Not A Pothole In Sight: De Blasio’s Road To A Second Term

Not A Pothole In Sight: De Blasio’s Road To A Second Term

Not A Pothole In Sight: De Blasio’s Road To A Second Term

Now is the summer of Bill de Blasio’s contentment. The stern alarms of two years ago, when the electorate was grim-visaged and the future cloudy, have given way to merry meetings and delightful measures indeed. Few mayors, even those for whom iconic transportation facilities are named, have ever enjoyed such an uneventful campaign season after four years of something less than unalloyed glory.

As Richard III might have said, had he not had such a good speechwriter, who woulda thunk it?

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For a generation of young New Yorkers, this year’s sleepy mayoral campaign must seem positively mystifying, having come of age during an unprecedented era of actual competition for a lease on Gracie Mansion, and two decades of Republican (or independent) rule under Rudy Giuliani and Mike Bloomberg.

For those with longer memories, however, 2017 is a return to the old days, when the Republican Party regarded mayoral elections as a joyless obligation, executed with all the enthusiasm of a high schooler plowing through “Moby Dick” while summering on a beach in Nantucket.

“In a sense, New York didn’t really have 20 years of Republican mayors,” said Robert Bellafiore, an Albany-based consultant and former aide to Gov. George Pataki. “Bloomberg was a lifelong Democrat who ran as a Republican because it was the best way to get on the ballot. He could have run as a Martian and his party wouldn’t have mattered. Rather than saying that the Republicans won five straight times, it’s more accurate to say that the Democrats lost five straight times.”

In August of 2015, it seemed possible, even likely, that a Democrat would step forward or Republicans would find a person of means to challenge the first-term mayor. Today, indications are that de Blasio will coast to a second term in November. Crime continues to fall, the homeless crisis appears to have eased, public employee unions are satisfied, Gov. Andrew Cuomo is getting the blame for subway delays, and the latest whiff of scandal involving a donor hasn’t quite captured the public’s imagination.

The mayor’s re-nomination is contested but barely so. His best-known opponent is the earnest and eternally quixotic former Councilmember Sal Albanese, whose current poll numbers suggest that not for the first time (in fact, for the third) he won’t end up as mayor.

The Republican Party’s mayoral candidate is a member of the Assembly from Staten Island, a borough of perpetual grievance whose distance from the rest of the city is measured in nautical miles and Trumpian attitude. Nicole Malliotakis will be the first Staten Islander to run as the GOP’s mayoral candidate since the courtly John Marchi in 1973. Marchi finished in second place to Abe Beame that year with 16 percent of the vote. It was considered to be a fine showing, all things considered.

As it stands, then, Bill de Blasio will have little reason to mop his brow over the next few months as he benefits from the political equivalent of baseball’s new-fangled intentional walk, in which the batter is simply waved to his destination without requiring the pitcher to go through the motions of throwing four balls.

As for the city’s Democrats, save for the valiant Albanese and his little-known fellow challengers, they have chosen discretion over valor. The de Blasio era will belong to the ages in four years, assuming he is re-elected and serves his full term. The expiration date on his tenure, Dec. 31, 2021, appears to have given his potential rivals pause, and they have concluded it would be a far, far better thing to spend the next four years auditing his budgets and advocating for the public.

“De Blasio is in the unusual position of benefitting from term limits,” said Mitchell Moss, a professor at New York University. “People who might have run against him decided to wait him out. And so we have a mayoral race that could serve as a cure for insomnia.”

“Political scientists are opposed to term limits, and one of the reasons is because it does create this strategy of ‘wait and see’ among potential opponents,” said Jeanne Zaino, who is indeed a political scientist at Iona College. “Without term limits, people might be more willing to take a chance against him now.”

So two officeholders who might have taken a chance this year - Scott Stringer, the city comptroller, and Tish James, the public advocate - will instead submit themselves to voters for another term in their current jobs and begin their 2021 mayoral campaigns on or about January 1, 2018, knowing they will not face an incumbent in four years. Others will do likewise, emboldened by the prospect of a vacancy in Gracie Mansion.

But term limits alone do not explain why de Blasio’s path to reelection is strewn with garlands instead of potholes.

The Republican Party, after winning five mayoral elections in a row bookended by a near victory in 1989 and a theoretically credible challenge in 2013, this year is reverting to the form that produced candidate Roy Goodman in the raucous mayoral campaign of 1977. Goodman, a veteran state senator whose grandfather plumbed the depths of the human digestive system and so gave the world Ex-Lax, was the GOP’s designated casualty while Mario Cuomo played Athens to Ed Koch’s Sparta during the Summer of Sam. Goodman finished with 4 percent of the vote. It was a low point for the city’s Republican Party — four years later, the party simply gave up and cross-endorsed Koch rather than go through the motions of offering voters a choice.

In less than a decade, though, Giuliani proved that a Republican could indeed be competitive in an overwhelmingly Democratic city as he narrowly lost to David Dinkins in 1989. Giuliani’s victory in the re-match in 1993 led to 20 years of Republican victories — or, rather, Democratic defeats —a record likely to remain intact even when the Atlantic rises to reclaim the harbor’s islands in some perhaps not-so-distant future.

The Giuliani-Bloomberg era of Republican hegemony, however, may have simply been an illusion and a cruel one at that, offering a tantalizing but unsustainable glimpse of what competitive elections might look like in a functioning two-party democracy. New York now appears on the verge of returning to its tradition of one-party rule.

There are no legatees of the long Republican mayoral monopoly, and that in itself is telling. Twenty years of Giuliani-Bloomberg begat Joe Lhota’s general election campaign in 2013. He managed 24 percent of the vote, astronomical by pre-Giuliani standards but as a coda for the end of an era, it wasn’t much more than a whimper.

Historian Vincent Cannato, author of books on John Lindsay and Ellis Island, sees de Blasio benefitting from another factor: Sheer apathy. “There’s been a broad decline of the city’s civic culture, of the great institutions that served as a check on Democratic-dominated government,” said Cannato, who teaches at the University of Massachusetts-Boston.

Once upon a time, Cannato said, mayors fretted over the judgments of good government groups, budget watchdogs and any number of civic organizations. Now, he argued, those groups have trouble being heard or have given up entirely. “The business elites cared about the city during the 1970s fiscal crisis,” he said. “But now they’re global players. They’re not as interested in the city. The real estate people, for example, are interested only in real estate breaks.”

It all adds up to a summer Bill de Blasio could not have anticipated two years ago, but he would be wise not to get used to relative tranquility.

A second term is certain to bring conflict with those who placed their ambitions on hold this year in order to feast on servings of lame duck over the next four years.

They are certain to make the earth his hell.

Terry Golway is POLITICO New York’s senior editor focused on Albany; he’s also the author of several books, most recently, “Machine Made: Tammany Hall and the Creation of Modern American Politics.”

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