September 23, 2019

Opinion still matters more than money

New York City voters appear to be moving beyond the era of their three-time mayor Michael Bloomberg, who has long dominated the city’s politics. With the Sept. 16 concession of William C. Thompson, the winner of New York’s Democratic mayoral primary is the liberal Bill de Blasio, who ran as the anti-Bloomberg and finished well ahead of the mayor’s choice, Christine Quinn. De Blasio’s Republican opponent in November will be Joseph J. Lhota, running as a supporter of the mayor, and as a distinct underdog.

Bloomberg has had a remarkable run in New York City politics, but in an era of big money in American politics, we nevertheless see once again that politics and our party system have rules of their own that can match and even overcome money’s power. And these limits on Bloomberg’s influence do not involve only New York City, but also his prospects for national influence.

Bloomberg is an unusual American political figure. He not only has one of the largest fortunes in the nation, but he has used that financial power effectively in support of a successful political career. He is no H. Ross Perot, turning into a caricature of himself. Nor is he like the Koch brothers, pulling strings behind the scenes to support their conservative ideology without facing the voters directly. Bloomberg has proven to be a popular candidate for office, and an influential and savvy office holder. 

For more than a decade, he has dominated New York City politics, about as difficult an environment to dominate as one can imagine. In that sense, he is more like Nelson Rockefeller, former governor of New York (1959-1973), than like most of the other rich folks who have seen in themselves great qualities of political leadership not visible to their fellow Americans. 

Ideologically, Bloomberg mixes social liberalism with centrist economics. Many business-oriented Republicans think this is where their party should be. Many Democrats like his deep pockets and effective organization in favor of gun control. Bloomberg has probably single-handedly kept the movement for gun control alive in the last few years. No matter what happens in the mayoral election, he is likely to remain a national force on that issue.

A Democrat until he switched parties to win as a Republican mayoral candidate in 2001, he inherited Rudy Giuliani’s right-leaning voters, but had much less of his predecessor’s overheated and polarizing style. State legislators who would never have let Giuliani get a whiff of controlling public education comfortably handed the school system over to Bloomberg. As a Wall Street-friendly mayor, he fit in well with the Bill Clinton/Cory Booker world of high finance and Democratic politics so prevalent in the Northeastern corridor.

And yet his power and appeal have proven to have limits. If the network of free-floating centrists that yearns for a candidate beyond party had their way, Bloomberg would have been chosen as president by acclimation years ago. But you still have to get elected president, and to get elected you first you have to win the nomination of a major party.

Bloomberg has run up against the inherent power of political parties to overcome even the best-bankrolled individual. He is way too liberal for the Republicans (as, similarly, John V. Lindsay found decades ago). After all, when Rockefeller made a bid for president, he was crushed by the grass-roots conservative forces of Barry Goldwater in 1964. And Bloomberg’s cherished political independence would not thrive in the brawling and diverse Democratic Party, with its already established and powerful fundraising network since the rise of Barack Obama and its increased focus on challenging economic inequality.

When Bloomberg has taken his show on the road, he has found his support a mixed asset. His backing of a Los Angeles school board candidate backfired, and his underfunded but locally effective opponent prevailed. The recent recall of two Colorado state senators who backed gun control, despite Bloomberg’s support, showed more limits to his reach. His efforts to influence the behavior of New Yorkers and what they consume became the fodder of late-night comedy. 

Bloomberg’s successful effort to expand the city’s two-term limits on mayors to win council approval of a third term showed his influence and even his popularity, but it also left him open to major changes in voter attitudes by the end of that third term.

For now, Bloomberg finds himself out of sync with growing numbers of his own constituents on two critically important issues: the stop-and-frisk policies that divided the city on racial grounds and the issue of economic inequality that has steadily grown as a challenge to Wall Street. In other words, old-fashioned voter opinion, likely to shift as demographics and issues evolve, still matters.

Bloomberg is proof that, while Americans have shown no particular distaste for wealthy candidates, neither has their electoral path been all that easy. Politics — whether the parties or the voters — still provides the essential check on the influence of those who command vast economic resources.

Raphael J. Sonenshein is executive director of the Edmund G. “Pat” Brown Institute of Public Affairs at California State University, Los Angeles.