“It s just an incredibly lackluster campaign,” said one ‘09 Bloomberg aide.
(A number of former Bloomberg aides confirmed a widespread rumor from the ’09 campaign that, in the waning days of the race, a couple of their canvassers were in Harlem and mistakenly knocked on Mr. Thompson’s door one weekday afternoon. Much to their surprise, Mr. Thompson was home. A spokesman for Mr. Thompson denied this account.)
It has been a persistent knock on Mr. Thompson’s career—that despite winning citywide election twice, and generally solid record as Comptroller, that “he lacks the fire in the belly,” as one Democratic consultant put it. “That question has always haunted him. He may just be too nice of a guy.”
For Mr. Thompson, there were 100 million reasons why he lost.
“If there is any regret from 2009, it’s just that we couldn’t get past the sense of inevitability, that he couldn’t be beaten. People would be like, ‘I would like to help, but he is going to win and he is vindictive.’”
His aides still stew about a series of articles in The New York Times that portrayed the campaign as directionless and off-track.
“It was like, ‘Hey guys, you are missing an election in New York,’ he said. “You could just never get past certain things. The truth is I won Brooklyn. I won the Bronx. But because of the continual ‘can’t lose, can’t lose, can’t lose,’ it drove turnout down.”
Elections are about the future, not the past, but the question of how much the Bloomberg ’09 scare was due to Mr. Thompson’s own campaign acumen is a crucial one. Is the Bill Thompson of 2013 someone who was twice elected citywide and gave the mayor the scare of his life, despite being out-spent a gazillion-to-nothing? Or did he stumble into near-history, taking advantage of favorable winds? If the former is true, then Mr. Thompson despite his current low-profile, has a reason to run in 2013–he, after all, is the Goliath-slayer who grabbed the slingshot when no one else would. If the latter, then the field is open.
In the immediate term Mr. Thompson must find a way to raise money. The fact that he doesn’t currently have a position means that donors can only be persuaded to give because they like him and they think he can win, and not to curry favor with powerful political office. The most recent filings show Mr. Thompson with only $250,000 in the bank. By comparison, Ms. Quinn has already raised the maximum, and the campaign is further hobbled by questions—however fraudulent—that Mr. Thompson is really running.
“It’s a little bit of a chicken and egg thing,” said Betsy Gotbaum, the former public advocate who is now helping to lead his fundraising efforts. “People think he is a very viable candidate if we push enough and say yes can win, he will win. Then people give.”
Although Mr. Thompson declined to say how much money he needed to prove his viability, even former aides say that he has to get around $1 million by the next reporting period at the end of the year to show he is a top-tier candidate. Anything less and the whisper campaign that his supporters have tried so hard to stamp out in the last couple of weeks–that Mr. Thompson isn’t really serious–could begin again.
More worrisome for Mr. Thompson is the fact that he trails in current polls to Ms. Quinn. Polls this far out are supposed to only gauge name recognition, which should give Mr. Thompson an advantage, given the publicity surrounding his ’09 run. Mr. Thompson has spent the last year-and-a-half mostly been tending to his new gigs at a municipal finance firm and as the head of the Battery Park City Authority. His rivals, by comparison, have kept up a punishing schedule of public appearances around the city for the past two years.
Mr. Castell doesen’t see this as a problem.
“He doesn’t need to keep pace with the Joneses,” he said. “He is a proven citywide vote getter. They need to keep up with him.”
One early morning last week, Mr. Thompson made his way through a driving rainstorm to arrive at the 18th floor of the Empire State Building for one of the requisite stops a campaign—a sit-down with the bombastic radio host Curtis Silwa.
Mr. Sliwa was, for once, not in his red Guardian Angel outfit, and noted that Mr. Thompson’s “fellow Democrats, who praised him the first time, saying, ‘I can’t believe how well you did against Mayor Bloomberg and his billions,’ are now dissing and dismissing him, saying ‘That was your time, Bill, now it’s our time.’ And they happen to be all white.”
“Oh god,” Mr. Thompson said, shaking his head off-mic.
Mr. Sliwa then ran through the other candidates—Ms. Quinn, “with the glow-in-the-dark orange Revlon hair;” Mr.de Blasio, who holds an office “I have advocated be eliminated as a house of patronage”; Mr. Liu, who is in the midst of a fundraising scandal and is “still trying to figure out where all those campaign contributions came from.”
“Anyway,” he continued, “there will be a whole host of people who want to run for the mayoralty, but regardless of who is in it, you are running for it?”
“Regardless of who is in,” Mr. Thompson replied. “I am running.”
Mr. Thompson went through his spiel about education and affordability, and then came back to the most pressing point.
“I am running,” he said again. “Regardless of who else is running.”