Democratic mayoral candidates, from left to right: Bill de Blasio, John Liu, Christine Quinn and Bill Thompson. (AP Images)
On election night in 2009, I ran into a prominent New York City progressive political operative. I asked him if he thought the Democrat running for mayor, William Thompson, stood any chance against two-term incumbent Michael Bloomberg. He gave me a dismissive smirk. “Come on,” he said. “Bloomberg’s got every political consultant in town. Who’s Bill Thompson got?” I named Thompson’s campaign manager. “Yeah,” the operative said. “Him against the world. Not a fair fight.”
Two hours later at Thompson’s headquarters, when early returns showed the Democrat running neck and neck with or even slightly ahead of Bloomberg, I saw the same progressive operative in a corner texting furiously in an apparent mixture of excitement and panic—seemingly both thrilled and terrified that New York might elect a candidate he agreed with but had counted out.
In the end, of course, Bloomberg won, and Thompson became the fifth consecutive Democrat to lose the mayoralty in a city where his party enjoys a six-to-one registration advantage.
Now New York is preparing to vote for mayor again, and polls suggest that Democrats have a powerful advantage. But in more than one recent mayoral race, progressives have seen early optimism vanish by Election Day. And a Democratic win doesn’t guarantee a progressive victory: the Democrat now leading the pack is Christine Quinn, who as speaker of the City Council largely cooperated with the centrist Bloomberg administration.
Thus, the 2013 race frames the same question that’s been asked after every mayoral campaign since 1993, and all but one since 1977: Why, in such a famously progressive place as New York City, is it so hard to elect a progressive mayor?
* * *
Gracie Mansion’s Ghosts
The old adage has it that there’s no Democratic or Republican way to take out the garbage. There is, however, a clear difference in how progressives and conservatives take out the trash—who should take it out, how much they should be compensated for it, where to send the garbage, how to get it there, and who should pay for the whole operation. Simply put, those who believe that a primary responsibility of government is to try to make the world a more just place—to help those with less power against those with a lot—are progressives, and New York City used to elect them as mayors.
Modern New York City politics begins in 1933 with the election of Fiorello La Guardia, a progressive Republican who built low-income housing, schools and hospitals and helped shape the urban aspects of the New Deal. He was elected to three terms. After two subsequent managerial mayors, Robert Wagner Jr.—far from a pure progressive, but a mayor who built housing for the poor and incorporated minorities into the civil service—served for twelve years.
Then came John Lindsay, a liberal Republican (he later switched parties) who sought racial harmony and better conditions for the poor, but took his hits for shaky management and alienating working-class whites. Lindsay left office widely regarded as a failure—an impression that hardened when budget practices linked to him were blamed for the city’s near bankruptcy. The fiscal crisis consumed Lindsay’s successor, Abraham Beame, dooming his 1977 re-election bid.