November 6, 2003
The Smart Money Beats Bloomberg's Money
By MICHAEL COOPER
Ever since his come-from-way-behind election victory in 2001, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg has taken a special delight in proving what he calls "the smart money" wrong.
He has been known to do so, from time to time. He won control of the city's school system, a goal that eluded several predecessors. Crime continues to drop in post-Giuliani New York, despite the doubters. The mayor negotiated a deal worth hundreds of millions of dollars in back rent for the city's airports that many fiscal experts thought might never come. There was even that $50 bet he placed at the Kentucky Derby this year on a long shot from New York. It won at 12 to 1, winning him $600.
But he proved the smart money right in spectacular fashion on Tuesday when his two-year quest to persuade the overwhelmingly Democratic voters of New York City to ban political primaries in local races and make it optional for candidates to list their parties on the ballot was defeated at the ballot, 70 percent to 30 percent.
Mr. Bloomberg tried to put the best face yesterday on the landslide loss, declaring himself "a winner" for simply putting the issue before the voters, and warning his political opponents not to read its resounding defeat as a sign of his weakness.
"I suppose you're better off losing 70-30 than losing by one vote," the mayor said yesterday. "If it was one vote, you'd always say, `Oh, if I'd made that one more call, I could have carried it.' In this case I thought that we would do better. I actually had hopes that it would pass, because I thought it was the right thing to do. But at this point, the public has spoken. Get over it. Let's get on with making this city better."
The proposal to end party primaries was one of Mr. Bloomberg's first campaign pledges, and he spent at least $2 million of his own money promoting it with mailings and prerecorded phone calls. Its defeat was like chum to many of the city's top Democrats, who are now circling Mr. Bloomberg with thoughts of challenging him in the 2005 election. One, Fernando Ferrer, the former Bronx borough president who ran for mayor unsuccessfully in 1997 and 2001, announced yesterday that he is forming a committee to explore another run for mayor in 2005.
Mr. Bloomberg had pushed the proposal on the grounds that it would have enfranchised the 1.3 million New York City voters who are not enrolled in the Democratic Party, and who therefore do not get to vote in the Democratic primaries that so often prove decisive in local races. But turnout in the off-year election was light, with less than 13 percent of the electorate voting on the measure. In the end, the proposal that was supposed to help more than a million voters drew only around 142,000 "yes" votes.
Some political analysts — and privately, some Democrats — speculated that the light turnout helped defeat the measure, because only the most devoted voters showed up. Those voters tend to be Democrats, and tend to vote in Democratic primaries.
The light turnout also magnified the importance of the get-out-the-vote operations that were mounted by Democrats, third parties like the Working Families Party, and labor unions. Assemblyman Brian M. McLaughlin, the president of the New York City Central Labor Council, estimated that labor had put 1,500 to 2,000 volunteers on the streets, hanging placards, handing out palm cards and in some cases going door-to-door to urge voters to vote "no."
The defeat of the measure dealt a serious political humiliation to the mayor. But Mr. Bloomberg and his aides portrayed it as just another instance where they aimed high, against the odds, on something that the mayor believes in.
And some political analysts noted that Rudolph W. Giuliani lost a battle or two over proposed changes to the City Charter, without suffering for it politically.
William Cunningham, the mayor's communications director, said that Mr. Bloomberg has long been interested in the idea of nonpartisan elections, and that the subject came up when the men first met to discuss Mr. Bloomberg's possible run for public office.
Mr. Cunningham said they knew all along that they had a tough fight ahead. "We sort of flew into the teeth of a howling wind here, no question about it," he said.
The lopsided loss led to a round of soul-searching and Wednesday-morning quarterbacking in political circles. Some politicians and political analysts said that the biggest mistake was to put the question on the ballot in an off-year election.
Others faulted Mr. Bloomberg for his unilateral approach to trying to change the City Charter, which is like the city's constitution. The mayor failed to build much of a coalition to support his idea. And for political reasons, he had to keep the idea's strongest supporters, the Independence Party, and its founder, Lenora Fulani, at arm's length.
Then, although Mr. Bloomberg put the proposal forward as a good-government reform, the city's major civic groups all opposed it, as did the executive director of the New York City Campaign Finance Board.
Rachel Leon, the executive director of Common Cause New York, said that her group was open to the idea of nonpartisan elections, but that it had been turned off by the way the mayor went about trying to change the charter and the hybrid version of nonpartisan elections — which would allow people to list party affiliations — that the mayor's Charter Revision Commission ultimately agreed to as a compromise.
"Certainly from the good-government groups' perspective, the process doomed it," she said.
And several Democrats said that this election proved that the mayor's money could be a double-edged sword. Although the nearly $75 million he spent getting elected in 2001 certainly helped him, the more than $2 million that he spent promoting the change in the charter irked some voters. And Democrats seized on it early on as a possible Achilles' heel, trying to shame him into not spending.
Mr. Cunningham said that he had no interest in second-guessing the campaign. "Everybody is Alexander the Great in hindsight," he said.
And the mayor declared victory, even in defeat. "I was a big winner yesterday," he said. "I fulfilled a campaign promise of bringing before the voters something that is very important to this city."
"I think yesterday, you can chalk it up as a success, for me personally," he said.
Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company