The Mayor’s Race That Wasn’t

"For the first time in New York City,” said Representative Anthony Weiner back in January of 2008, when he was widely expected to run for mayor, “we’re starting to see the middle class, and those who are struggling to make it to the middle class, wondering.”

A year later, Mr. Weiner—who presented himself, convincingly, as a skinny, Brooklyn-bred, stickball-playing warrior for middle-class New Yorkers—was still hammering the same theme, telling reporters that New York City “seems controlled by the elite and the powerful.”

The message, that working people trying to raise families were having an inordinately hard time in Michael Bloomberg’s New York, was a potent one.

Then Mr. Weiner disappeared, taking with him all hope of forcing the mayor into a vigorous debate about middle-class issues.

He complained, in a New York Times op-ed explaining a decision to abort his candidacy, about the ability of “billionaires to swamp middle-class candidates” with paid advertising. And that was that. (He declined to be interviewed for this article.)

Mr. Weiner’s prediction has played out with chilling precision.

In the campaign, we now have likable, unintimidating Comptroller Bill Thompson, who’s lumbering toward an almost certain primary victory on Sept. 15 over Councilman Tony Avella. He has barely induced the mayor’s high-priced campaign machine to acknowledge his existence, let alone to engage in a substantive debate about housing, and transportation, and general affordability.

Mr. Thompson has pointed out, almost pleadingly, that the mayor’s attention to explicitly middle-class issues is a new development, but he has gained little traction. More remarkably, Mr. Thompson—son of a judge, born and raised in Bedford-Stuyvesant, career public servant—has been unable to prevent the free-spending mayor from portraying himself as the middle-class candidate in the race.

At the moment, New Yorkers are watching a new campaign ad for Mr. Bloomberg currently in heavy rotation on seemingly every television channel, depicting a mayor who works for the “benefit of middle-class families” just like the one he comes from.

“The middle-class issue is clearly his greatest vulnerability,” said Jonathan Bowles, the director of the Center for an Urban Future and the co-author of the February study “Reviving the Middle Class Dream in NYC.” “You can grasp that just by looking at his campaign materials. He has become the middle-class candidate, which is kind of funny because he certainly hasn’t been the mayor of the middle class.”

 

WHILE THE BLOOMBERG dministration has introduced programs, many effective, to improve the lot of poor New Yorkers, and while the mayor has unapologetically articulated the point of view of rich people, the middle class has never quite been his thing.

Mr. Bloomberg’s first seven state of the city speeches, between 2002 and 2008, mentioned the middle class a total of five times. This year, with Mr. Weiner expected to run, he mentioned the middle class twice, once in relation to job creation to “pay good wages and strengthen the middle class” and then again in the context of building communities with affordable housing, character and parks that are “attractive to the middle class.”

The Bloomberg campaign’s communications director, Howard Wolfson, who played a major role in bouncing Mr. Weiner, said that the mayor’s new focus on the middle class was a result of the economic downturn.

“We were not in a worldwide recession until fairly recently, and a lot of the pain that people are feeling now is a consequence of that,” he said. “And it’s important to speak to that, there’s no question about it.”

Mr. Wolfson said he didn’t know what the race would have been like if Mr. Weiner had been the opponent. Of Mr. Thompson’s campaign, he said, coolly, “I think a lot of the criticism from the comptroller has been fairly predictable.”

Unhindered by any effective criticism, Mr. Wolfson and his colleagues have sought to build the mayor’s middle-class bona fides by placing him in a series of middle-class settings.

They have had him go on a “Five Borough Better Transit Tour”; promote his “Five Borough Economic Opportunity Plan”; and visit campaign offices in the outer boroughs. Mr. Bloomberg has spoken passionately and advertised comprehensively about how progress in city schools helps middle-class families, and about how he knows how tough it is to be a struggling entrepreneur.

On Aug. 24, Mr. Bloomberg’s motorcade passed by heavily trafficked loading docks, a Western Beef (“We Know the Neighborhood”), beer distributors and body-work stations, and over the sludge of Newton Creek, to visit a sanitation depot in Maspeth. As the smell of garbage wafted all around him, Mr. Bloomberg, dressed in a black suit and gold tie, inspected one of the city’s new fleet of lithium ion electronic Cooper Mini cars, which patrol streets seeking pot holes, graffiti and other quality-of-life blight.

He peered through the passenger side window, with a half-dozen photographers shooting him from the other side of the car, and made a halting motion toward the handle. He was literally trying to fit in.

“He’s going to get in,” one of the photographers said, with genuine surprise.

Mr. Bloomberg descended into the bucket seat as if it were a tub of cold water and, running his fingers over the steering wheel, his cuff links flashing, declared, “Pretty fancy.”

After the event, Deputy Mayor Kevin Sheekey, the mayor’s political right hand, took one of the electric cars out for a spin. (“Zero to sixty in eight seconds!” he said.) Mayoral spokesman Stu Loeser took another.

In the lot behind the depot, Donald Bub a 46-year-old Freon specialist and registered Democrat who had just arrived to work and was taking tools out of his jeep, said that Mr. Bloomberg was all right by him.

“He’s trying to help,” said Mr. Bub.

He said he understood that a lot of the promises Bloomberg has recently made owed their origin to the election season. “But if he can straighten out the economy, that’s good for the middle class,” he said. “Plus, I’d rather have him than someone I don’t know.”

 

ON SEPT. 3, Mr. Bloomberg’s SUV drove past miles of deer crossings to Arthur Kill Road, the last exit in New York on the southern tip of Staten Island, to march in a homecoming for the team of local middle-schoolers who reached the semifinals of the Little League World Series.

As he took off his suit jacket to march behind the police band playing “Stars and Stripes Forever” among kids wearing uniforms that read Pizzo, Rapaglia, Morisano, Zarrella and Vitale, a 61-year-old retired court officer from Tottenville named Harold Jones watched disapprovingly from a lawn chair on the side of the street.

“His promises just fall on deaf ears with middle-class families here,” said Mr. Jones, who complained about the mayor’s increasing of property taxes and water bills. “He’s been rich for so long, he doesn’t understand us. He should give somebody else a shot, but I’m not crazy about Thompson.”

City Councilman Jimmy Oddo, marching a few feet behind the mayor, with a wooden baseball bat resting on his shoulder, said, “There was a lot of antipathy on Staten Island to his administration after the property tax votes. But look at him, when he comes here, he’s treated like a conquering hero.”

Actually, they treat him like an alien. But they have determined that he is an alien they must live with. At times, Mr. Bloomberg marched alone, and he looked absolutely flummoxed when Mr. Oddo pinched his stomach, approving of his weight loss.

“Four more years,” someone yelled from the sidewalk.

“Four more hours,” Mr. Bloomberg replied.

At the end of the parade route, Mr. Bloomberg and seemingly every official in Staten Island gathered around a stage raised above a remarkably manicured ball field.

The mayor listened to Staten Island Borough President James Molinaro say, “I’m telling you this, he’s a good friend of Staten Island. I shouldn’t say this, but let’s keep him there.”

At the podium, Mr. Bloomberg praised the bored-looking young ballplayers. He stepped down and chatted with former Congressman Vito Fossella.

“He’s out here practically every three days,” Mr. Fossella said afterward.

Apparently, in this election, that’s good enough.