The historical record suggests that Michael Bloomberg is going to spend his winter in front of a cold fireplace, bitterly counting the millions he wasted on a futile campaign for Mayor. Mr. Bloomberg is running as a Republican, and Republicans win the New York Mayoralty once every quarter-century or so. Rudolph Giuliani has fulfilled the
party’s quota until the election of 2017.
So Mr. Bloomberg ought to cancel those expensive commercials, fire those high-priced-did somebody say overpriced ?-consultants, and simply go through the motions until Election Day. Why bother?
Then again, why not? There’s a chance that history is, in fact, bunk, as Henry Ford used to say. New York in 2001 is not the New York of Fiorello LaGuardia in 1933, of John Lindsay in 1965, or even of Rudolph Giuliani in 1993, to name the only three Republican Mayors of the 20th century. New York in 2001 is a city of diverse voting blocs, new power dynamics and a crumbling political infrastructure. The very fact that Mr. Bloomberg is a major-party contender for the Mayoralty despite his complete lack of political experience tells you something about the way the city has changed.
As recently as 1989, millionaire businessman Ronald Lauder became a civic laughingstock when he challenged Mr. Giuliani for the Republican Mayoral nomination. He lost, of course. Mr. Bloomberg, on the other hand, wiped the floor with a veteran of New York politics, Herman Badillo, in this year’s Republican primary. Mr. Bloomberg’s proud assertion that he is not a politician would have been suicidal in the not-so-distant past. This year, the theme has resonance.
So why not run, and run to win? Assuming that the Democratic primary results stand despite the appalling incompetence of the Board of Elections-yet another reason, perhaps, to elect a Mayor willing to shake up the system- Mr. Bloomberg will face a damaged Mark Green in the general election in three weeks. It is, incidentally, the first-ever genuine Mayoral contest between two Jewish New Yorkers. Republicans nominated State Senator Roy Goodman and Conservatives chose radio host Barry Farber in 1977, but they had no chance of winning. Mr. Green is an appealing candidate on many levels, but the bitter primary runoff battle with Bronx Borough President Fernando Ferrer ended (or maybe hasn’t ended) with recriminations on both sides. Some of Mr. Ferrer’s most important allies, including hospital-workers’ union president Dennis Rivera and U.S. Representative Charles Rangel, are making a show of meeting with Mr. Bloomberg rather than automatically transferring their allegiance to Mr. Green.
A lot has to happen if Mr. Bloomberg is going to beat Mr. Green. But it would be a mistake to conclude that the only mystery of this campaign season is the color of the drapes Mr. Green will choose for Gracie Mansion.
Mr. Green’s ascension, after all, ought to prove that the electorate is unpredictable. A year ago, few insiders gave Mr. Green much of a chance in the four-candidate Democratic field. Known as a critic, not an administrator, Mr. Green was considered a quixotic campaigner. He defied expectations, and even another bit of New York history: Republican Mayors, it is said, always are succeeded by Democratic-machine candidates. LaGuardia gave way to William O’Dwyer, a Tammany man. Lindsay was succeeded by Abe Beame, a product of the Brooklyn clubhouse. Precedent suggested that Mr. Green-an outsider even in his own party-was doomed in a field made up of Alan Hevesi and Peter Vallone, men who cut their teeth in the Queens clubhouses, and Mr. Ferrer, who had the support of the Bronx machine.
But Mr. Green prevailed, meaning that a reform Democrat and not a clubhouse veteran has emerged after eight years of Republican rule. History has been turned on its head.
So, in such a volatile moment, Mr. Bloomberg might be able to write a little history of his own. If Mr. Giuliani aggressively campaigns by his side and lashes into Mr. Green, Mr. Bloomberg could stand a chance of winning, say, 55 percent of the white vote citywide. (Mr. Giuliani won 76 percent of the white vote in 1997 against Ruth Messinger.) Mr. Green would then not only have to win a huge majority of the African-American and Latino vote- Mr. Ferrer’s constituency-but he would have to make sure that they turned out in big numbers for a race in which there is no African-American or Latino candidate. That’s no small assignment, especially given the bitterness between Mr. Green and Mr. Ferrer, and now the confusion over whether votes were counted fairly in the runoff. Black turnout as a percentage of the overall vote fell from 28 percent in 1993, when David Dinkins was running for a second term, to 21 percent in 1997, when there was no black candidate for Mayor. (The white vote was 53 percent, the Latino vote 20 percent, with other groups making up the remainder.)
If Mr. Rivera’s meetings with Mr. Bloomberg result in an unprecedented endorsement of the Republican by the hospital workers’ union, Mr. Green would be gravely wounded. Mr. Bloomberg would stand a good chance of winning a third or more of the Latino vote. (Mr. Giuliani took 43 percent of Latinos in 1997.)
Geographically, Mr. Bloomberg has a natural constituency on Staten Island, the city’s most conservative borough, but also among the Giuliani Democrats of Manhattan, who are worried that a Green victory would mean a return to the short-lived but terrible era of Mr. Dinkins. The 1997 election returns showed that a Republican who emphasizes quality-of-life issues can retain the old silk-stocking Republicans of the East Side while making substantial inroads among liberals on the Upper West Side. Mr. Giuliani trounced Ms. Messinger, the Manhattan borough president, in her home borough in 1997, taking 160,000 votes to her 149,000. If Mr. Bloomberg can aim for 55 percent of the combined Staten Island–Manhattan vote (Mr. Giuliani had about 65 percent of that vote in 1997), make a major effort in Queens-a borough that Mr. Giuliani won by more than 100,000 votes in ’97-and cut into his opponent’s strength in Brooklyn and the Bronx, he will prove a serious threat to Mr. Green.
It will take lots of money and plenty of savvy. Mr. Bloomberg has the first part covered. The next three weeks will reveal a great deal about the latter.