Is the 2009 Democratic Primary Over?

One of the casualties of Michael Bloomberg’s move to run for a third term, it seems, is next year’s Democratic primary.

Yes, it’s still 11 months away, and the mayor has only just finished announcing his intention to overturn term limits, but the prospect of Mr. Bloomberg—and his billions of dollars—running again may have ended the contest before it even took shape.

Council Speaker Christine Quinn, a Bloomberg ally who was the favorite of much of the city’s business establishment, reacted immediately by announcing that she would abandon a planned run if the mayor went for reelection.

City Comptroller Bill Thompson, the only minority candidate in the prospective Democratic field, says that he’s running, but doesn’t sound incredibly convincing. For now, his game plan consists entirely of trying to block the mayor from running by casting public doubt on the idea of changing term limits without a referendum.

“Three of the five counties are covered by the voting rights act,” said Mr. Thompson, when asked about how term limits affects next year’s Democratic primary. “From that point of view, does it require pre-clearance” from the federal Department of Justice, he said.

“Again, it’s how does it play with the public. How angry does the public get?” Mr. Thompson said. 

In an interview with The Observer, Mr. Thompson said, “It’s my intention to run against Mike.” He quickly added, “It’s my intention to run for mayor, let me put it that way.”

An aide to Mr. Thompson said his public statements to the media, and in private conversations with supporters, are consistent, but this aide also acknowledged that a number of announced city comptroller candidates are waiting for a more definitive answer from Mr. Thompson before going all-out with their own campaigns.

“No one believes Thompson stays in,” said George Arzt, a Democratic consultant. (Mr. Arzt, a former City Hall bureau chief for the New York Post and aide to Mayor Ed Koch, said that he had “spoken with” more than one potential mayoral campaign, but that he won’t work for any of them against Mr. Bloomberg if the mayor runs.)

That leaves Representative Anthony Weiner, who, like Mr. Thompson, is attempting to rally public opposition to the mayor’s attempt to change term limits, and City Councilman Tony Avella, an outspoken long shot.

Mr. Weiner has been most emphatic among the leading potential candidates about his intention to oppose Mr. Bloomberg, but much will depend on his ability to get the public to focus on the process by which this law change is unfolding. (By a vote in the Council, whose members would also benefit by the extension, rather than by a referendum, which is how the two-term law was enacted and then upheld in the 1990s.)

After speaking about the issue at a forum hosted by Al Sharpton in midtown this week, Mr. Weiner was asked by reporters if he could sustain a loss to Mr. Bloomberg next year and still be viewed as a viable mayoral candidate in the future.

“Boy, O.K.,” he said. “Let me count the hurdles you’re jumping over. First, you’re assuming that someone for whom it’s illegal to run is going to run. Then, you’re going to assume he’s going to beat me. Then you’re going to assume—what year is that?

“There’s a good chance in 2013 I’ll be running for reelection and Mike may come back. He may try to run against me. He has a long memory,” said Mr. Weiner.

It was an admirable show of bravado. But clearly, it’s a posture. It’s safe to assume that Mr. Weiner will be recalculating his position as the election gets closer, particularly if the term-limits fight comes and goes without Mr. Bloomberg—whose approval ratings remain extremely high—sustaining any serious damage.

“People do believe that, at least initially, Weiner will be in there, but if he sees he’s going to get crushed that he would back out, rather than suffer two different losses in two different elections,” said Mr. Arzt, referring to Mr. Weiner’s run for mayor in 2005 in which he narrowly missed making a runoff against the eventual Democratic nominee, Fernando Ferrer.

Consultant Jerry Skurnik was more hopeful about the chances of having some sort of primary contest, but only slightly: “The odds are two of the three will run, and that we’ll have a primary,” said Mr. Skurnik, referring to Mr. Thompson, Mr. Weiner and Mr. Avella. “But it’s possible that we won’t have a primary—that only one of them will run. I don’t know.”

Of course, there’s one more scenario—perhaps the least appealing of all for the Democrats: that Bloomberg, instead of destroying their primary, joins it.

Mr. Arzt said that an employee in his consulting firm already received a call as part of a telephone survey asking whether the employee would support Mr. Bloomberg if he ran as a Democrat in next year’s primary.

And Brooklyn Democratic Leader Vito Lopez, who one might expect to be rallying around his party’s beleaguered candidates right about now, and whose non-opposition the mayor would need if he chose to go that route, has already said that Mr. Bloomberg would be “almost unstoppable” if he were to run for another term.

“I haven’t spoken to anybody who said definitely one way or the other,” said another consultant, Joseph Mercurio, referring to the mayor’s potential challengers. “Everybody is preoccupied with this year’s race, and term limits. I don’t think anybody is telling the truth about what they’re doing anyway.”

apaybarah@observer.com Is the 2009 Democratic Primary Over?