Only twice in the past half-century has an incumbent mayor ever lost a Democratic primary — and the late Edward I. Koch figured in both the winning and losing sides of that equation.
In 1977, he triumphed over Mayor Abe Beame, who mustered 18 percent in a seven-candidate field. But in 1989, in his bid for a fourth term, Koch was foiled by David Dinkins, who tallied 51 percent of the ballot.
The odds of such a historical anomaly repeating itself just got a whole lot tougher after prosecutors on March 16 disclosed that Mayor Bill de Blasio, who had been bedeviled by twin federal and state probes of his fundraising practices, would not face criminal charges.
“If he got indicted, it might have made a difference,” said James McManus, 82, who is fluent in the fallout from scandal as political scion of the McManus Midtown Democratic Club, a Tammany Hall-style clubhouse on the West Side run by his family since 1891.
“But people get investigated all the time,” said McManus, who took over as club boss when his father died in 1963. “Nothing happens. They come back stronger.”
The bottom line with less than six months to go before the Democratic mayoral primary on September 12: “It now looks like de Blasio is going to be cruising toward victory,” said Keith Wright, the leader of the New York County Democratic Committee since 2009 and a former state Assemblyman from Harlem.
Not so fast opening the champagne at Gracie Mansion. Ducking legal jeopardy isn’t the same as escaping political peril. When law enforcers tell the world your finances are sketchy, your campaign unseemly, your behavior deep into the margins of the law, it is not exactly a gold star in civics class.
“The devil is in some very significant language used by prosecutors that could give an opponent arguments and advertisements in a low-turnout election,” said Hank Sheinkopf, a Democratic political strategist who worked on Mark Green’s mayoral run in 2001 and cut his teeth on Herman Badillo’s bid in 1969.
A would-be rival, for instance, could craft a TV or web spot quoting Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance, who rebuked the mayor for breaching the “intent and spirit of the law” on campaign contribution caps.
Or imagine an attack ad citing an unimpeachable source, say, Acting U.S. Attorney Joon Kim, who said de Blasio “solicited donations” from people who “sought official favors from the city,” then made inquiries on “behalf of those donors.”
An indictment might have proved a near-death experience, but a televised or digital broadside would also exact a toll. But where are the presumptive challengers who would create it?
Among cognoscenti, it’s widely known that Governor Andrew Cuomo has been quietly urging a few potential Democratic A-listers to run, including Comptroller Scott Stringer, Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr. and U.S. Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, whose district takes in a swath of Brooklyn and Queens.
Stringer has been the most visible recently, but none have taken the bait. A Quinnipiac University poll, released two weeks before de Blasio dodged indictment, gave him a commanding 43 percent of the vote in a hypothetical Democratic primary, trouncing the comptroller and Diaz, who managed a mere 10 and 6 percent respectively.
“The governor doesn’t like the mayor, and it’s obvious that he would be supportive of anyone who could give a mayor a real contest,” said political consultant George Arzt, who served as Koch’s third-term press secretary in the late 1980s. “But I don’t think he’s going to stick his neck out for just anyone.”
With the legal cloud lifted, most top-tier players will be unlikely to step forward, Arzt said. Even the founder-funder-organizer-webmaster-and-cheerleader for the Never-de Blasio movement seemed ready to throw in the towel. Brad Tusk, ex-Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s third-term campaign manager in 2009, has been courting possible candidates, actively seeking to topple the mayor and running a blog that says it all — NYCDeservesBetter.com.
“We’re not going to tilt at windmills,” said Tusk, who has spent $62,656 of his own money on video ads and online policy papers opposing the incumbent.
He said his group would still back a viable opponent if one surfaces, but added, “It’s pretty clear that the people who could pose a threat in a primary are not going to run … It’s politics, so anything can happen, but unless someone steps up, de Blasio is not going to lose.”
Still, a couple of X-factors could transform the dynamic overnight, and one of them is a recently-fired crimefighter who launched the de Blasio probe, investigated Team Cuomo, depopulated the state Legislature and racked up steep conviction rates in public corruption, terrorism and Wall Street cases.
Abruptly axed by President Donald Trump on March 11 after refusing to step down, ex-U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara was promptly drafted to run, for an unidentified office, by Public Advocate Letitia James, whose own name has been in the mayoral mix and who fired off a three-word tweet: “Run, Preet, Run.”
His future career moves remain unknown. But the New York electorate has a tradition of rewarding its storied racket-busters, like Thomas E. Dewey, the Manhattan district attorney who became a three-term governor and twice defeated GOP candidate for president, and Rudy Giuliani, the U.S. Attorney who became a two-term mayor and also ran an abortive campaign for the White House.
Then there’s the matter of a certain theater-going Chappaqua resident who locked up 86 percent of the Manhattan ballot in her last outing and still makes the pulse quicken and the heart race in some quarters of the city.
“Nobody’s ever a shoo-in, but if Hillary Clinton were to show up, it would be a complete walkaway,” Sheinkopf says. Tusk says she could prove the only viable challenger, but given the absence of charges, he doubts she’ll jump in.
Matched head-to-head with de Blasio in Quinnipiac’s January poll, Clinton bested him by a 49-to-30 percent margin. And don’t fret too much that she lives in Westchester County, where Bharara is also domiciled: state law merely mandates that a mayoral aspirant be a New York City resident on Election Day.
What would McManus do if she runs? Well, de Blasio has been a “pretty good mayor,” he said. “Hillary has been a good friend who came to my clubhouse several years ago.” So his club will see how things go and look very closely at them both before deciding.
And then he added cryptically, “The McManuses proved that you can fool all of the people all of the time.” Hello? What does that mean in the mayoral context exactly? “We’ll see,” he said.
There was no additional explanation.