New York’s Elections Mostly Blah, with a Little Chutzpah

By Michelle Chen Nov 05, 2009

The reaction of many New Yorkers to Tuesday’s election results was probably something along the lines of, "eh." Billionaire Michael Bloomberg predictably snared a third term as Mayor—hardly surprising, following his astronomical spending blitz and an unpopular (some say authoritarian) overturning of the city’s term-limits law. Democratic incumbents generally stayed put. Other victories had been all-but-sealed in last month’s Democratic primaries. But if you read a little deeper into the returns, some interesting demographic angles emerge. You might even read the results as a narrative of racial “cross-over.” Mayor Bloomberg is a rich white guy leading an intensely diverse city, after all. But the third time was not the charm. Bloomberg’s opponent Bill Thompson, a black politician who served as comptroller and a leader on the now-dismantled Board of Education (which was scrapped as part of “mayoral control” school reform), lost by a shockingly slim margin—given the fact that his campaign spending probably amounts to just one-tenth of the mogul Mayor’s estimated $100 million war chest. The Associated Press reports that Thompson drew heavy support from communities of color, signaling growing polarization:

Thompson ran up huge margins in black and Hispanic neighborhoods, winning by a 3-to-1 margin in some districts. He beat Bloomberg handily in predominantly black neighborhoods like Bedford-Stuyvesant in Brooklyn and Jamaica in Queens. He won Harlem and East Harlem easily, along with other heavily Hispanic districts in upper Manhattan and the Bronx. By contrast, Bloomberg won easily on Staten Island, which has a much larger white population. He also fared better in Manhattan, particularly on the Upper East Side, where he lives.

Bloomberg’s persona may have alienated communities hard-hit by the recession and increasingly disillusioned with the city’s rapid gentrification. The New York Times says Bloomberg’s gilded image has lost its shine in struggling neighborhoods:

In past elections, the romance of his money and competence was enough to help him carry working-class, heavily minority districts. But he appears to have lost many of those neighborhoods Tuesday. Councilman James Sanders, who represents a predominantly black area of southeast Queens, was one of a number of black officials to endorse Mr. Bloomberg in 2005. This time, with some reluctance, he went for Mr. Thompson. “There was this imperial attitude, a prerogative that he favors the rich,” Mr. Sanders said. “ And term limits stuck like a bone in the throats of many out here. They’re hurting: foreclosures, taxes, and they don’t like his attitude.”

In contrast to last November’s elections, race was more of a subtext than a flashpoint in the city races. When Rudy Giuliani, with typical totalitarian flair, suggested that a win for Thompson would return the city back to days of epidemic crime, Bill de Blasio (who himself has stoked racial tensions by featuring his mixed-race family in his campaign ads) called out the former Mayor’s "veiled race baiting." And Washington’s coattails didn’t stretch as far as some Black politicians had hoped. Ben Smith at Politico writes, "Obama’s late, weak backing did little to soothe irritation among New York’s black leaders that the first black president – who had already tried to torpedo the state’s floundering African-American governor [David Patterson] – kept the African-American mayoral candidate at such a distance." Aside from the campaign-trail bumps, the elections have brought race to the fore in more nuanced ways. For the first time, people of color make up the majority of the City Council, reports the Daily News. Community activist Margaret Chin became the first Chinese-American city council member to represent Chinatown. John Liu has made his mark as the first Asian-American citywide elected official. So after Election Day, even if Gracie Mansion remains in the grip of Bloomberg’s urban gentry, the city government is starting to look more and more like, well, real New Yorkers. While less dramatic than last November’s Obamania, the subtle race consciousness expressed at the polls has gently reshaped the way New York is represented, and slowly but surely, will change the way the city is run. Image: City Comptroller John Liu (DelMundo for NY Daily News)