Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Bought and Sold

We were heartened to read yesterday that Bloomberg LLP had purchased BusinessWeek magazine-and immediately wondered whether or not the folks of New York City would once again be a similar commodity. In yesterday's first mayoral debate, Bill Thompson did his best to dramatize this salient point-Mike Bloomberg's promiscuous use of his own money to buy up everything in sight. As the NY Post points out: "For his part, Thompson accused Bloomberg of using his massive wealth to buy votes, charging that the mayor bought party lines and donated funds to curry favor with influential community groups. "We are not for sale!" Thompson said at one point. Bloomberg insisted he's independent of special-interest politics. "I'm not out there buying votes. I'm out there trying to run the city," he said."

Yet with this, as with so many other things, Bloomberg has proved to be a master multi-tasker-and he is famously buying votes, outspending his opponent by a margin of 16-1. The question that remains is whether the current economic climate-and the term limits over turn-will be a sufficient lever to allow Thompson to unset the incumbent. As Michael Powell observes in the NY Times: "In fairness, neither mayor nor comptroller made the night electric; Mr. Bloomberg in particular tended to dole out energy a miserly watt at a time. The city is sunk into recession’s mire, unemployment tops 10 percent — black male unemployment edges toward 50 percent — and foreclosure threatens working class families, and the candidates made glancing mentions of all of this. (Neither candidate uttered the word foreclosure)."

And while Powell felt that Thompson failed to adequately define himself for voters, it is our view that the election isn't really about the challenger-and Thompson needs to continue to simply reassure New Yorkers that he would be a capable steward, while hammering away at the mayor's promiscuous personal spending tactics. The NY Daily News' Adam Lisberg feels that he was successful in his first face to face debate: "He smiled more than the mayor, he hammered his points hard after some opening stumbles, and he held his own in their frequent back-and-forth exchanges. He even aimed the best line of the night at Bloomberg, one that distills his campaign into two sentences: "At every level, it hasn't been about the people of New York City. It's been about you."

The pay for play exchange was also, at least for us, an effective parry for Thompson-and he'll need to really continue to highlight the disastrous city economy, while questioning whether or not the mayor really understands the average New Yorker. Bloomberg tried to convey an empathy in the debate that he's hard pressed to portray with any real sincerity. As the NY Times reports: "While Mr. Thompson questioned whether the “richest man in the city” could be entrusted to lead the government, the mayor tried to show he was in touch with ordinary New Yorkers, saying he was hearing the pain of people “in the subways, in the diners, on the streets.”

But to us the real issue-aside from the outrageous rejection of the popular will by the free spending Bloomberg-ironically remains competence-and Bloomberg's overrated status as a manager. Deconstructing the false narrative is the big Thompson challenge for the final three weeks of this election. We'll give Lisberg the last word: "The more Bloomberg looks like just another candidate, the more he loses some of his above-politics aura - especially when he says things like, "I'm not out there buying votes." But the more Thompson looks like just another candidate in a fair fight, the more he looks like a potential mayor - not just the sacrificial lamb people expected in the spring. Strident anti-Bloomberg rhetoric has brought Thompson within 8 points of a popular incumbent who has outspent him, 16 to 1. Thompson has not presented his own strong rationale for running the city. That's not what his campaign is about. But by looking like a real contender Tuesday night, he looked like a guy who could win."