He has been close. President Obama has traveled to New Jersey to stump for Governor Jon Corzine, and Vice President Joe Biden has appeared in the Garden State on behalf of the incumbent. Despite being close enough to hit the island of Manhattan with a rock, the President has avoided visiting the Big Apple where Comptroller Bill Thompson, a longtime Democratic Party partisan, is seeking to unseat billionaire Mayor Michael Bloomberg. Despite Thompson’s embrace of the President, there have been no hugs in return from the White House. In fact, in some respect, Comptroller Thompson has found himself the odd man out, while President Obama has gone out of his way to speak kindly about the mayor.
Oh, and lest we forget, Bill Thompson is an African-American.
It is a source of confusion and some growing resentment that the nation’s first Black President has not formally endorsed a Black candidate for mayor in the nation’s largest city. For many Black New Yorkers the chance to elect another Black mayor would be redemption for the defeat of David Dinkins, the city’s first Black mayor, at the hands of Rudolph Giuliani. In fact, Giuliani stumped for Mayor Bloomberg over the weekend and rekindled the racial tensions that he was famous for stoking during his years in office. Bloomberg, for his part, has attempted to play the role of the post-partisan mayor but has conveniently saddled up to the Republican and conservative line when convenient.
Bill Thompson began his quest as the quintessential underdog. He was taking on a two-term incumbent, a billionaire mayor who grew so enamored with the office that he pushed for the overturn of term limits, that he supported, to allow himself another run for re-election. While Thompson has opted for the public campaign finance system, Mayor Bloomberg has opted out and spent a sum that would make most gubernatorial candidates envious. Despite the tremendous odds against him, Thompson has swam against the tide and finds himself much closer to the mayor than anyone would have thought he would be at this stage of the contest. The mayor has also irritated many voters his push to eliminate term limits despite two public votes supporting the measure. For many voters, his turnabout on term limits is representative of what many view as his tendency to make up the rules of the game along the way, and willingness to spend freely to do so.
Despite his obvious disadvantage, Comptroller Thompson has forged ahead and polls indicate the race is not the blow out many predicted. The Democrat has drawn the support of the party establishment, including Governor David Paterson and the Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, former Mayor David Dinkins, as well as figures such as Rev. Al Sharpton. In addition, several unions, including DC37, the municipal employees union, and two prominent newspapers, The Amsterdam News and El Diario, have endorsed Thompson. The difference between Thompson’s candidacy and that of previous opponents of Mayor Bloomberg is that the Comptroller has actually amassed a fairly united front against the mayor. In a city where registered Democratic voters still outnumber Republicans, the Comptroller cannot be counted out in a year where there is noticeable dissatisfaction with the incumbent.
Still, Bill Thompson is receiving scant support from President Obama. The President has been effusive in his praise of New Jersey’s Democratic governor, appearing at a rally and filming an advertisement on behalf of the former Wall Street executive. Aside from a passing expression of support from White House press secretary Robert Gibbs, there has been little indication of Mr. Obama actively engaged on behalf of the Democratic mayoral nominee in New York City. In fact, he has also managed to slight New York’s first Black governor while his support of the Black mayoral candidate has been underwhelming. It is perplexing given that New York’s Democratic politics could use a boost. Governor Paterson’s public approval ratings have been abysmal due to some missteps on his part and the impact of the recession on the Empire State. Democrats in the State Senate were the targets of a bizarre coup that overturned their historic majority and left many observers wondering whether business could get done in the state capital. The New York City mayoral race is one of the few current bright spots where the party at least has a fighting chance for success.
The President’s absence from the New York City mayoral campaign leaves many Blacks scratching their heads and some pondering whether Mr. Obama will ever align himself publicly with concerns relevant to his own community. The cold shoulder he received by many during his recent trip to New Orleans could be a harbinger of difficult days ahead between this President and the Black electorate. While he remains enormously popular, at some point there will be calls for reciprocity by Blacks who are displeased with the pace of change under his leadership. New York City is about the safest terrain this President can travel given its large Black population, Democratic majority and the party’s congressional delegation. Even with the troubles of the Governor and the ethics investigation of House Ways and Means Chairman Rep. Charles B. Rangel of Harlem, the President can risk investing a modicum of political capital and still have much to spare. By going into hiding on the city’s Democratic nominee, the President is telegraphing a message that many Blacks find disturbing and may grow resentful if Thompson were to lose an election where Mr. Obama, and his political operation, could have made a critical difference. For some it recalls how former state Comptroller Carl McCall was abandoned by the Democratic national Committee during his run for governor. Then, as in now, there appeared to be little enthusiasm on the part of the national party apparatus for a Black candidate in the Empire State.