On a brisk mid-October day, Tom Allon announced he was dropping out of the highly competitive Democratic mayoral primary and would instead be a contender in the far sparser Republican field. “Theodore Roosevelt cleaned up New York by telling truth to power and truth to the public,” he declared, standing before the equestrian statue of Theodore Roosevelt on the Upper West Side. “I plan to run a campaign that will talk about the hard truths facing our city, and ideas I have to fix our growing problems.”
The event’s august backdrop may have oversold its symbolic importance. It’s impossible to find a neutral party who thinks Mr. Allon, a local newspaper publisher whose weeklies include Our Town and The West Side Spirit, is anything but a long-shot to replace term-limited Mayor Michael Bloomberg in 2013. But as no fewer than five heavyweight Democrats are already in contention for the office, each of whom has raised over a million dollars, Mr. Allon’s move highlights the fact that Republicans, so far at least, are still on the hunt for a formidable standard-bearer.
Sensing the vacuum, former Bronx Borough President Adolfo Carrión Jr. announced Monday night that he has also left the Democratic Party in hopes of securing the Republican line for mayor. However, as he only changed his registration to independent, the aspiring candidate will need the support of three of the five GOP county chairmen to proceed. Mr. Carrión, a relatively prominent Latino pol with over a million dollars in his campaign account, could be very tempting to the party’s leadership. Whether or not he will ultimately be their candidate is unclear, as are most of the details of Mr. Carrión’s nascent campaign.
Besides Mr. Allon and Mr. Carrión, only Doe Fund founder George McDonald has stepped forward for the GOP. Mr. McDonald, whose nonprofit is dedicated to helping the homeless and the formerly incarcerated get back on their feet, told The Observer that he’s building up his campaign but has yet to formally announce his intentions. “We’re raising money, and we’ll make a filing on January 15,” he said, vowing to raise $16 million in the next 12 months. “When we make that filing, it’ll be clear this is a serious campaign run by serious people.”
Signaling a certain amount of discontent with the field, however, hypotheticals have been bandied about in the city’s Republican circles for months, despite the fact that the most commonly named fantasy candidates have offered little to indicate they want the job. The dream candidate for most Republicans is undoubtedly Police Commissioner Ray Kelly, who has the citywide stature and law-and-order biography to compete for many of the moderate Democratic voters who kept Mayors Giuliani and Bloomberg in power all these years. “Go for it, Ray!” The New York Post and Daily News editorial boards identically crowed last April, while the leader of the state’s Republican Party proclaimed Mr. Kelly a “superb” mayoral candidate. For some time, praise continued to be heaped on him from all corners, but the commotion eventually died down when Mr. Kelly dropped no hints he might consider entering politics.
Even Mr. Giuliani’s name has been tossed into the ring. In her Page Six column last month, Post columnist Cindy Adams broadcast “an unconfirmed—also, so far undenied—rumor” that he was angling to return to Gracie Mansion, a claim The Observer also heard in some of the city’s business circles at the time. Mr. Giuliani’s spokeswoman quickly shot down the trial balloon, but one can’t help but wonder whether his name would have been floated at all if a certain amount of anxiety hadn’t set in.
Meanwhile, Democratic State Senator Malcolm Smith has been actively courting Republican officials in hopes of securing a spot on the ballot himself. “I’ll meet with anybody that’s interested in running on the line,” Bronx GOP Chair Jay Savino told us before Mr. Smith arrived at one such meeting in August. “I’m more than willing to sit and talk and see what they want to talk about. I don’t know what Senator Smith has to say. I didn’t reach out to him, he reached out to us.” At one point in the night, Mr. Savino, on the way back from a phone call and a cigar outside, said the discussion had been “interesting” so far.
He paused and then repeated the assessment. “Interesting.”
However, none of the Republicans we talked to thought the eccentric senator, who once held a press conference in Times Square to denounce Lil Wayne, would be their pick. Notably, Mr. Smith briefly led his chamber during an especially chaotic period, until his fellow Democrats decided another lawmaker was needed to head their caucus. That’s not all the baggage he brings to the race: federal prosecutors are currently investigating a charity he funded with taxpayer dollars. While Mr. Smith declined to speak with us in August, The Observer would later bump into him again as he made his pitch to Republican activists in Brooklyn Heights at the end of October. After a very brief address, during which he vaguely described himself as pro-business, Mr. Smith concluded, “I went to school at Jesuit college; I’m a good guy. We’ll talk to you later, take care. God bless.” He then walked out the door.
“I think this is just the beginning of the mayoral candidates drive,” Brooklyn’s Republican chairman, Craig Eaton, said after the event. “I think we’re going to hear from a lot of other people over the next couple weeks. And we’re looking forward to it. We will have a good candidate on the Republican line.” Mr. Eaton would later indicate a preference for Mr. Carrión.
The candidate on many Republican lips is businessman John Catsimatidis, a supermarket magnate who owns the Gristedes chain in New York City. Earlier this year, Mr. Catsimatidis was ranked as the 132nd richest person in America by Forbes, and, with a net worth of $3 billion, he could easily finance a mayoral campaign himself. But while confident in his abilities, Mr. Catsimatidis isn’t exactly chomping at the bit.
“If we end up with nobody, I might consider it, yes,” he said last week. “It’s just a lot work and a lot of dedication that goes into it. Can I do the job? I could do the job with my left pinkie.”
Mr. Catsimatidis expressed hope somebody else, perhaps Mr. Kelly—or at least some wealthy individual—will run instead.
“If you talk about candidates for mayor with no money, it’s like a joke! You guys want to fool around with a bunch of guys with no ability to run, you can do that!” he exclaimed. “When you’re running in a mayor race in New York City, either you have to have name recognition like Ray Kelly, or you have to have somebody who has enough money that they can get name recognition.”
The grocery tycoon, who said he was “trying to be as optimistic as I can” that a credible alternative would step up to the plate, described what he felt were the dire consequences if one of the Democratic candidates ended up winning next year. “They’re nice people, but would you trust them with a $70 billion budget? One of the things that nobody looks at, but one of the reasons that New York City has been successful in getting international capital, money from Europe, from Russia, the Middle East, Asia—they have confidence in Bloomberg’s ability to manage the city and they have confidence in Ray Kelly’s ability to keep the city safe. I’m concerned that if you have a minor league player, that the capital will dry up.”
However, Mr. Catsimatidis said, there is still plenty of time. “There’s no deadline; you can jump in February, March and April,” he said. But with the State Legislature actively considering moving the 2013 primary date from September to June so that the city’s slow-moving Board of Elections has enough time to schedule a runoff election, candidates may have to start collecting signatures by March in order to land a spot on the ballot. Meanwhile, every day on the calendar provides an opportunity to build name recognition and construct an effective campaign operation, and the clock is ticking.
“You’d like to have some clarity to this by the end of the calendar year, or by the end of winter,” one Republican consultant said. “I don’t really see anybody that has any ability to do that today. But it’s still relatively early, so hopefully by post-holidays you’ll start to see more seriousness.”
Jerry Kassar, the chairman of Brooklyn’s Conservative Party, concurred. “They really have to have this thing decided by the first week of February; they’re going to have to have petitions on the street by early March,” he argued, while conceding a later primary date would allow another month or so to find a candidate. “There’s no advantage to drag this thing out. The Republican Party needs to have made up their mind; there’s a lot of work ahead.”
As for the likely suspects, he added, “I guess right now, George from the Doe Fund does not seem have taken off, as far as I can tell. I don’t believe he’s picked up much strength. I don’t believe Senator Smith is at all being taken seriously in Republican circles. I do think Catsimatidis remains available to them in the event that they feel Allon is not philosophically workable, or can’t bring enough resources to make it a race.”
Regardless of whom they choose, the party’s leaders have stated that they only want one candidate running, with no primary contest to divert their attention from the grand prize. “This race is too important,” Chairman Eaton explained. “We need to find the candidate that’s going to win. If one of the people who have expressed interest in running, if there’s a consensus that there’s another candidate [who] has a superior chance of winning—I think the other candidates need to look and say, ‘It’s about the party; we need to step aside and look at other opportunities.’”
Mr. McDonald, at least, might be willing to heed such a call, depending on the other candidate’s credentials. “As far as I’m concerned, I think I would make a better mayor than any of the folks who are running,” he said to explain his mayoral aspirations. When we asked if he would drop out if he felt another candidate was more capable, Mr. McDonald quickly replied, “In a New York minute. I don’t covet the job.”
Mr. Allon, however, has said he’s in it for the long-haul, guaranteeing a Republican primary should the party’s leaders decide on somebody else. “I’m going to primary anybody who comes up,” he told The Observer when he announced his party switch. “You can’t jump in late and expect other people are going to cower.”
For their part, Democrats certainly aren’t cowering from their eventual Republican opponent, sarcastically nicknamed “billionaire yet to be named” by at least one of the 2013 candidates’ operatives. Although candidates running on the GOP line have held onto City Hall for two decades, next year could be the party’s greatest challenge yet. According to the unofficial results from this year’s presidential election, President Barack Obama received over 80 percent of the vote against Mitt Romney in the five boroughs—an increase from when he ran in 2008—and two-thirds of the city’s voters are now registered Democrats.
Outside of an education rally a few weeks ago, we asked one potential Democratic candidate for mayor, Comptroller John Liu, what he thought of the Republican field so far.
“I’m quaking in my boots,” he joked.