It seems like a cheap shot to begin with Weiner, but I can’t think of a better way. I’ve been a huge fan of him since his Congress days, when he first made his name—not through pictures of his beloved namesake, but with fiery tirades from the House floor that left everyone in the first rows in danger of being drenched with spittle shrapnel. Sure, he didn’t really accomplish anything legislatively. But he was incredibly smart, with political gusto and great public speaking (or, more accurately, yelling) abilities.
I’ve always been a political junkie, but I’ve never been able to truly get behind one politician; all of them appear absurd and disingenuous, at least to some degree. Weiner was also absurd and disingenuous, but that was almost his shtick. He would stand up and yell about the absurdity of his colleagues, while simultaneously being equally absurd. It was perfect. Then, the infamous bulge happened, and after a whirlwind of terrible puns and opposition from everyone in the political game, he was gone.
To me, Weiner, in all his veiny and throbbing (his neck), red (his face), and erupting (his speeches) glory, perfectly represents the beast of politics. Politics is about smugness, about who can be heard the loudest, about massive egos, about meteoric rises and falls, and, more than anything, about contradiction.
It’s hard to imagine the delusions Weiner must have had in order to keep waking up every day and continuing to campaign for mayor. Despite his repeated infidelities, I still think he’s a fantastic politician. He clearly thought so, too, because he allowed himself to be the laughingstock of the most visible city in the world. Weiner and his wife, Huma Abedin, may seem scripted to the umpteenth degree, devoid of any real emotion, but nothing could be further from the truth. If you step back and consider him as a real human being instead of an amalgamation of New York Post headlines, Weiner’s life simply can’t be as placidly composed as he has presented it to be.
We are conditioned to believe that politics is an emotionally removed, scripted, and artificial game. It manages to be one of our most human and inhuman institutions—inhuman because of how fake it seems at times. A general sense of apathy—or, at least, cynicism—reigns supreme among most rational people in the country regarding politics, and for good reason. After following a campaign for even the briefest period, or watching any political press conference or interview, it is difficult not to be overwhelmed with intense skepticism, bemusement, and disgust. On a micro level, politics is defined by petty bickering, unapologetic pandering, and weather vane-ing for votes, along with laughably scripted, saccharine ploys for support (such as the proverbial kissing of the baby). On a macro level, politics is increasingly defined by large-scale money and interests.
But I’m not writing this article as another cynical “Everyone is Corrupt and our Votes Don’t Matter” piece. It would be trite and repetitive to decry politics as a failure because of the Citizens United ruling, or the gridlock in Congress, or the fact that even the best candidates betray their principles for a donation to their campaign coffers. It is easy to be jaded, to look at politics as a farce and engage it only as such, but that’s boring. The farcical element of politics is just one of its many layers, and by far its most superficial. I’m writing this piece to celebrate politics—yes, maybe because campaigns, especially this mayoral campaign, are hilarious and great entertainment. But also because politics, in spite of (and largely because of) all its inherent flaws, is also an intensely human institution.
Try, for a minute, to consider politicians as real people. It may seem like an inane request, but just try it. Politicians are people with complex lives, not the two-dimensional versions we become privy to through shallow interviews, stump speeches, and New York Times profiles. They have vivid lives with real worries, neuroses, emotions, and relationships. When you apply this perspective to campaigns, everything changes.
Politics is one of our most human institutions because it has a celebrity culture just as Hollywood does: We follow certain public figures’ lives down to the infinitesimal details. Unfortunately for people like Weiner, there’s an added agency to political celebrity: Prospective and current politicians are supposed to be accountable to us; thus, we have a reason to analyze them to some degree.
Politics, then, is the most authentic soap opera one could watch. And it’s this human interest factor that makes the mayoral race worthy of the attention of all citizens of New York, including Columbia students.
Mayor of the City of New York
The idea of a political executive is an insanely irrational bedrock of our government, and one that never really gets addressed. That we can elect a single person who represents millions of other people, either at a city, state, or national level, and that we undertake serious elections every four years to choose these officials, and that we do so without critically questioning the process, is astonishing. And since we don’t have a parliamentary system of governing—where the head of government is an extension of the ruling party and thus slightly more accountable to the electorate—at every level of government, the executive branch theoretically has unparalleled, unilateral power.
Of course, concerns about the absurdity of placing a whole country or state or city into the hands of one man or woman are mostly unfounded. At least in terms of the federal government, checks and balances prevent the president from amassing much power, beyond his influence as the ultimate bureaucratic figurehead, that is.
The New York City government, however, is a unique beast. It is organized as a mayor-council system. The council is the legislature, and comprises a unicameral body composed of 51 members, each representing a different geographic district. The council votes for a single speaker, a role currently held by Christine Quinn, until recently a Democratic candidate for mayor. The executive branch comprised an even more confusing amalgamation of positions.
First among these is public advocate: New York City’s version of an ombudsman. The public advocate acts as the people’s representative in the government, investigating complaints brought about by corruption and inefficiency. The position is a nascent one; it was created in 2003, and until recently was largely viewed as a toothless job with a tiny operating budget, a small staff, and the shortage of power that these imply. In 2009, Bill de Blasio, a current Democratic candidate for mayor, assumed the position and is largely credited with turning the job into something effectual.
The second position is New York City comptroller: in layman’s terms, the city’s head financial officer. The comptroller manages the $140 billion pension fund, audits city agencies, and conducts budgetary analyses, among other sexy money things. The comptroller is a powerful person to be, heading a staff of 700 people, and often moving on to bigger and better things. Former comptroller Bill Thompson, narrowly defeated by Michael Bloomberg in the 2009 mayoral race, was until recently a Democratic nominee for mayor, as was current comptroller John Liu.
Finally, we have the mayor—the head of the executive branch. In terms of actual enumerated powers, the mayor has a few tricks up his or her sleeve, including overseeing the city budget, city services, the police and fire departments, and—as of 2002—the city education system. The mayor also has the power of executive order, which Bloomberg specifically has used a great deal to his benefit. More than anything, the position of mayor in New York City is a powerful position. The mayor wields much influence in terms of setting policy nationwide—so much so that the mayor of New York City is often referred to as “America’s mayor.”
And with good reason. The issues that people seem to be passionate about—gay marriage, gun rights, taxation, abortion, marijuana, and various civil rights issues—are dealt with primarily on a city or state level, save for the occasional high-profile federal case or broader oversight. Since most of any executive’s power comes from his or her bully pulpit and ability to set the direction of policy, the executive of a city or state has tremendous power. This is especially true for New York City, which functions as a trendsetter for policy in the United States as a whole. Historically, the mayor of New York is the politician to whom city officials nationwide look in dealing with a range of issues—for instance, crime under Giuliani or health and gun laws under Bloomberg. From stop-and-frisk policies to smoking and soda bans, an enormous number of the laws that are constantly being debated nationwide originated in New York City and with Michael Bloomberg.
Our Billionaire Mayor
To truly understand the mayoral race, we need some context, which means looking at the current administration and how we got where we are now. What needs to be highlighted about Michael Bloomberg is his exceptionality as a U.S. politician and how this key characteristic defines the role of New York City mayor in general.
Bloomberg is an enigma and a paradox in modern politics, which is usually defined by partisanship and kowtowing to financial interest. Of course, the two traits go hand-in-hand, and this is the real reason Bloomberg can so easily defy both. He is famously one of the richest men in America (seventh, to be exact, with a net worth of around $27 billion, or about a third of New York City’s operating budget). Bloomberg earned his fortune through his financial data and media company, Bloomberg LP.
But our mayor’s massive wealth is a double-edged sword. On the positive side, it gives him immense freedom from the political machine—he essentially self-financed his three mayoral campaigns, spending a total of $260 million (pocket change) so that he could do and say what he damn well pleased. Originally a registered Democrat, he ran for mayor on the Republican ticket in 2001, using the extreme popularity of the Giuliani brand in the wake of Sept. 11, 2001, to catapult over the crowded Democratic field.
But Bloomberg never really fit in with the Republican herd. He fervently supports abortion rights (opposing the confirmation of John Roberts as chief justice of the United States on the grounds of Roe v. Wade and donating $250,000 to Planned Parenthood in 2012 after their funding was cut), he has pushed for stricter gun control (founding the group Mayors Against Illegal Guns, to which he has contributed millions of dollars), and he is in favor of stronger health insurance regulation (expanding Plan B emergency contraception without parental consent, expanding smoking bans, banning trans fat at restaurants, and infamously attempting the ill-fated soda ban). In 2007, he officially left the Republican Party, two years after his second election, and he continues to consistently defy partisan boundaries. He has obtained endorsements from prominent Democrats such as former Mayor Ed Koch and even endorsed President Barack Obama in the 2012 presidential election.
And yet, Bloomberg is still disdained by the New York City liberal vanguard. Many liberals regard him as “out of touch,” an unavoidable consequence of his fortune and clout. Bloomberg’s enormous political capital is largely derived from his wealth; he knows how powerful he is, and he demonstrates contempt and ambivalence toward his opponents. For example, in the 2009 election, he outspent Bill Thompson 14-to-1, pouring $102 million of his own money into the race—but still only won by 4.6 percent. Bloomberg also approaches the role of mayor from his background as a businessman. He is a strong fiscal conservative and has generated incentives for real estate revitalization during his tenure as mayor (which some would less euphemistically call gentrification). His ability to say and do as he wants has also proven to be legally problematic, with several of his programs—including the infamous soda ban and the stop-and-frisk policy—being rejected as unconstitutional and even racist.
The point is, even more so than Giuliani did after Sept. 11, Bloomberg has brought attention to the New York City mayorship and defined what it means to be one of the chief executives of urban America. Unapologetically outspoken, extremely intelligent, and politically savvy, Bloomberg was and remains a redoubtable figure. He may not be a phenomenal public speaker, but he is a larger-than-life personality and has an unquantifiable presence—large shoes that our new mayor will be hard-pressed to fill.
The 2013 race for mayor really began in 2009. Bloomberg, believing himself to be the only possible savior of New York from impending financial doom, began petitioning to change the city’s two-term limit for mayor and started running for a third term. The change would have to be approved by the City Council, whose speaker was the ambitious Christine Quinn. But Quinn had recently been implicated in the costly slush fund scandal of 2008—a textbook corruption case straight out of the Tammany Hall era, with questionable allocation of special funds going to hilariously-named fake groups such as the “Coalition of Informed Individuals.” Needing a rapid injection of political capital, she began strongly pushing to extend the term limits.
Next, add Bill de Blasio to the mix—a then-council member under Quinn, campaigning for public advocate, de Blasio used the term-limit controversy for his own political elevation. He had run for speaker in 2005, and at the time had strongly supported changing the term limits by legislation. However, in 2008, he was Quinn’s strongest opponent of changing the rules in the City Council, already casting himself as the man to defy the might of Bloomberg, while Quinn—accidentally or not—defined herself as Bloomberg’s lackey.
The term-limit proposition passed 29-22 in the Council; Bloomberg was allowed to run for a third term. He would go on to defeat Comptroller Thompson. Of the other two major candidates in the primary race, Liu was elected as the new comptroller in the same election cycle, and Weiner, who had mounted a strong primary challenge during the 2005 mayoral election, decided not to run against Bloomberg once the term-limit extension passed.
I should, I suppose, briefly explain why I’m only going to focus on the Democratic candidates. In short, the Republican field is not as interesting—the entertaining candidate, billionaire grocery magnate John Catsimatidis, lost in a landslide to ex-MTA chairman and former deputy mayor to Guliani, Joe Lhota. And, despite the fact that there hasn’t been a Democrat elected mayor since David Dinkins in 1993, Democrats outnumber Republicans six-to-one in the city, so it looks like the Republican candidate’s chance of winning in the general election will be slim. Then again, New York electoral politics can change as fast as every major candidate’s position on term limits.
Now let’s fast-forward to the recent past: Quinn, of course, announced her candidacy. Thompson, still smarming over the 2009 election, announced his candidacy. Weiner, ready to make his political comeback after the 2011 sexting scandal, announced his candidacy (to the surprise of no one). Comptroller Liu, who in 2011 was embroiled in a damaging scandal in which the FBI investigated irregularities in his campaign financing, inexplicably made his bid as well, (He would later be denied matching funds by the Campaign Finance Board, all but removing him from the race.) Finally, de Blasio—who had, since 2009, presented himself as the people’s rescuer of the outer boroughs against the elitist Bloomberg machine—made the decision to enter the fray, rounding out our cast of characters.
Quinn emerged as the early front-runner, soon to be haunted (with help from the group Anybody But Quinn) by her reputation as a minion of Bloomberg, caring only about selling out New York’s hospitals and real estate and hating all sick people and minorities (except the gay community). Only in New York could a gay woman be hated by the liberal community. Next, Weiner rose to the top of the pack, epitomizing New York politics—half scandal-induced celebrity, half political genius—until the second wave of scandals hit, relegating him to the bottom. With the fall of Weiner began the rise of de Blasio: The opportunity was there, and he took it, in the form of the best ad of the mayoral election.
A huge issue of this electoral cycle is identity politics. In one corner, we have Quinn—an Irish lesbian. In the next corner, we have Thompson—a black man. John Liu is Taiwanese and a first-generation American, and Weiner is Jewish. Then we have de Blasio—white and, other than being extremely tall, unremarkable. Somehow, though, he was polling ahead of the other candidates by double digits and doing well among women and black voters. Liberal bastions such as The Nation published op-eds saying that the LGBT community should support him, too. Looking through the lens of bright-eyed optimism, one might say that de Blasio is the only candidate who truly supported the rights of minorities—stop-and-frisk has been a major issue in the campaign, and he’s the only candidate to have truly opposed it from the beginning. As the argument goes, if you’re a gay New Yorker, Quinn will fight for your rights, but you’re still a minority, and must stand in solidarity with all other minorities. Thus, de Blasio is the candidate for you.
According to Bloomberg, though, de Blasio’s a racist. De Blasio is married to a black woman and has two mixed-race children. The ad that pushed him to the head of the pack featured an afro-ed, black 15-year-old named Dante talking about why you should vote for de Blasio, ending with the killer line, “and I would say that even if he weren’t my dad.” By using his family and highlighting stop-and-frisk, de Blasio was race-baiting, according to some.
Still, de Blasio managed to build a massive lead against his opponents that could, as we learned Wednesday morning, have nudged him over the 40 percent threshold needed to circumvent a run-off. But can we really know at this point what he’ll be like as the Democratic nominee for mayor, or, if he wins, as the mayor?
I may have said before that we shouldn’t view politics as a farce, but we can most certainly view primaries as a farce. Primaries tend to draw in more idealistic voters, and, especially in a field of candidates like the New York Democratic one, candidates’ stances don’t tend to deviate significantly. This results in outlandish debates in which candidates constantly try to change their positions and charge leftward—without, of course, appearing to be too much to the left. Overall, it’s a tight-rope balancing act that is hilarious to watch. Case in point: The debates consisted primarily of all the candidates ensuring “the viewers at home” that they always opposed stop-and-frisk (except when they didn’t, but that was only because they opposed crime!), and always opposed extending term limits, and, in the case of Liu, were set up by the FBI!
At the end of the day, it’s difficult to find the humanity in candidates during primary season, which is ironic because that’s exactly what primaries are designed for—at the last debate, the opening question asked candidates to describe their “personal struggle,” and the answers were (while I’m sure not disingenuous) comically melodramatic. What primaries are good for is attacking and more attacking (of which we saw plenty), sometimes causing major damage to the front-runner. Occasionally, candidates have been unable to recover in the general election because of their own party’s onslaught during the primaries.
The offensive against de Blasio during his time as the leading candidate targeted his class-based campaign. Besides his “Dante ad,” the strategy that pushed him to the lead was evoking a “Tale of Two Cities” narrative, in which he claimed that New York consists of those who have money and those who don’t, and that we have to bridge that gap through programs such as universal pre-K, paid for by a tax on those making over $500,000 per year. His opponents in the Democratic party painted him as an idealistic dreamer who clearly wouldn’t be able to push through any of his planned initiatives, while his opponents on the right accused him of inciting class warfare.
Still, despite all the attacks levied against him—racism, incitement of class hysteria, lack of political capital among New York insiders—de Blasio still managed to pull into primary day hovering around the magical 40 percent of votes needed to avoid a run-off. As poll results came out late Tuesday night and early Wednesday morning, he fluctuated between 39.5 and 40.5 percent, with Thompson declaring that a run-off was inevitable. Unfortunately and inexplicably, though, New York had brought out the old lever crank system for the primaries, so it could be many days until the exact total of votes and the status of the run-off is actually known.
So, is democracy alive in the general population? That’s really up to us as students. Most of us are from out of the city and the state, and thus aren’t registered to vote here. The good news is, a large part of the democratic process is simply being informed (or, at least, seeming to be).
Maybe the more important question is whether democracy is alive in the city? On primary day, I went with a photographer to a couple of polling locations for the sole purpose of getting yelled at for trying to take some pictures. We did manage to sneak in a brief interview with one person waiting in line to vote—a middle-aged Hispanic woman holding a one-eyed Chihuahua. We asked who she was planning on voting for and, with the passion you would expect from a woman holding a one-eyed Chihuahua waiting to vote, she answered: “Well, on one hand you got a pedophile, and a John on the other!” Assuming that she was referring to Eliot Spitzer and the comptroller race, I asked her about the mayoral election: “Well, I haven’t really read anything about it, so I don’t really know yet.”
Gotta love democracy.