"Now is when the Big-City looks at itself again. As the glowing skyscrapers rise like golden honeycombs in the quickening dusk, the voice of the politician warns, above the incessant screech of traffic, that all is crumbling underneath."
The above paragraph was not a description of this year's campaign in
New York City, but was Theodore H. White's coverage of another landmark
election from 1965 when Republican/Liberal nominee John V. Lindsay won in
heavily Democratic New York. But tragically, it literally could have
applied to the city this year.
Two weeks before Nov. 6, Democratic mayoral nominee Mark Green
was given a 16-point lead over billionaire first-time candidate Michael
Bloomberg in the Quinnipiac College Poll, the survey with the best track
record in the Empire State over the past few election cycles.
Green was favored for good reasons: there is a 5-1 Democratic registration edge in New York City, he had carried the city six times before in various campaigns, and had served eight years in citywide office as public advocate. His opponent, Michael Bloomberg, had never held any office and was perceived as a bumbler trying to buy the election, propped up only by his $4 billion personal fortune.
Before Labor Day, Bloomberg was considered an expensive joke, yet another foolish ultra-rich political wannabe wasting his money and everyone else's time. Like former Clinton consultant/guru Dick Morris and most of the press, I had previously assumed that Mike Bloomberg was simply unelectable. Yet, on the night of Nov. 6, Bloomberg shocked the East Coast political class with a 50 percent to 47 percent victory. The astonishing fact is that Mark Green ran 30 points behind Al Gore's 2000 showing in the city.
How could this happen? How could Mark Green blow a seemingly solid lead in the birthplace of the Democratic Party? How could a Democratic candidate lose despite the endorsement of the police officers' union?
Nor had the city ever elected two Republicans in a row. Not since the 1920s have so many blacks voted Republican. (Other "fusion" mayors like Lindsay received most of their minority votes on the Liberal Party line.) Bloomberg also received more Hispanic votes than any other Republican in history. Never in the 20th century had anyone with so few reform or political credentials as Mike Bloomberg been elected in Gotham. But chronologically, it's a new century and apparently, it's also a new political era in New York.
There are three main reasons for the Bloomberg upset: 1) his fantastic
campaign war chest estimated at upwards of $60 million; 2) crucial assistance
from outgoing Mayor Rudy Giuliani; and 3) the mistakes of the Green camp that severely exacerbated the usual internal Democratic feuding.
Bloomberg's massive campaign spending was a crucial element in his success, but not the only one. His huge bankroll allowed Bloomberg to hire experienced Democratic operatives like Bill Cunningham, who knows the city inside-out and has worked for successful Democrats like Govs. Hugh Carey and Mario Cuomo and Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan. (Bloomberg was also smart enough to actually listen to his highly capable advisers.)
He spent $20 million in defeating former Democratic Congressman Herman Badillo in the Republican primary. The $35 million or so he spent on TV ads after Oct. 1 allowed him to take advantage of the Democratic infighting, particularly after his campaign caught fire with the Giuliani endorsement.
So, Bloomberg's money was essential, but it was not the determining factor.
Money has to support a compelling message. Bloomberg had one ("we need a
businessman to rebuild the city and the Democrats are too divided to do
so.") Of those voters expressing an opinion on this subject, they gave
Bloomberg a 14-point edge, more than four times greater than his margin of
victory. And best of all, Mike Bloomberg was also given the gift of a
The events of Sept. 11 (probably the most reported-on event since the death of President Kennedy), in which the mayor narrowly escaped death, made Rudy Giuliani a national hero and figure of worldwide renown.
Giuliani's 90 percent approval ratings equaled President Bush's, making him
the most popular local official in American history. Had the term limits
law not ended his tenure, Rudy could have been re-elected with 7 percent of the
Giuliani has always disliked Mark Green, one of his most persistent
critics over the past eight years. Giuliani not only endorsed Bloomberg, but
also campaigned personally for him and appeared in the numerous Bloomberg
ads. The CNN exit poll showed the Republican mayor with a 72 percent approval
rating in heavily Democratic New York. Over 80 percent of white Democrats,
including usually liberal Jewish voters, approved of Giuliani's performance. He obviously transferred some of that clout to Mike Bloomberg, as the exit poll showed Bloomberg picked up a net of 11 points due to the mayor's endorsement. As Eric Fettman wrote in the New York Post, "The mayor
demonstrated that, post-Sept. 11, he's got the world's longest set of
Other personal factors and issues helped elect Bloomberg. Of the personal qualities that most aided Bloomberg, two stand out. First, 15 percent of the
voters chose "strong leader" as the most important candidate quality they
were seeking in the next mayor. They voted 74-24 percent for Bloomberg. Another 14 percent said they were looking for someone who was "not a typical politician." Those voters went for Bloomberg by 89-7 percent!
Nor did Bloomberg's massive personal spending provoke a backlash. About 60 percent of voters said they were "not concerned" Bloomberg was trying to buy the office. (There is precedent in New York for this -- 35 years ago, Nelson Rockefeller spent $10 million on a successful governor's race. That would be close to $100 million in today's campaign money.)
On the issues, 43 percent of all voters chose the "economy/jobs" as the
most important and voted 59 percent to 38 percent for Bloomberg (a net 9 point advantage and one of his best assets). Another winner for Bloomberg was the issue of "terrorism." Seven percent of voters picked this issue and they went 65 percent to 34 percent for Bloomberg -- also helping to provide his margin of victory.
But even without the Giuliani intervention on Bloomberg's behalf,
and his 4 to 1 spending advantage or the "cutting-edge" issue of the city's
post-World Trade Center bombing crisis, Mark Green would be mayor-elect
today if only he could have unified his party after the primary. Before the
general election, Green's handlers predicted he would win if he held the
usual Democratic bloc votes from blacks (90 percent Democratic) and Hispanics (75 percent Democratic) along with about 28 percent of the white vote. Green got the white vote presumed necessary: The CNN exit poll gave him 38 percent.
The unprecedented defection of significant numbers of both black and
Hispanic voters was the direct cause of Green's defeat. And herein lies the
By area, Green carried Brooklyn, Manhattan and the Bronx, while Bloomberg won handily in Queens and went over the top with over 75 percent on Staten Island. Just as in Rudy Giuliani's first victory in 1993, Staten Island delivered the GOP margin of victory (no wonder Republicans won't let this Borough secede from the city.) Green did well enough in Queens and Brooklyn to win citywide, but was ultimately cut down by minority defections in Harlem and the Bronx.
Data from the exit poll tell the story: White Catholics voted 3-1 for Bloomberg, as was expected due to the Giuliani endorsement. Somewhat surprisingly, Bloomberg carried the Jewish vote narrowly against his fellow
Jew, Green. But the big shock was that Bloomberg won 25 percent among blacks and roughly half of the largely Puerto Rican Hispanic vote.
The Hispanic vote early going Republican was unprecedented -- not even popular Republican incumbents like Dwight Eisenhower, Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan or Rockefeller could ever get over 40 percent of the Hispanic vote in the City. Even Ruth Messinger, who lost by a landslide to Mayor Giuliani in 1997, managed to win 57 percent of the Hispanic vote. Had Green merely matched Messinger's already disappointing showing in the minority communities, he would have won citywide with 52 percent.
The source of Green's problems in the black and Hispanic areas was the primary campaign, which left hard feelings that eventually ruined his
effort. Former Mayor David Dinkins, who supported Green and should know
because his re-election bid was wrecked by ethnic divisiveness, said "We
Democrats have this habit of too often forming a firing squad in a circle."
Indeed, that was the whole key to Green's upset loss.
Mark Green won the Democratic nomination over Bronx Borough President Fred
Ferrer after a bloody primary that featured a nasty split between white
liberals and minority Democrats: Green won over 80 percent of the white vote, while Ferrer received 84 percent from Hispanics and about 70 percent among blacks. With the race too close to call, Green ran harsh ads questioning Ferrer's experience and competence, ultimately winning by 51-49 percent.
Green tried to smooth over his differences with Ferrer's supporters, but paid dearly for two key gaffes. First, he told Ferrer's union backers that he could win without them. Labor then largely sat out the election. Dennis Rivera, perhaps the city's most powerful labor leader, said, "People were very upset about what happened in the primary, and it was very difficult to mobilize our members for Mark." (Labor can provide up to 50,000 volunteers. If they had all pulled out one extra Democratic vote, Green would have won.)
Then, the New York Daily News reported some of Green's staff had secretly worked on a mail piece linking Ferrer to the controversial black activist Al Sharpton that Ferrer denounced as "race-baiting." Sharpton and Ferrer promptly announced a boycott of the Democratic ticket and Green ended up losing by 3 points. As Green spokesman Joe DePlasco said of the Democratic disunity,
"It gave Bloomberg a message for the general election. And he used his
money to exploit it."
Yale University political scientist Jim Sleeper has written probably
the finest book on the sometimes-poisonous effects of racial politics in big
cities. He recently wrote an article in the New York Post denouncing the
idea that Sharpton and Ferrer had sunk Green. With all due respect, Sleeper
is simply wrong; the extra minority votes made the difference for Bloomberg.
There is no other explanation than either alienation or deliberate sabotage
by Sharpton and Ferrer. (These two men had a direct interest in Green's
defeat; now they'll get another shot at City Hall in 2005.)
No Democrat in the past 50 years has lost a two-way race while getting about 40 percent of the white vote. The center -- i.e., moderate Jewish voters in Brooklyn and some white Catholic union members -- did defect from Green. But that was expected. What was not expected and turned out to be fatal for Green was the loss of the left: liberal black and Hispanic votes. Mayor John Lindsay,
running as an independent Liberal Party nominee in 1969, carried the
minority vote against conservative Democrat Mario Procacino. But losses of
the minority vote on this scale have never happened when the Republican
candidate was more conservative.
Some of the bad feelings left over from the run-off were probably inevitable. But one character trait of Green hurt him dearly. There is sometimes a congenital arrogance of reformers, a belief that they always know what's best for people and an unwillingness to make the compromises necessary to win. While reformers have been good mayors, they can sometimes be bad pols. As Democratic consultant Henry Sheinkopf, who advised the Green campaign, commented: "Some of Mark's people thought they knew it all."
Dick Morris believes Bloomberg's victory marks "the death of the white
liberal" because any white candidate will have to defeat a black or Hispanic
challenger in the primary -- and then have to win back in the general election
the minorities who supported the opponent they defeated in the primary.
Given the emotional nature of primaries in the media age with their TV
attacks, Morris says such divisiveness will inevitably sink white Democrats.
Therefore, "in the future, the Democratic Party will only be able to win
when it nominates minority candidates. It's a new era in New York."
It's too soon to say for sure, but Morris may ultimately prove to be
correct. New York may become like the Deep South, where white Democrats
often lose to black candidates in heavily black Democratic primaries who
then cannot win general elections against Republicans.
For example, in North Carolina, former Charlotte Mayor Harvey Gannt (who happens to be black) twice defeated white opponents in Democratic primaries before losing to Sen. Jesse Helms. (One of the men Gannt defeated, Mike Easley, went on to be elected governor in 2000, despite the Bush victory in North Carolina.)
If President Bush and his handlers were not too busy running the
war on terrorism, they would probably be laughing hysterically at the New
York results. Surely, New York Gov. George Pataki must be looking forward
to next year's expected Democratic primary brawl between State Controller
Carl McCall (who also happens to be black) and Andrew Cuomo, the son of
former Gov. Mario Cuomo.
So New York City Democrats need a candidate who can win white ethnic voters
without alienating minorities: where is Robert Kennedy when they need him?
Three general lessons can be drawn from the New York results. First, it is
never a good idea for any candidate to begin planning their administration
two weeks before the voting.
Second, even the most loyal Democrats -- i.e., blacks and Hispanics -- don't like to be taken for granted. As Angelo Falcon of the Puerto Rican Legal Defense Fund told The New York Times: "The fact that Bloomberg got more Latinos than Giuliani is amazing. For too long, the Democrats have taken the Latino vote for granted...and still we voted for them. No more." (These defections by minorities appear to be unique to New York, as across the Hudson River in New Jersey on the same day, successful Democratic gubernatorial candidate Jim McGreevey won 88 percent and 72 percent, respectively, of the black and Hispanic vote. Also, in Virginia on Nov. 6, Democratic Governor-elect Mark Warner received over 90 percent in the black community.)
Thirdly, one sure side-effect of Bloomberg's upset is that we're likely to see many more wealthy candidates: voters should be prepared for a wave of successful high-tech entrepreneurs, Wall Street titans and perhaps even former pro athletes who can finance their own campaigns and can outspend their opponents by millions.
(Patrick Reddy, who grew up in the New York area, is a consultant to
California's Assembly Democrats.)