Battle for the Black Votes: Democratic Mayoral Hopefuls Press Their Case

thompson in flatbush

Brownsville—overwhelmingly poor, black and churchgoing—would seem like an incongruous place for Anthony Weiner to mount his comeback attempt, but the Brooklyn neighborhood was an outpost of goodwill for the mayoral candidate last week.

At a local senior center, the wiry ex-congressman dished out sugar cookies while gabbing about the foibles of raising a young son. The next day, it was the same routine at another nearby senior facility. Not discussed, unless reporters asked, was the latest sexting scandal that sunk Mr. Weiner’s mayoral campaign in the polls.

“I like Mr. Weiner,” said Keith Floyd, a chef at the Brownsville center. “I think he deserves a chance. Everybody makes mistakes in their life.”

Anthony Weiner in Brownsville.

Anthony Weiner in Brownsville.

“There’s uncounted congressmen that have done the same thing. He just got caught. … I think he’s more down-to-earth. I believe he’s totally genuine.”

Mr. Weiner’s redemption narrative is one element of the mad scramble for the black vote in the Democratic mayoral primary, in which blacks may constitute as much as 30 percent of the electorate. The increasing complexity of the 21st-century black vote in the city, where new immigrant classes mingle with African-Americans, makes the final result anyone’s guess.

There is debate among political observers about whether Bill Thompson, the lone black candidate in the race for Gracie Mansion, has a lock on the majority of black votes—especially in a city that has already witnessed the ascension of a black mayor, in a state that has had its first black governor and at a time when President Barack Obama is in the White House.

Derided by some critics as too milquetoast, Mr. Thompson occupies an unpredictable space. Will the black vote be unified in Mr. Thompson’s favor or will his rivals succeed in their efforts to peel off significant slices? David Dinkins scored 9 out of 10 black voters in his 1989 run against Mayor Ed Koch and Mr. Thompson received a strong majority of black voters in his 2009 bid against Mayor Michael Bloomberg, but those elections were simple one-versus-one affairs.

Polling data, notoriously fickle in local Democratic primaries, has shown Mr. Thompson holds a significant but not decisive advantage, opening the door for other candidates in the crucial 25 to 30 percent of the Democratic electorate that they all are partially pinning their hopes on. In a July 29 Quinnipiac poll of Democratic voters likely to vote in the primary, Mr. Weiner led the black vote with 24 points, followed by Mr. Thompson at 22 points and Council Speaker Christine Quinn with 21. (A poll yesterday showed black support for Mr. Weiner had dropped while Mr. Thompson was up, but the firm’s pollster could not account for why Mr. Weiner’s overall standing remained the same.)

Perhaps recognizing that the black vote was not a given, Mr. Thompson showed up at a Brooklyn church in late July and delivered his most pointed remarks to date on race, arguing that Florida teen Trayvon Martin was killed simply “because he was black.” Known for an otherwise cautious approach on racial issues, Mr. Thompson also delivered a soaring denunciation of stop-and-frisk policies, linking the NYPD to Mr. Martin’s killer, which seemed to frame his understated candidacy in a new light, at least momentarily.

Mr. Thompson’s campaign declares its confidence he will dominate the black vote. “I don’t have any doubt that as black and Latino voters across the city learn more about Bill’s background and positions in this race, they will support him,” top Thompson strategist Jonathan Prince told Politicker. “The reason people talk about identity politics is not as simplistic as it gets described. It’s not simply like ‘I support you because you’re the same as me.’ What it really means is ‘You come from a similar experience, you come from a similar background, you have a similar set of values and understand the challenges I face.’”

Added Mr. Prince: “That is true for Bill Thompson and black and Latino communities in this race.”

Changes in the electorate complicate the picture, however. Beyond the traditional African-American power bases in Harlem (now further eroding through gentrification) and central Brooklyn (not simply African-American any longer) are new ethnic enclaves sprouting up across the city. In eastern Brooklyn, Queens, Staten Island and the Bronx, Caribbean and African immigrants proliferate, not just fourth- or fifth-generation descendants of the Great Migration.

“New York City has become so diverse now, you can no longer just call the black vote ‘the black vote,’” political consultant Lupe Todd told Politicker. “For example, take myself. I’m black. I’m Panamanian. I’m a West Indian that speaks Spanish. I was not born in this country. If you’re talking about the ‘black vote’ and looking to reach out to me, there are many avenues one could use to reach out to me to gain my support.”

Bill de Blasio talks to a voter outside of the Utica Avenue subway stop.

Bill de Blasio talks to a voter outside of the Utica Avenue subway stop.

Each of Mr. Thompson’s strongest Democratic rivals, with varying degrees of legitimacy, can claim significant ties to communities that constitute the black vote. Public Advocate Bill de Blasio, who hopes to capture the Caribbean-American vote in particular, has a black wife and influential endorsements in the community. Comptroller John Liu, who was born in Taiwan and is the most vociferous lefty voice on controversial NYPD policies, is known for his rapport with black and immigrant voters, despite poll numbers that say otherwise.

Mr. Liu, consistently a fifth place finisher in the polls, remains a deceptively magnetic presence in the black community. When Mr. Liu rose to speak in a cramped public housing community room on a July night in Harlem,for example, he drew more applause than any other Democrat, including Mr. Thompson. An unabashed populist and perhaps Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s most indefatigable critic, Mr. Liu managed, in a spiel about fixing the New York City Housing Authority, to segue into a jab against stop-and-frisk, drawng cheers. Later that night, Ms. Quinn addressed the crowd, but she met with a more frosty reception–her closeness to Mr. Bloomberg appearing to have alienated some minority voters.

Further hampering his shoo-in status, Mr. Thompson, though lately critical of stop-and-frisk policies, does not back the Community Safety Act, a pair of City Council bills that would create an inspector general for the NYPD and expand the categories of people protected against racial profiling. (Mr. Bloomberg vetoed the bills in July.)  Mr. de Blasio, on the other hand, is a prominent C.S.A. backer, offering this as a reason why black voters should support him.

“It comes down to what you believe in,” Mr. de Blasio said at a recent campaign stop on Utica Avenue in Bedford-Stuyvesant.

The wild card—in every definition of wild—is still Mr. Weiner. While white voters, according to polling data, have become increasingly alienated by his candidacy, Mr. Weiner has been trying to keep his black base intact. At a canvassing event in Harlem last week, however, Mr. Weiner claimed he has not plotted any electoral strategy for the community, even as he schedules event after event in predominantly black neighborhoods.

“I don’t pay a lot of attention to that kind of a thing,” he told Politicker.

Battle for the Black Votes: Democratic Mayoral Hopefuls Press Their Case