Wednesday, March 30, 2005

Lions, Lambs, Elephants, Donkeys and City Hall

The New York Times
March 30, 2005

Lions, Lambs, Elephants, Donkeys and City Hall

The Rev. Al Sharpton has thrown his support behind the proposed West Side stadium, a major initiative of Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg's. Fernando Ferrer, a Democrat who wants Mr. Bloomberg's job, is courting police officers, a group generally considered a key constituency for a Republican mayor running on his public safety record.

James S. Oddo, one of the few Republicans in the City Council, is a frequent ally of the pro-gay marriage, pro-tax, pro-abortion rights Democratic mayoral candidate, Gifford Miller, while Charles E. Schumer, the senior senator from New York and one of the state's leading Democrats, frequently compliments Mr. Bloomberg. And there was Mr. Bloomberg on NY1 News on Monday night speaking in glowing terms about Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton.

By the standards of past mayoral races, lions are lying down with lambs in this contest, and wolves are keeping hens as pets. Although it is in its early stages, many alliances seem oddly out of place, longtime political observers say.

There is plenty of time for the city's political planets to realign, but for now, several factors have come together to cause the Republican incumbent and his Democratic challengers to spend more time courting each other's voting bases than their own. In some cases, they are gaining backing among the others' supporters.

Most important, Mr. Bloomberg, though nominally a Republican, often acts like a Democrat, siding with that party on many social issues.

The city's racial tensions have often been a catalyst for political polarization, but they have been relatively quiet over the past three years, in large part because Mr. Bloomberg's Police Department has worked to keep them so.

The mayor's stadium plan has attracted an unlikely group of cheerleaders eager to see jobs created for black and Hispanic workers if the project goes through. And Democrats, who often form a circular firing squad, are weary and divided after a bruising mayoral campaign in 2001.

"It is kind of crazy," said Jennifer Cunningham, political director for 1199/S.E.I.U., the health care workers' union, which is still weighing its endorsement. "I think we have the combination of shifting demographics and the seeming disparity between people running like Democrats but voters electing Republicans."

Lee Miringoff, director of the Marist College Institute for Public Opinion, said that as things stand now, "Politics is a little up for grabs in the city," citing Mr. Bloomberg's unusual political position as the primary cause.

The mayor switched his party registration from Democrat to Republican in 2000 and has even referred to himself as "a liberal." In the latest Marist poll, taken earlier this month, nearly a third of the voters interviewed said they considered Mr. Bloomberg to be more a Democrat than a Republican.

Some Democrats believe that such a perception could hurt the mayor among the more conservative white voters in the boroughs outside Manhattan who were crucial to his victory over Mark Green in 2001. Democratic strategists say they believe their party might just be able to pick up some of those voters, who were especially displeased with the mayor's 2002 property tax hike and who frequently complain about his failure to settle contract disputes with the teacher, fire and police unions.

For his part, Mr. Ferrer has been seriously tweaking his 2001 campaign theme, which revolved around "two New Yorks" - one poor and the other rich - which discomforted many white voters. The "other New York" for which he is vowing to fight this year seems to include more white and middle-class New Yorkers, if one judges by his appearances at community meetings in white neighborhoods in Staten Island, Brooklyn and Queens and by a recent meet-and-greet event with voters at Zabar's on the Upper West Side.

Two weeks ago, Mr. Ferrer attended a Sergeants Benevolent Association meeting in hopes of winning its endorsement when he made his infamous remark that the fatal 1999 police shooting of Amadou Diallo was not a crime. The comment enraged many black voters, but his appearance at the meeting emphasized that Mr. Ferrer and his strategists see a chance to pick up support from the police unions, who are hostile to Mr. Bloomberg.

The mayor's political strategists are not too worried about that possibility, and even see new opportunities among voters who supported Mr. Green last time. In fact, Mr. Green may have given them cause for that optimism by frequently speaking well of his 2001 opponent, going so far as to say of Mr. Bloomberg in a recent interview, "I'm not going to vote for him, but he's been pretty competent, with flaws."

Even Mr. Sharpton has said Mr. Bloomberg's style seems so low-key next to that of his bare-knuckled predecessor, Rudolph W. Giuliani, that he is often hard pressed to organize opposition against the mayor. "I've always said that Bloomberg benefited from having succeeded such a figure of hostility," Mr. Sharpton said during an interview late last week.

Mr. Sharpton's hushed tones do little for the mayor in certain quarters of the city - conservative, white ones - where Mr. Bloomberg could use some help. The mayor may not have helped himself in those areas by constantly praising Democratic lawmakers.

Having endorsed Mr. Schumer last year and suggesting he could give Mrs. Clinton the nod, Mr. Bloomberg risks reigniting anger within his Republican base. As one of Mr. Bloomberg's primary opponents, the former Republican leader of the City Council, Thomas V. Ognibene, put it: "Once you have a quote, Republican mayor endorsing Democratic candidates for statewide office, that has a ripple effect," adding, "It throws everything off kilter."

Then again, everything already is.