars to secure the Independence Party line to lining the pockets of various African- American faith leaders to shut out support for Bill Thompson in 2009, the mayor has proved repeatedly that everything and everyone has a price. But voters flocked to de Blasio specifically because he recognized the corrosive effect of inequality on democracy, be it economic or social, and promised to govern from a fundamental position of fairness.

The mayor and Lhota have tried to characterize de Blasio as a divider, coding him as a “class warrior,” but it’s a risky tactic, one that proved futile in the primary. Although politicos are fond of noting it’s been 20 years since New York City voters last elected a Democratic mayor, the increase in the African- American and Latino voter base will be decisive in a city with six times as many registered Democrats. Lhota is a highly capable and worthy candidate, but he risks alienating those communities that rank rising income inequality, stop-and-frisk and affordable housing as high priorities.

Recognizing his own toxicity, Bloomberg recently announced he would not endorse a candidate. Though Lhota had previously sought the mayor’s support, he should count himself lucky. Bloomberg may have helped him reach centrist Democrats, but he would also have reinforced a campaign narrative of change versus experience. And this is a change moment in the political life cycle of the city. Polling by The New York Times/ Siena College has found that New Yorkers are evenly split in their opinion of Bloomberg; 57 percent would vote for someone else if he were on the ballot. Similarly, on Election Day voters across the city rejected the past and chose alternative candidates over establishment names like Vito Lopez, Charles Hynes and even Bill Thompson. In politics there are moments of equilibrium where voters seek consistency, but in a period of disequilibrium Lhota would do well to distance himself from retro references to Rudy Giuliani and his immediate successor. In 2008 Hillary Clinton found out just how little experience can matter.

The general election is only six weeks away, a relatively small window within which to redefine a primary campaign for a broader audience. Lhota doesn’t have time to make Quinn’s mistake and suffer the consequences of being the mayor’s preferred candidate. As Quinn’s experience makes clear, whatever the rewards, it’s not worth it in the end.

Alexis Grenell (@agrenell on Twitter) is a Democratic communications strategist based in New York. She handles nonprofit and political clients.

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Alexis Grenell