NEW YORK (AP) — In the topsy-turvy New York City mayoral race that has been filled with larger-than-life characters, Bill Thompson has run a steady, under-the-radar campaign that has put him within striking distance of victory.
His Democratic rivals have seized the tabloid headlines: Christine Quinn, who is bidding to become the city’s first openly gay mayor, opened up about her alcoholism and bulimia. Bill de Blasio has made his family, which includes his afro-sporting 15-year-old son and formerly lesbian wife, the centerpiece of his campaign. And Anthony Weiner’s political resurrection captivated the city only to have it collapse under a new wave of sexting revelations.
And while the front-runners have changed repeatedly, the even-tempered, some would say charisma-challenged Thompson has remained consistently in third, just a few points behind the leaders.
“I think there were a lot of distractions over the summer, things that distracted us from the future of New York City,” Thompson told The Associated Press. “But I think it’s settled in now and people are focusing on the issues.
“I am very comfortable with where I am,” he said. “You don’t want to peak in February, you want to peak on Sept. 10 and I think I am heading that way.”
With little establishment support, Thompson came within five points of toppling Mayor Michael Bloomberg four years ago. But that showing did little to help him early in his 2013 campaign, which was marked by sluggish fundraising and sometimes confused messaging.
And for much of the campaign, he has maintained the lowest name recognition among the major Democratic candidates — despite being the party’s last nominee and the lone African-American in the race.
“Four years ago, most people were voting against Bloomberg, not for Thompson,” said Christina Greer, political science professor at Fordham University. “Thompson was starting over this year.”
A former comptroller and head of the city’s Board of Education, Thompson has spent much of the summer touting endorsements meant to appeal to a wide spectrum of interests. His backers include both pro-Bloomberg business leaders and the decidedly anti-Bloomberg teachers union.
Thompson, 59, also trotted out endorsements from minority leaders such as U.S. Rep. Charles Rangel and Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz to shore up support among blacks and Latinos.
The competition for minority voters — who are expected to make up more than half the primary electorate — has been fierce.
“This is a majority-minority city,” Thompson said in an interview before traveling to the nation’s capital to participate in the March on Washington anniversary commemorations. “If minorities aren’t doing well, it impacts the city. And they need help.”
According to a Quinnipiac University poll of likely Democratic voters released last week, Thompson is the top choice of African-American voters with 39 percent. However, de Blasio (22) and Quinn (18) also draw well. Overall, the poll of 579 likely Democratic voters had de Blasio at 30 percent, Quinn at 24 and Thompson at 22.
But with the margin of error at 4.1 points, the top three are nearly in a dead heat. If no candidate makes 40 percent of the vote in the Sept. 10 primary, the top two advance to a runoff three weeks later.
Traditionally, the African-American vote breaks late and Thompson’s team has expressed confidence it will turn for him. They believe his support has been undercounted and point to 2009 polls that had Thompson trailing by 18 points in the days before the election.
“I wouldn’t be surprised at all if his numbers improve,” said David Birdsell, dean of the Baruch College School of Public Affairs. “And he has unions to help him get out the vote.”
Thompson, who is from a powerful Brooklyn political family and now lives in Harlem, recently toughened up his rhetoric on the police department’s stop-and-frisk tactic, which may win him support in minority neighborhoods most directly affected by it.
But his message has sometimes been muddled. Unlike Comptroller John Liu, another mayoral candidate, he wants to reform — not eliminate — the practice. And unlike de Blasio and Quinn, he opposes the creation of an independent general outside of the NYPD to oversee police procedures. He also has the support of several police unions that believe stop and frisk drives down crime.
“This should have been his issue to own,” Birdsell said. “At moments, he’s a populist. At moments, he’s business friendly. Bill Thompson seems like he’s trying to have it both ways.”
Thompson’s team says his position has not changed, but last month he broke from his normally mild-mannered ways to issue a fiery condemnation of NYPD policies, saying the same culture that surrounds stop and frisk led to the death of Trayvon Martin, the unarmed Florida teenager killed by George Zimmerman, who identifies as Hispanic.
“Here in New York City, we have institutionalized Mr. Zimmerman’s suspicion with a policy that all but requires our police officers to treat young black and Latino men with suspicion, to stop and frisk them because of the color of their skin,” Thompson said to the nearly all-black Brooklyn church congregation.
He received a loud ovation.