Chief-Leader

September 19, 2017


Razzle Dazzle

Reality Leaves Albanese Defeated But Running On

By RICHARD STEIER

THAT 10th PERSON MUST HAVE VOTED A LOT: Sal Albanese made a late-hour pitch for votes on primary day outside an R-train station in Bay Ridge, insisting, ‘This race is a lot closer than people think. Nine out of 10 people hate Bill de Blasio.’ Four hours later, he discovered that whatever antagonisms exist toward the incumbent, he’s gained enough support for his pre-kindergarten expansion and a crime rate that’s continued to decline at the same time that stop-and-frisks are down significantly to allow him to outpoll Mr. Albanese by nearly 60 points and gain the Democratic nomination for a second term.
The Chief Leader/Rebecca White

Sal Albanese basically got what he wanted: a clean shot at Mayor de Blasio in two one-on-one debates to make the case that the incumbent didn’t deserve a second term and that, with the notable exception of his expanded pre-kindergarten program, was a creature of hype over accomplishment.
It would have been nice to have a couple of million dollars to be able to get TV commercials on the air to hammer home those points. But then, from the time he launched his long-shot run for the Democratic nomination for Mayor, Mr. Albanese understood the limitations he was under in challenging a well-funded incumbent while conspicuously short of cash and unwilling to seek it from donors similar to those backing Mr. de Blasio.

And so at 5 p.m. on primary day, he stood on the corner of 77th St. and 4th Ave. in Bay Ridge, in the heart of the City Council District which he represented the last time he held public office 20 years ago, greeting potential voters as they came off the R train. His entourage consisted of his wife, Lorraine, and the man running for Public Advocate with him, David Eisenbach, who teaches history at Columbia.

‘Nine Out of 10 People Hate de Blasio’

The night before, Mr. Albanese had been questioning why the pollsters hadn’t done any recent surveys on the race, wondering whether it was designed to depress turnout. “This race is a lot closer than people think,” he insisted. “Nine out of 10 people hate Bill de Blasio. That one-hour debate [Sept. 6] was like $2 million worth of airtime for me. Some people are comin’ over and telling me they like me, but they hate Bill de Blasio.”

It wasn’t unprecedented for local pollsters to ignore voter sentiment in the closing days of a race they believed wasn’t close. The same thing occurred in 2014 for the Democratic primary pitting Governor Cuomo against his largely unknown, underfunded opponent, Fordham University Law Professor and author Zephyr Teachout. One veteran Democratic strategist, working in the same information void that existed this time, said then that those advantages for the Governor figured to overwhelm the anecdotal reality that “everyone I speak to has some problem with Cuomo,” and concluded that if Ms. Teachout got 20 percent of the vote, it would be a “good showing” and if she got 35 percent, “she did great.”

As it turned out, she got 34 percent, in what was viewed as a slap in the head to Mr. Cuomo, who along with his surrogates had behaved boorishly during the campaign toward his challenger while refusing to debate her.

Mr. de Blasio hadn’t snubbed Mr. Albanese, debating him twice. He had merely been himself, which is to say given to condescension when he believed he was being unfairly criticized: during both debates he said several times that Mr. Albanese’s facts bore no relation to reality without specifically rebutting them, and suggested that his foe’s 20-year absence from government had left him out of touch.
Over the course of two interviews, the second one squeezed in between arriving trains, Mr. Albanese ticked off a list of areas of the city where he believed he could outpoll the Mayor and other ones where he believed he could hold down Mr. de Blasio’s margins of victory to 2-to-1. “There’s no way he’s gonna beat me in south Brooklyn or Middle Village or Forest Hills,” he said on primary eve. The following afternoon he declared that residents of the Upper East Side were “furious about there being homeless people sleeping on the streets.”

‘Should Do Well, But…’

Commuters heading home or to the polls took his campaign literature and wished him luck, with some remembering him from his days in the Council. “We should do well in this neighborhood,” Mr. Albanese said. “If we don’t, we’re in trouble.”

He quickly banished the negative reflection, saying, “We’re gonna win districts like this. I think if we can do decently in the African-American community, I think we can make it close.”

But he was wary of low turnout and lack of engagement on the part of the electorate because of the relative lack of coverage the campaign had gotten. “The media narrative is it’s not really a contest,” Mr. Albanese said. “That’s a problem for my campaign.”

He offered a quick example, saying that the Correction Officers Benevolent Association “gave me the maximum amount of money—$4,950” that any entity can donate to a primary campaign, but didn’t actually endorse him. “I think they believe the narrative: de Blasio is unbeatable so they don’t want to get him mad.” He said two other uniformed unions that have had strained relations with the Mayor, the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association and the Detectives’ Endowment Association, also gave him the maximum contribution but no formal endorsement.

Union donations like those were what helped him narrowly exceed the threshold for both fundraising and campaign spending that made Mr. Albanese eligible for the two primary debates, while three other challengers to Mr. de Blasio—Robert Gangi, Michael Tolkin and Richard Bashner—were excluded. But endorsements, particularly by the PBA, would have created some momentum, leading the media and then the voters to start wondering whether he could make it close. The unwillingness of the unions to commit that much served as a signal that they believed Mr. Albanese couldn’t scare the Mayor enough to be worth their antagonizing the incumbent.

Deconstructing DeB

One resident emerging from the subway steps told Mr. Albanese, “I’ll consider anyone running against Bill de Blasio.” After he walked off, the candidate returned to his critique of the Mayor’s record, not surprisingly judging him more harshly than most voters would.

“The schools are a mixed bag,” said Mr. Albanese, who was a city Teacher before he got into politics. “Crime is down despite Bill de Blasio. He’s alienated the entire police force. Rikers is a disaster—the morale of correction officers is terrible. He’s eroded the integrity of the government.”

Asked whether he believed the Mayor had focused on a few key issues—the pre-k program that has been praised even by Mr. de Blasio’s 2013 Republican opponent, Joe Lhota; further reducing crime; cleaning up the union-contract mess he inherited from Michael Bloomberg, pursuing an affordable-housing program—that had appeal beyond his voter base, while neglecting other pressing problems that didn’t draw as much attention, Mr. Albanese replied, “He’s failed on a number of macro issues.”

He repeated his previous claim that a steady decline in the crime rate dating back to the final two years in office of Mr. de Blasio’s old boss, David Dinkins, showed that Police Department methods would yield positive results no matter who the Mayor was. He questioned the thesis veteran journalist Juan Gonzalez put forth in his new book, “Reclaiming Gotham: Bill de Blasio and the Movement to End America’s Tale of Two Cities,” that the Mayor’s contract deals were an example of the $21 billion he had transferred to ordinary New Yorkers over the course of his term in his bid to combat income inequality.

An Unavoidable Choice

While tabloid editorial boards and conservative think-tanks criticized those deals as excessive, Mr. Albanese correctly noted that city bargaining history meant Mr. de Blasio would have been courting a ringing defeat in arbitration if he hadn’t given the United Federation of Teachers the two four-percent raises that most city unions previously got for a similar bargaining period from Mr. Bloomberg, as well as the large retroactive payments to which UFT members were entitled because of the long delay in reaching that deal.

Take out that aspect of his bargaining, the candidate continued, and what remained were contract terms for a seven-year period for the UFT and the rest of the city labor movement that failed to keep pace with inflation.

True enough. But Mr. de Blasio’s obligations in that situation were to rectify the damage done to the bargaining process by Mr. Bloomberg—who not incidentally had not left money in the labor reserve to cover pay raises of any significance for the final 26 months of his tenure beyond the point when the late 4-percent raises ran out—and bring the union up to parity without busting out his own budget and short-circuiting his other priorities. His Labor Commissioner, Bob Linn, and Budget Director, Dean Fuleihan, had combined to do a neat job of threading that needle, and UFT President Mike Mulgrew had been willing to meet them on those terms. Most other unions fell into line, if somewhat grudgingly.

The notable exception had been the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association, which went a long way toward explaining the unhappiness expressed by union members for a survey commissioned by the union that preceded its most-recent contract deal that Mr. Albanese cited as proof the Mayor had alienated his police force.

Selling Mayor Short

And this argument that under Mr. de Blasio’s three predecessors dating back 25 years, crime had also declined, and so why did he deserve special credit for the trend having continued, overlooked an important change in tone that he brought to the issue.

During the Giuliani administration, which made the greatest numerical inroads against murder and other felony crimes, the macho attitude that trickled from Rudy Giuliani down to street cops manifested itself in such an overbearing fashion in heavily black and Latino neighborhoods that toward the end of his second term, the then-heads of both the PBA and the DEA were complaining about a “blueprint for tyranny” and a “toxic” atmosphere that their members were facing.

Where Mr. Giuliani’s snarling breast-beating could rival Kanye West’s, Mr. Bloomberg lowered the temperature, in part by co-opting the Reverend Al Sharpton rather than trading insults with him. But his focus on numbers as the ultimate measure of effectiveness also created a feed-the-beast mentality in the NYPD that drove stop-and-frisks up from 97,000 during Mr. Bloomberg’s first year in office in 2002 to 685,000 by his 10th year, in the process producing a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the city’s methods for carrying out stops.

That suit, and a growing outcry among other elected officials as the rise in stops drew public attention, prompted Police Commissioner Ray Kelly in the spring of 2012 to send a memo to cops telling them to stop worrying about the number of stops they were making and instead focus on quality. The PBA later stated that this ended the unofficial quota for stops that had been in effect for high-crime minority neighborhoods. Even as that was transpiring, however, Mr. Bloomberg and Mr. Kelly continued to vociferously defend stops, warning that if a court ordered their curtailment, it could trigger a rise in crime that would rival the levels seen during the 1970s.

Stepped Out From Pack

It was Mr. de Blasio among the mayoral candidates during the 2013 election who was the most-outspoken about the abuse of stop-and-frisk. Once Anthony Weiner self-destructed in late July of that year and the sideshow accompanying his candidacy began to push voters away from him, Mr. de Blasio was the candidate who capitalized the most. The simple explanation for his surge in the polls beyond Mr. Weiner’s woes has been that a commercial featuring his 15-year-old son, Dante, humanized the candidate while showing he had a mixed-race child. But the substance of Dante’s tribute to his father, particularly the line that “he’s the only one who will end a stop-and-frisk era that unfairly targets people of color,” was a big part of why it resonated among minority voters in particular. It took Mr. de Blasio from the single digits in the polls to a victory without a runoff when he got 40 percent of the vote in the nine-person field six weeks later.

By the time Mr. Bloomberg left office at the end of 2013, stops for that year were 192,000—nearly a half-million fewer than two years earlier. But the departing Mayor, who was appealing a ruling that August by U.S. District Judge Shira Scheindlin that the NYPD had carried out its program in an unconstitutional fashion, never cited the dramatic reduction as evidence that his administration had been able to correct the problem, because he was too busy denying that a problem had existed.

As a result, Mr. de Blasio has arguably gotten more credit than he deserves for the continued downward trajectory on stops, which are now below 25,000 a year. But it’s been under his administration that the strongest effort to cultivate a better relationship between cops and minority communities since Mr. Dinkins was Mayor was launched, and unlike Mr. Bloomberg he has repeatedly reminded residents that the continuing drop in crime has made clear that the excessive stops of the past were a counterproductive example of questionable policing tactics.

Why Others Stayed Out

That kind of change, along with the pre-k program, accounts for why potentially more-formidable challengers than Mr. Albanese, who could have garnered more funding and greater media attention, opted not to take on the incumbent, even though his personality issues, ethical lapses and work habits have served as fodder for criticism, much of it legitimate.

Still, Mr. Albanese, as he prepared to leave the subway stop for an hour of relaxing before heading over to his primary-night headquarters at the Prospect Bar and Grill a few miles east, contended that those latter flaws might help him shock the city once the polls closed.

“The image of him coming out of the gym at 11 a.m. in a job that’s so demanding,” he said. “Poor people are being displaced and the neighborhoods are being gentrified—that’s why crime is going down.”

As to the Mayor’s significant achievement to that point, Mr. Albanese said, “Pre-k is a great thing. The jury is still out as to whether it’s an effective program.”

Four hours later, at 9:30, the jury had come back definitely on the election, with early returns—which remained virtually unchanged through the evening—showing the Mayor with 74 percent of the vote and Mr. Albanese slightly below 16 percent, and he was making his concession speech.

Running on Reform Line

With radio host and Reform Party chairman Curtis Sliwa standing among the small gathering of supporters in the bar, Mr. Albanese reminded them that he had won that party’s line, saying, “Tonight I guess is one win and one loss, because we’re going all the way to November.”

He briefly lapsed into past tense, saying, “It was a blast of a campaign; it really was a lot of fun.” Then he added, “I can tell you I’m gonna work as hard going forward to November as I did in the primary.”

When he first ran for Mayor in 1997, he got 21 percent of the primary vote, finishing behind Ruth Messinger and the Reverend Al. Four years ago, he barely registered among better-known and better-funded candidates, finishing eighth of nine and getting less than 1 percent of the Democratic vote.

Mr. Albanese spoke of raising just $200,000 compared to the Mayor’s war chest of $7 million, saying, “When they have a ton of developer money, when they have a ton of lobbyist money, it’s tough to compete.” He claimed that Republican nominee Nicole Malliotakis would have a hard time attracting support because of her having voted for Donald Trump and backing some of his policies as President, noting that he had always done well among Republicans while serving a Council District that was one of the city’s most-conservative.

It was as if he believed her party affiliation was likely to hurt her among GOP voters who generally still believe in Mr. Trump. He also is likely to discover that many of those who voted for him on the Democratic line aren’t going to follow him over to the Reform one now that it’s clear that voting for him would amount to a protest rather than a ballot cast on faith that the unlikely might happen.

‘Overwhelmed by Money’

“We were overwhelmed by a huge amount of money, and we had a respectable showing,” Mr. Albanese concluded as his supporters began heading for the door.

“I wish I’d done better,” he told a reporter. “I thought we were gonna do better based on the street reaction” during his appearances. “But we couldn’t overcome the de Blasio get-out-the-vote initiative,” a good part of which came from public-employee unions and predominantly private-sector ones like Local 1199 of the Service Employees International Union.

Referring to the unions that had given him financial support but no endorsements, he clung to the faint hope that they might “come through” in the general election. “We’re gonna have to ramp up our fund-raising,” Mr. Albanese said. “I just wish we could raise more money.”

A PBA source, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the union had made the $4,950 donation to Mr. Albanese’s campaign that helped him narrowly qualify for the debates because he had “been a staunch supporter of police officers for decades,” and that in those forums he raised several issues of concerns to its members. “In terms of endorsements,” he added, “the PBA primarily focused on the City Council” but expected “to look at the general election in the coming weeks.”

Whether it will give its endorsement to Mr. Albanese running on a minor party’s line remains to be seen.

His Best Shot?

He had gotten the best set-up he could have hoped for, short of a mayoral indictment: being the most-likely alternative to Mr. de Blasio and the only one on the debate stage with him. It hadn’t been nearly enough. More than likely Mr. Albanese knew that his last long-shot bid was over—four years from now, when he will be 72, at least four or five more-prominent candidates will be seeking the Democratic nomination. But he was going to run out this groundball, talking about how independent voters and disaffected Republicans might rally to him, and his Democratic backers might continue to shun their party’s choice.

“The de Blasio antipathies are still gonna be out there,” Mr. Albanese said. And he still had a party line, and the drive to keep running and hope the Mayor he disdained as a Red Sox fan would channel Bill Buckner and let the grounder slip through his legs.