It would be a mistake to classify Bloomberg's November 4 mayoral reelection win as anything but a defeat for the working people of New York City. At the same time, however, there is no reason to despair; on the contrary the election results represent a basis for optimism moving forward.
First, to dispense with the obvious: Although the billionaire representative of Wall Street, big developers and the Republican Party won, New York City elected John Liu comptroller, marking the first time in this city's more than 400 year history any Asian American has held citywide office. Further, a grand people's coalition formed around Liu: his campaign was composed essentially of the city's entire labor movement; the African American, Latino and Asian communities; women; youth; the LGBT community and a large percentage of white liberals.
It is this exact coalition that, if it remains united, can usher in all sorts of progressive changes in New York City.
Further, there was important progress made in the city council elections. For the first time ever, racially and nationally oppressed council members are in the majority. In other words, the council has actually begun to reflect the people of New York City. A prime example would be Margaret Chin, who defeated an incumbent and became the first Chinese American to represent the district that includes Chinatown-ever.
But the results of the mayoral race itself, though it was a defeat, should leave us feeling hopeful. Firstly, the Democratic challenger, lost to Bloomberg by less than five points, about 46 percent to 51. This is an astoundingly low margin of victory for Bloomberg, given that pollsters predicted the incumbent "independent" (read: Republican who supported George W. Bush and thinks Giuliani would be a good governor) would score a margin of victory in the double digits, as he did in 2005. In that election, he beat Fernando Ferrer by nearly 20 percentage points.
Bloomberg also put a lot into this election: officially, he put about $100 million into his campaign, the most any candidate has spent vying for municipal office in the history of the world, literally speaking. (By contrast, Thompson, who abided by the city's campaign finance rules, and therefore spent less than $7 million.) However, in reality, Bloomberg spent even more: if one counts money the Bloomberg campaign spent essentially buying the Republican and Independence Party lines, as well as giving "charitable donations" to agencies that, in turn, endorsed and even put people on the street for Bloomberg, the figure is closer to $200 million.
With his money, Bloomberg was able to send daily fliers to people, targeting recipients by race, gender, party affiliation, neighborhood and so on. He was able to run TV spots attacking Thompson every day for months. And he had the best campaign operation money can buy: hundreds of paid staff and a very highly sophisticated get-out-the-vote apparatus.
But with all of that, and two terms of incumbency, Bloomberg was only able to get ahead of Thompson by five points.
How did Thompson do so well, one might ask. The first thing to be said is that people don't really like Bloomberg that much anymore: he's known to be an out of touch billionaire, and people are especially unhappy with his maneuvers to change city election law to allow himself the opportunity to run for a third term (though New Yorkers had voted twice to limit all city offices to two-terms).
Thompson himself was good on the issues, and generally connected with the working people of New York City. While no campaign is perfect, his hit most of the right notes. He campaigned on a platform of, as he put it, taking the city back from Wall Street and the big developers who have been pushing working New Yorkers further and further out of the city. (In fact, a recent study showed that 1.1 million working New Yorkers had already left.)
Further, he had the backing of the vast majority of the African American, Latino, and Asian American elected leadership, and most of those communities. According to the New York Times, 82 percent of African Americans, and 65 percent of Latinos, voted for Thompson. Large sections of the Asian communities voted for Thompson, especially South Asians, who voted 61 percent for Thompson.
Thompson also had the backing from a number of the city's largest labor unions, including Transport Workers Union Local 100, AFSCME District Council 37, and a host of others. Labor did an impressive job of mobilizing the vote for Thompson. In many areas, DC 37 (which had endorsed Bloomberg in 2005) and TWU Local 100 worked together to bring out voters and drive them to polling places. All of the unions made efforts to contact their members and ask them to vote for Thompson. CWA Local 1180 put $500,000 into advertising, and TWU held several demonstrations and distributed leaflets condemning Bloomberg.
Thompson had the backing of most progressive elected officials as well as dozens of Democratic Party clubs, community organizations and churches.
Essentially, Thompson's campaign had the makings of the sort of all-people's coalition, the type we previously wrote would make it possible to defeat Bloomberg and his millions. As it turns out, we were correct in that assessment. A relatively little-known candidate, with less than $10 million (compared to $200 million), because of a broad coalition, nearly slew Goliath.
The question then arises: was it actually possible to win? The answer is an emphatic "yes." While Thompson had many things in his favor, he had a lot working against him (aside from a lack of money.)
Firstly, we can't ignore racism, which was fanned at the top, i.e. from the Bloomberg campaign itself, as a deciding factor. While it is true that there have been great strides forward in the fight against racism, especially with the election of President Obama, we are nowhere near living in a "post-racial" society. Simply looking at a map of who voted for Thompson and who voted for Bloomberg gives lie to that story: where red denotes an area that supported Bloomberg, the whitest neighborhoods were, on the map, also the reddest. To be sure, thousands of white people voted for Thompson, but there is clear evidence that a large percentage of the city's white population is still under the influence of racist ideology. (This was made shockingly stark in a city council race in Queens, where extreme racist rhetoric was used by a Republican pagan (literally) to defeat Kevin Kim, a Korean American.)
The Bloomberg campaign was almost explicit in its racism: Giuliani, stumped for Bloomberg, telling a crowd that "we don't want to go back to the days of Dinkins." He added, "You know what I mean." We know what he meant.
Another factor was a feeling, promoted by Bloomberg, that the incumbent's victory was inevitable. After the election, campaign leaders said this was an overriding strategy of the campaign: the spending overkill, even though Bloomberg's team knew it would annoy New Yorkers, was aimed at convincing people that he could not be defeated. This helped to suppress the vote for Thompson: If Bloomberg will win anyway, many reasoned, why go and vote at all?
This air of inevitability also played into another huge problem for Thompson: a split labor movement. While some big labor unions supported Thompson, a greater number sat the election out. SEIU 1199 and the United Federation of Teachers both avoided making any endorsement, while SEIU 32BJ and some others endorsed Bloomberg. It's possible to say that any one of these huge unions, with tens or hundreds of thousands of members each, could potentially have pushed Thompson to victory, had they either endorsed Thompson, not endorsed Bloomberg, or, better yet, both.
While we would never actually condone endorsing Bloomberg or sitting out the elections, We can certainly understand why they did: Bloomberg essentially told them, "I'm going to win the election, and you know what will happen to you if you oppose me." Most of these unions were simply concerned what might happen to them if they stood up to Bloomberg and he won: would he attack their contract? Would he go after them and do real damage to their members?
The results of this mayoral race are contradictory. We can look at the elections and see a bitter defeat, given that Bloomberg won. We could look at them and see a victory, given the closeness of the race and all the obstacles that Thompson and the movement around him had to go up against.
Most importantly, we can see opportunity.
What we said before was proven true: If we can build a movement of the labor movement, the African American, Latino and Asian communities, white liberals and other progressive forces drawn around that core, the people can defeat anyone. In this election, this coalition was built, but only partially. But even a partially built coalition was able to put us within a hair of replacing a 17th richest man in the world, who represents, as mayor, Wall Street and big developers with a mayor sympathetic to labor and progressive sectors of New York City.
Next time we go all the way.