The recent debates among the four Democratic Mayoral candidates proved without question that the real battle is not about who will finish first, but who will finish second.
Former Bronx Borough President Fernando Ferrer leads the pack, and there seems little chance that any of the other three candidates—City Council Speaker Gifford Miller, U.S. Representative Anthony Weiner and Manhattan Borough President C. Virginia Fields—will overtake Mr. Ferrer by Primary Day, Sept. 13.
But that doesn’t mean the game is over, and that’s why the battle for second place is so important.
Since the early 1970’s, the first-place finisher in a primary for citywide office must win at least 40 percent of the vote. If the “winner” fails to reach that threshold, the top two finishers compete again in a special runoff election, usually held about two weeks after the primary. In 2001, remember, Mr. Ferrer was the surprise first-place finisher in that year’s Democratic primary, which was postponed after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11. But Mr. Ferrer didn’t receive the needed 40 percent to declare victory, leading to a runoff with Mark Green. Mr. Green won the runoff, but lost to Michael Bloomberg in the general election.
With four candidates in this year’s race, there’s a strong possibility that Democrats again will have to trudge to the polls twice to pick a nominee. That’s why the three also-rans are campaigning so hard to achieve some separation from the other two. It’s not about beating Mr. Ferrer on Primary Day; it’s about living to fight another day.
Mr. Weiner, Ms. Fields and Mr. Miller can take some solace in recent history. Until 2001, Mayoral runoffs went to the first-place finisher on Primary Day. For example, Abe Beame finished first in the 1973 primary and went on to trounce second-place finisher Herman Badillo in the city’s first runoff election. Four years later, Ed Koch finished first in the 1977 primary with just 20 percent of the vote and then defeated Mario Cuomo, the second-place finisher, by 10 points. Mr. Green defied that pattern in 2001 by leaping past Mr. Ferrer in the runoff after finishing second in the primary.
Strategists for the three second-tier candidates hope that the dynamics of the campaign will change in a straight, one-on-one battle with Mr. Ferrer. The numbers will give them reason for hope. After all, when a primary election leads to a runoff, that means the first-place finisher couldn’t muster even 40 percent of the vote. So at least 60 percent of the primary voters will have cast their ballots for somebody other than the first-place finisher—not exactly a mandate.
Mr. Ferrer, of course, would like to avoid a runoff, because he knows anything can happen in a one-on-one campaign. He came out of the 2001 primary with momentum, but he couldn’t capitalize on it, losing to Mr. Green in a bitter campaign that still haunts the city’s Democrats.
So, while Mr. Miller, Ms. Fields and Ms. Weiner hold out hope for a repeat of 2001—when the second-place finisher wound up winning the runoff—they’d better be careful about what they wish for. Winning the runoff, after all, didn’t do much for Mr. Green’s career.
Welcome Back, Mr. Weld
Until last week, New York Republicans had a big problem on their hands: Call it the Pataki Succession.
Actually, call it the Lack of a Pataki Succession.
Like his predecessor, Mario Cuomo, George Pataki didn’t groom anybody to take his place during his three terms in office. Unlike Mr. Cuomo, of course, Mr. Pataki wisely decided against trying for a fourth term. But that decision left his party in disarray, with no clear heir as the 2006 elections approach.
Enter the former governor of Massachusetts, William Weld. Now back in his native New York, Mr. Weld has announced that he will try to become the first person since Sam Houston to govern two states. (Houston had been governor of Tennessee before becoming governor of Texas on the eve of the Civil War.)
Mr. Weld’s candidacy is a positive development for a party that seems to have lost its way, despite having held the Governor’s office since 1995. Its candidate for the U.S. Senate last year, the little-known Howard Mills, was buried by Senator Charles Schumer. Its “rising star” is Jeanine Pirro, a candidate with enough baggage to fill the cargo hold of a 747. Until Mr. Weld’s announcement, no well-known Republican had stepped forward in the race to succeed Mr. Pataki.
Without a prominent candidate to challenge Democratic nominee-presumptive Eliot Spitzer, the Republican Party faced a catastrophe next year. At the very least, Mr. Weld gives the party some badly needed credibility at a critical moment. For that, the party and New York’s electorate ought to be grateful.
New York’s Health Czar
The job of city health commissioner hasn’t exactly been high-profile in recent years. Most New Yorkers could tell you the name of the police commissioner or the schools chancellor, and perhaps even a top deputy mayor. But few could identify the health commissioner, and for understandable reasons: They didn’t do much, at least not publicly.
Then Mayor Michael Bloomberg appointed Dr. Thomas Frieden to the post. Since becoming health commissioner in January 2002, Dr. Frieden has been one of the Mayor’s most prominent and most public advisors. Through it all, he has tried to draw attention not to himself, but to his mission—preserving and improving public health in New York.
He helped frame the debate over the Mayor’s welcome ban on smoking in bars and restaurants; encouraged New Yorkers to be tested for H.I.V.; and recently launched a campaign against the use of trans fats in the city’s restaurants. All the while, he has presided over the city’s vast Health Department, with its 6,000 employees.
It is to the Mayor’s credit that he chose a passionate and outspoken physician like Dr. Frieden to serve as health commissioner. It is to Dr. Frieden’s credit that he realized the opportunity he had to make a difference, and has made the most of it.