On Election Night 2009, Bill Thompson was in his suite at The Hilton and was one of the few people in New York who thought he was about to become the city’s next mayor. Polls from even the week before had him down by as much as 18 points to Mike Bloomberg, and the mayor’s $100 million plus campaign operation had been blitzing the city. They bragged about turnout operation that would be “the most expansive and effective this city has ever seen.” Early in the evening, the networks and the newspapers declared Mr. Bloomberg the winner. Senior Democrats called Mr. Thompson in his suite to offer congratulations, and condolences.
Mr. Thompson told them to wait. Their own returns showed them trailing, but not by that much. “We may have this,” he told aides. The networks reversed themselves; suddenly the race was too close to call. Downstairs in the ballroom, what was thought to be an early evening was turning to disbelief as Thompson aides cursed the city’s Democratic political class—and even President Obama—for lending him only the most perfunctory support because they presumed he was destined for defeat.
As Mr. Bloomberg ultimately inched ahead, the Hilton ballroom morphed into a raucous victory party for the loser. Norman Seabrook, a fiery union head, went on live TV and blasted those “that were supposed to be supportive, that considered themselves Democrats”as “full of shit.” Mr. Thompson’s supporters, mostly Black and Latino lawmakers, crowded onto the stage, and crowed.
When the time came for Mr. Thompson to address the swelling crowd, he said, “The work we started during this campaign doesn’t end tonight. In fact, it’s just beginning.”
And indeed, only a couple of months after the race, Mr. Thompson made one of the most unexpected moves a city politician has made in a long time: he announced that he was running for mayor again, and would be on the ballot four years hence.
And then, just as quickly, Mr. Thompson disappeared.
Sure, he would pop up at occasional political rally or as the head of a Gov. Andrew Cuomo-appointed commission, but anyone who thought Mr. Thompson would spend the next four years as mayor-in-exile, making the Democratic case against Mayor Bloomberg, was sorely disappointed. In March he told The Observer that he expected to make a campaign announcement “in the next day or two.” For months afterwards, nothing. This led to inevitable questions, that despite his ultra-early announcement, Mr. Thompson would in the end take a pass.
“I think it worked to some people’s advantage to say, ‘He’s not going to run.’ Because if I am running it makes it harder for people to say, here is their path,” Mr. Thompson said last week. “I don’t know that you have to convince people. I am out, I am around at events. I am going to be a presence again.”
Due to his absence, Mr. Thompson has been able to avoid most of the battles that have roiled the city’s political class over the last couple of years. In an interview he struck a far-more centrist tone than many of his fellow 2013 candidates. He has genuinely nice things to say about NYPD chief Ray Kelly. He doesn’t favor the most recent living wage bill that was before the City Council. He is non-committal on the paid sick leave bill. He is against a city “millionaire’s tax.”
But despite saying that he is not running against Mike Bloomberg, Mr. Thompson these days sounds very much like someone running against Mike Bloomberg. He blasted the administration for trying to turn the city into a “luxury product,” for overly onerous regulations and fines that hurt small businesses, and for eight “wasted years” of education reforms.
Mr. Thompson’s Bloomberg-bashing isn’t about sour grapes. Mr. Bloomberg may not be on the ballot next time around, but Christine Quinn, who appears to base her campaign as a continuation of the current regime, will be. And thanks to her impressive fundraising haul and good early polling numbers, Ms. Quinn has emerged as the frontrunner. But as Thompson advisors see it, he is the frontrunner, and the only question is whether Ms. Quinn can prevent him from securing the 40 percent of the vote needed to avoid a run-off.
They note that in a Democratic primary, nearly half of the vote will be African-American or Hispanic. And although Bill de Blasio, whose wife is African-American and who is a popular figure among many minority-dominated labor unions, and John Liu, who cobbled together a coalition of blacks, Hispanics and Asians in his own comptroller’s race, can each lay claim to a portion of that electorate, Mr. Thompson got over 75 percent of the African-American vote in his three citywide runs, and typically got over half of the Hispanic votes as well.
“And this is from a guy who has never run as just a black candidate,” said Eddy Castell, one of Mr. Thompson’s advisors. “The question is can he get to 40 percent and not be in a run-off. He is the only guy who walks in with 25-30 percent of the Democratic vote in his pocket.”
Demographics aside, Mr. Thompson’s strongest claim to early front-runner status is that surprising near-victory in 2009. But the credit for that shocking near-upset is in dispute. Bloomberg campaign advisers say that Mr. Thompson is profoundly misinterpreting the results if he thinks his campaign was the reason behind the close victory. The 50 percent of the vote that Mr. Bloomberg received, they said, was pretty close to his ceiling. Term limits had angered too many voters, as had 8 years of administration polices and edicts, tickets and fines. The Obama wave in 2008 had swelled even further the number of registered Democrats in a town where they already outnumber Republicans five-to-one.
“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.”