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With Democrat far ahead, New York mayoral race turns nasty

New Yorkers haven't elected a Democrat as mayor since 1989, but crises, money and incumbency fueled that streak. Things look different this year.

October 18, 2013|By Tina Susman
  • New York City mayoral candidates -- Republican Joe Lhota, left, and Democrat Bill de Blasio -- spar in a televised debate.
New York City mayoral candidates -- Republican Joe Lhota, left, and Democrat… (James Keivom / Daily News )

NEW YORK — Corpses are sprawled on crime-ridden streets. Rioters hurl bottles through the night sky. An elderly woman stands alone, grim-faced and tense, on a subway car slathered in graffiti.

The scenes in Republican mayoral candidate Joe Lhota's new TV ad recall the city's ugliest days — days that Lhota says could return if New Yorkers elect his rival, Democrat Bill de Blasio, on Nov. 5.

De Blasio bashed the commercial, which began airing Wednesday, calling it "just like the Willie Horton ad" from George H.W. Bush's 1988 presidential campaign. Critics labeled that ad racist because it used images of Horton, a black convict who escaped while out on a weekend prison furlough and then committed a rape and assault, to illustrate Bush's argument that Democrat Michael S. Dukakis was soft on crime.

"It is desperate. It is divisive. It is inappropriate," said De Blasio, the city's liberal public advocate, who in a televised debate the previous day accused Lhota of pandering to the tea party.

Lhota called De Blasio "vacuous" and even poked fun at his height, calling De Blasio "this 6-foot-6 guy saying things about me that aren't true."

New York's mayoral race, which has run from raunchy to raucous to downright sleepy, has now turned nasty despite — or because of — polls indicating that it's no contest. If recent surveys are any guide, voters prefer De Blasio by more than 40 percentage points over Lhota.

The poll numbers are eye-popping on their own, but more so considering that New Yorkers haven't elected a Democrat as mayor since they chose David Dinkins in 1989.

"The Democrats are back, big time," said Dinkins, who served one term before losing to Rudolph W. Giuliani in 1993. Giuliani was elected twice until Michael R. Bloomberg — a Republican-turned-Independent now in his third and final term — took office in 2002.

De Blasio, a former Housing and Urban Development official who managed Hillary Clinton's 2000 Senate campaign, became a city councilman in 2001. He was elected New York's public advocate — serving as a watchdog for the people — in 2009. Lhota, a onetime investment banker, was deputy mayor under Giuliani. He served last year as chief of the city's Metropolitan Transportation Authority, responsible for its buses, subways and other mass transit.

Given the leftward leanings of the city, where Democrats outnumber Republicans more than 5 to 1, the party would seem to have a guaranteed key to Gracie Mansion, the mayoral home on the East River. But extraordinary events, extraordinary wealth on Bloomberg's part and the challenge of unseating an incumbent have proved a recipe for successive Democratic defeats.

"I know it sounds like, 'Gee, the Democrats haven't won in a long time,' but if you take it apart, you can find a rationale," Dinkins said.

Political experts agree and note that Giuliani and Bloomberg won by slim margins in their first elections, then had incumbency on their side in subsequent polls.

"Giuliani was fewer than 60,000 votes over Dinkins, and Bloomberg less than 40,000" over Democrat Mark J. Green, said Bruce F. Berg, who teaches political science at Fordham University. "So both these guys eked out victories at first and then brought a lot to the table as incumbent candidates."

Dinkins blames his own loss in large part on an attempt that year by Staten Island — an overwhelmingly Republican borough — to secede from New York City. The effort fueled a huge Republican turnout, and Dinkins lost by 53,000 votes.

Such crises, including the crime alluded to in Lhota's ad and the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, proved unifying issues that helped Giuliani and later Bloomberg to rally voter support.

"If you look at people like Rudy Giuliani and Mike Bloomberg, part of what got them over the hump of the Democratic majority was one type of crisis after another, and having some kind of structural advantage — in Bloomberg's case, an awful lot of money to spend," said Jeanne Zaino, an expert on campaign communications strategy at New York University. "If we look at Lhota now, that's not something he can enjoy."

Berg is even more to the point, saying: "New York is a Democratic city, and it takes a very special kind of candidate to beat the Democrats." But he expects De Blasio's numbers to drop somewhat.

"I suspect there are some Wall Street Democrats who might get cold feet and vote for Lhota," he said. "But it's going to take something bordering on a miracle for De Blasio's numbers to go below 60."

After 12 years under Bloomberg, voters are also eager for change in a city with astronomical housing costs, struggling public schools and a growing income gap. The outgoing mayor's personal wealth — Forbes magazine lists him as the 10th-richest American, with an estimated worth of $31 billion — has proved a tool for De Blasio, who has portrayed Bloomberg's New York as "a tale of two cities," divided between rich and poor, black and white.

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