City Council Speaker and mayoral hopeful Christine Quinn speaks during an event in New York, Wednesday, August 14, 2013. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)
The editors of The New York Times wanted everyone to read their endorsement of Christine Quinn for the Democratic nomination for mayor of the nation’s largest city.
They ran their endorsement of the current speaker of the New York City Council in the most-read Sunday editions of the paper.
But the candidates whom the Times passed over may not mind if voters read the Times endorsement of Quinn.
In a city that almost rejected Mayor Michael Bloomberg in 2009, in a city where the mayor’s policies (on issues ranging from sick leave to stop-and-frisk policing) have been overturned by the city council, in a city where there is good reason to believe that voters have grown weary of the outgoing mayor, the Times pegged Quinn as “a candidate who is ready to carry on at least as well as he did.”
Times editors, who give every indication that they would endorse Bloomberg for a fourth term if they could, hail Quinn as “a forceful counterpart to Mr. Bloomberg.”
“Mr. Bloomberg has raised expectations that hard decisions should be made on the merits—that the city needs a mayor who is willing to say no,” argues the Times. “More than with the other candidates, that description fits Ms. Quinn.”
So, in a Democratic primary, the Times encourages voters to back the candidate who is most like a term-limited former Republican who was last re-elected as an independent.
Translation: for New York Democrats who are satisfied with the status quo, there’s a way to keep on keeping on.
The Times admits that “two opponents—Bill de Blasio, the public advocate, and William Thompson Jr., former comptroller—offer powerful arguments on their own behalf.” But, the paper adds, “Ms. Quinn inspires the most confidence that she would be the right mayor for the inevitable times when hope and idealism collide with the challenge of getting something done.”
The argument against de Blasio (who received The Nation’s endorsement) is that he is just a bit too noble.
“Mr. de Blasio has been the most forceful and eloquent of the Democrats in arguing that New York needs to reset its priorities in favor of the middle class, the struggling and the poor,” writes the Times. “His stature has grown as his message has taken root—voters leery of stark and growing inequalities have embraced his message of ‘two cities.’ He has ennobled the campaign conversation by insisting, correctly, that expanding early education is vital to securing the city’s future.”
That reads like the opening of a ringing endorsement.
But then, the Times offers a corrective: “Mr. de Blasio’s most ambitious plans—like a powerful new state-city partnership to make forever-failing city hospitals financially viable, or to pay for universal prekindergarten and after-school programs through a new tax on the richest New Yorkers—need support in the State Capitol, and look like legislative long shots. Once a Mayor de Blasio saw his boldest ideas smashed on the rocks of Albany, then what?”
So, by the reasoning of the Times, if it is difficult to do the right thing, the candidate who proposes to do the right thing must be rejected.
But the calculus regarding Thompson has its own oddness.
“Mr. Thompson, meanwhile, who nearly defeated Mr. Bloomberg four years ago, has run a thoughtful campaign grounded on the insights he gained in important elective and appointed posts in New York City,” writes the Times. “A former president of the old Board of Education, Mr. Thompson argues that he is the best candidate to fix the city schools, but his close ties to the United Federation of Teachers, not always a friend of needed reforms, give us pause. The teachers’ union is one of the municipal unions itching for retroactive pay raises in contracts that expired under Mr. Bloomberg and need renegotiating.”
So candidates with “close ties” to education unions are out, as are those who might be a tad too inclined to maintain respectful relations with municipal unions.
But Democratic primary voters are generally fans of teachers and unions.
They have a soft spot for proposals, like the one de Blasio’s been advancing, to make the wealthiest New Yorkers pay more taxes.
New York Democrats have even been known to display a taste for hope and idealism.
Does this mean that the Times endorsement is irrelevant—like all those newspaper endorsements of John Huntsman in the 2012 Republican presidential race?
Newspapers are in dramatic decline; a decline so serious that even the Koch brothers are declining to buy them. But that does not mean that still reasonably well-circulated urban dailies cannot influence the political processes of the communities from which they take their names. And nowhere is this more true than in crowded contests where candidates may not be entirely distinct from one another.
There is little evidence to suggest that voters follow the dictates of daily papers in high-profile races featuring clear partisan or ideological choices. It’s hard to imagine, for instance, that there were all that many Americans who needed editorial counsel on how to choose between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney. But when there is a multi-candidate field in a partisan primary—as there is with this year’s seven-candidate race for the Democratic nod in New York—candidates covet the endorsements of papers that are generally trusted and broadly read by potential primary voters.
That’s certainly the case with the Times endorsement.
Times readers tend to vote. And even if they don’t take the advice of the paper in every contest, there is every reason to expect that they will at least review the paper’s endorsements in major contests.
So an endorsement from the Times matters.
The paper has provided a boost for Quinn at a point when it was starting to look like the advantages that made the council speaker the race’s initial front-runner might not be sufficient to assure that she would be one of the two top finishers in the city’s September 10 Democratic primary. (If no candidate wins 40 percent of the vote that day, the top two finishers compete in an October 1 Democratic runoff, after which the winner faces partisan competition in the November 5 general election.)
The Times has backed plenty of losers for mayor. But when it backs a credible contender with a solid campaign organization, it usually benefits the chosen candidate. As such, Quinn’s chances of getting into the runoff, which were reasonably good, are stronger now.
Quinn, as the candidate identified with Bloomberg and the outgoing mayor’s policies, is not necessarily in the best position in a one-on-one Democratic test that pits her against a contender more clearly identified as supportive of teachers, unions and progressive ideals.
The Times may, unintentionally, have framed the fall contest. The paper’s editors are right that there will be “inevitable times when hope and idealism collide with the challenge of getting something done.” Quinn is identified by the paper that backs her as the choice for voters who are willing to surrender some hope and idealism. It is likely that she will face a runoff opponent who is more clearly identified with the progressive faith that appeals to grassroots Democrats.
Almost fifty years ago, the great New York newspaper columnist Murray Kempton surveyed a crowded field of mayoral contenders and wrote of a young liberal Republican named John Lindsay: ”He is fresh and everyone else is tired.” the Times shared Kempton’s view and enthusiastically backed Lindsay as an “authentic progressive” and “the only candidate who offers a convincing prospect for change for the better.”
The voters agreed, electing Lindsay as a change agent.
After all these years, the assessments of Lindsay remain mixed.
But there is no debating the reality that there are elections when New Yorkers opt for candidates who ennoble races by proposing ambitious plans and bold ideas, and by offering the convincing prospect of change for the better. If this is such a year, the Times may well have made the best argument for nominating someone other than Christine Quinn as the Democratic standard bearer.