It is always a good thing when the black misleaders suffer political defeat. Such was the case in New York City when former comptroller William Thompson finished in second place in the democratic mayoral primary.
Thompson was defeated by mayor Michael Bloomberg in 2009 by a mere 5% margin after the billionaire spent $70 million of his own money in the campaign. Thompson fell short because he believed the carefully crafted hype of inevitability and ran a lackluster non-campaign until the 11th hour when he realized that he was within striking distance. He might have prevailed against the mayor who made himself unpopular when he and the city council undid the term limits legislation that voters supported not once, but twice.
Voter disgust with Bloomberg was not the sole cause of his narrow victory. It is an axiom in politics that a candidate should get a majority of the votes from the group he or she identifies with. In Thompson’s case, that meant black voters. But the record low turnout proved that most of the people who should have formed his natural base of support didn’t know anything about him or even that he was running. Thompson couldn’t be bothered to do the most basic aspect of waging a political campaign. He didn’t get out and meet his constituents and make an appeal for their support.
He spent the last four years planning to run again and looked like a serious contender again. Thompson received endorsements from labor unions like the United Federation of Teachers and current and former elected officials like Charles Rangel and David Dinkins. The black leaders and misleaders of New York City were all in his corner. Thompson also did well raising money and that in part is where his troubles began with black voters.
Former Republican senator Alphonse D’Amato is a top lobbyist and kingmaker in New York politics. D’Amato emerged as a top Thompson fundraiser but of course exacted a price. By his own admission he chose Thompson because he promised not to frighten the powerful real estate developers and others among the 1%.
D’Amato affirmed that Thompson is someone who reassured the high and mighty. “They don’t have fear of Bill Thompson, that he’s going to do some radical proposal that’s going to hurt their business. He’s not as give-away-everything-there-is.” Thompson is an ambitious but obviously hollow man who chose to take the easy way out. Simply put he was afraid to appeal to the group of people most likely to support him. Worse than taking black votes for granted, he slapped them in the face when he cautioned against “over reacting” to stop and frisk.
In 2013, stop and frisk was the most important issue for black voters. Since 2002, New Yorkers have been stopped by police more than 4 million times and most of those incidents involved unconstitutional searches of black people. Each of those stops represented the risk of arrest, police brutality and personal humiliation. Some victims were stopped on numerous occasions and even received summonses for loitering at their own homes. Most cities have police quotas for parking tickets, but Bloomberg and police commissioner Ray Kelly had quotas for arrests and stops. It is little wonder that this policy became an enormous issue for black voters as the Bloomberg era ended.
Bill Thompson had little appetite for making any overt appeal to black people. He has shown that in two election cycles. Both times he hoped that black people would turn out for him no matter what he said or did. Thompson thought he could make this clumsy appeal to white voters and check bundlers and still keep black voters in his corner.
When the city council passed legislation creating a police department inspector general and a new process for filing discrimination lawsuits, the Bloomberg stop and frisk era was, if not ended, severely diminished. At the same time, a federal judge found the practice unconstitutional. Thompson had made what he thought was the expedient choice but then became undone when years of activism against stop and frisk came to fruition. While he was cutting not very shrewd deals, groups like Stop Stop and Frisk and the Center for Constitutional Rights and New York Civil Liberties Union and NAACP Legal Defense Fund and individuals like Cornel West and Carl Dix and principled elected officials wrote the stop and frisk epitaph.
While Thompson was taking bad advice from D’Amato, the city’s Public Advocate Bill de Blasio made a slow and steady climb in opinion polls by being a lot more respectful of people whose votes he wanted. de Blasio spoke to the fears of many New Yorkers with his campaign stump speech decrying the “two cities” of the 1% and the 99% during a time of growing income disparity and hyper gentrification. While he said only that he would “reform” stop and frisk he did support the city council bills and he didn’t insult black people by telling them they shouldn’t over react to what was a deal breaker for them. He also used his black wife and bi-racial children in campaign ads, one of which featured his teenage son promising that his dad would end “the stop and frisk era.”
Thompson acknowledged that he wouldn’t win the primary but he hoped to get enough votes to keep any other candidate from reaching the 40% threshold and forcing a run-off. His plans did not come to fruition when de Blasio not only got 40% of all primary votes but also split the black vote with him. Thompson at first refused to concede but from the beginning even his rich supporters like campaign chairwoman Merryl Tisch of the Loews Corporation family, made it clear he should throw in the towel. After a week of grand standing Thompson bowed to the inevitable and endorsed de Blasio. The next day federal judge Shira Scheindlin denied Bloomberg’s request to stay her order against stop and frisk. Poetic justice indeed.
The lessons of Bill Thompson’s defeat should not be lost on any future black aspirants to high office. Black voters are no more dispensable than any other group. They are pivotal in bringing any Democratic candidate to victory and won’t suffer insults from people who want their support. (Only Barack Obama has the skill to get away with that.)
de Blasio has successfully marketed himself as a progressive candidate but he shouldn’t be accepted as such without scrutiny. He is far ahead of his Republican rivals in the polls, which means that rich and powerful New Yorkers will jump on his band wagon to make sure they keep their seat at the table. He must be kept honest. His attractive family and clever ads cannot substitute for policy which must turn the city away from 20 years of Republican rule that has been disastrous for working people. Bill Thompson may have been retired by the voters but his fate should be a cautionary tale in Democratic Party politics for a long time to come.