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NY Politics: In America Goliath Always Beats David

New York Politics: In America, Goliath Always Beats David

By Kirk MacGibbon

The election for Mayor of New York City has not set the world on fire. But the unmistakable smell of burning cash has been wafting over the city as the incumbent, billionaire Michael Bloomberg spares nothing in his bid to win a second term in a totally one-sided election campaign. He’s spent US$63 million so far, which is expected to reach US$100 million by election day (Nov 8), the same as he spent the first time around – so much for the power of incumbency.

To give him credit, Bloomberg’s spending his own money. If you decline state campaign funds you can spend what you like, or have to. Ironically, public campaign funding, based on a formula that provides a given amount of public funds for dollar raised by a candidate, was introduced to try and create a level playing field. However, with the exemption that allows a candidate to eschew public funding if they use their own wealth, as one commentator noted the outcome has been not so much a level playing field as a vertical one.

The Democratic candidate, Fernando Ferrer who, in the miraculous event he did win, would become the first Hispanic mayor of New York, has been outspent at the rate of $17 to one. Dependent on donations, fundraising drives and state financing he has struggled to raise even a few million to counter the Bloomberg juggernaut. One media report graphically illustrated the differences between the two camps by looking at how much each camp has spent feeding the troops.

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According to AM New York, Bloomberg’s workers had munched through more than $35,000 of groceries, including “sodas, instant soup, nuts, candies, pretzels and java from a company that provides workplaces with refreshments and machines that brew single cups of coffee and cappuccino.” At campaign headquarters his workers can log on to a website to get takeout from a choice of hundreds of restaurants. That bill has exceeded $43,000.

If an army marches on its stomach, then Fernando Ferrer’s troops can’t be moving too fast, with spending of just $1000 on food including $200 worth of food from Whole Foods (at least it’s organic) and a few pizza orders. They don’t even get free coffee because, as spokeswoman Jen Bluestein noted rather tartly, they’re not supporting Ferrer “because they think there’s going to be a lot of fancy food and carbonated beverages.”

Neither candidate is particularly charismatic. Both are, on the face of it, barely distinguishable from each other as dour, grey, personality-free zones. One of the more unintentionally amusing photographs from the campaign showed Bloomberg riding the subway in the wake of the now largely discredited terrorist threat. He was standing in the midst of a group of commuters who seemed to have no idea as to who their fellow commuter was (mind you, it is a risky proposition to acknowledge anyone on the subway).

A clue as to why Bloomberg has had to spend so much money to get elected is perhaps offered by an article by Elizabeth Kolbert in The New Yorker (March 2004). She quoted a Quinnipiac University poll finding that only twenty-three per cent of New Yorkers wanted to see him reelected. Perhaps even more humiliatingly (and maybe a pointer to why Bloomberg has a $200 million desire to be mayor in the first place), was that New Yorkers were asked to imagine having Bloomberg over for Thanksgiving dinner. More than sixty per cent said they’d prefer not to.

There have been some mildly interesting moments: skirmishing over a new law that provides for free parking on Sundays (sponsored by the rather aptly named Vincent Gentile). Bloomberg vetoed it, but the council overrode his veto. He’d increased metered parking throughout the city to raise revenue in the wake of 9/11 but with the financial crisis having passed (and still no agreement on what should happen on the World Trade Centre site) councilors thought they should give something back. The numbers are not insignificant: US$12 million in lost revenue on 36,600 parking spaces and US$1.2 million to change parking signs. (A ticket for parking at an expired meter costs US$65.)

There was a minor stoush over high school dropout rates (which hover around the 50 per cent mark). And a faux pas by Ferrer when he failed to correct a report that he had attended a public school when in fact he had attended a private catholic school.

Ferrer has tried to run on a campaign theme of ‘two New Yorks.’ One wealthy and gleaming, the other poor and neglected. He in fact, tried to hold a number of press conferences in run down areas, but it seemed someone from council was reading his publicly available list of campaign engagements. Each time he turned out at some park or subway station to highlight its dirty and dilapidated state, council workers had turned up an hour or so earlier and cleaned it. He joked he should include all rundown areas on his campaign trail to get action.

But his big problem is the relentless optimism of New Yorkers. While poverty and hardship are easy to spot anywhere in New York, and the state of public infrastructure like footpaths and roads is diabolical. Footpaths are not so much pedestrian boardwalks as semi-paved obstacle courses littered with everything from household and business garbage to drunks and beggars. But as long as you keep looking up everything does look great. And no one really wants a candidate reminding them that the consequences of failure in this country are significant and never very far away.

So Bloomberg tells people in a flood of television advertising that things are going pretty well and, really, change is not something they should be contemplating right now. And unfortunately for Ferrer, there are a lot of Democrats who agree with him. Even the Clintons have only extended a cautious and arms length endorsement of Ferrer.

So the contest between Democrat-turned-Republican Bloomberg and Fernando Ferrer is interesting not so much because of the massive inequality in spending power – afterall, this is New York – as it is for yet more evidence that ideology and traditional party loyalties are becoming less relevant to voters the world over than pragmatic assessments of which party or individual can do the job – or at least convince people that he’s not going to muck it up. Bloomberg will win a second term as a Republican mayor in a city that has a majority of registered Democrat voters. Goliath will beat David, and Bloomberg’s $200 million ‘bonfire of the vanity’ will ensure he still gets invited to parties, even when most would prefer he didn’t.


Kirk MacGibbon is a expat Kiwi now living in New York.

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