Voters sent incumbents a clear message

We all know that the political game sometimes appears as loaded as a pair of suspect dice. We think that the little people get the short end of the collective stick and the sure shots always win. But every now and then, we get a surprise. For example, the recent win by Mayor Mike Bloomberg in New York City by a scant margin, despite his having spent around a hundred million bucks, is proof that the voters can sometimes have minds of their own. This election served as a predictor that when trouble visits, no politician is safe. Incumbents were sent a message, “You said that we could depend on you, but you didn’t produce.”

Right now, if you were a bookie you would be quite sure that Andrew Cuomo will be our next governor; Kirsten Gillibrand and Chuck Schumer will be re-elected to the United States Senate and there will be no surprises come Election Day. But a restless electorate has a lot of politicians sweating.

I had a conversation with Ed Cox, the new state Republican chair the other day. He is bright and single-minded, but he has been out of favor with his party big-shots like George Pataki and Rudy Giuliani. Cox believes that the Republicans are on the rise. He describes himself a fiscal conservative and believes that the people have had enough of tax and spend. He points to victories in several Democratic strongholds like Westchester, Dutchess, Ulster and Nassau counties. But when asked who he has on the Republican bench to take on the mighty Democrats, he has no names to offer other than Giuliani and Pataki. He says that Republican wins around the state will encourage Rudy to run for governor. He also says that a number of business types will find this a good time to get into electoral politics. That may be, but it does seem unlikely that a bunch of “who-he’s?” will prevail over the big names in the Democratic Party.  However, you never know. Andrew Cuomo’s father, Mario, lost to the then obscure George Pataki. Clearly, Pataki didn’t win more than Mario lost. “All mouth no go,” was the chant from the hustings.

Bloomberg almost lost to William Thompson, the New York City comptroller. His name is now being mentioned for a number of offices, including as a possible primary opponent for United States Senator Kirsten Gillibrand. We all know that the word has come down from the White House that no one should take on Gillibrand. A lot of people, like the popular Long Island Democratic Congressman Steve Israel or Manhattan Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney would have beaten Gillibrand, but Obama said nothing doing.  Tongues are wagging, suggesting that if Obama had seriously campaigned for Democrat Thompson against Bloomberg, Thompson would have won. As a man of color and competence, Thompson has a huge New York City base and would likely prevail against Gillibrand in a primary contest. Remember that Governor David Paterson has his own grudge match going with the White House, having been told to step aside. Despite his having appointed Gillibrand, he might find some way to help Thompson. If Caroline Kennedy, who helped secure the nomination for Obama only to be mishandled by Paterson, were to side with Thompson, there could be hell to pay for Gillibrand.

Will Thompson do it? Who knows? Probably not, but he could. If Obama sends down the word to get out, would he? Why should he? “Payback,” it is often said, “is a bitch.” The best revenge is success. Frankly, I don’t see how Thompson can lose in a primary where he is seen as someone who almost prevailed against overwhelming odds, a modern David to Bloomberg’s Goliath. Of course, it will take some guts. It will mean that all those members of Congress who backed Gillibrand (perhaps under duress) will have to re-evaluate their endorsements.

The Gillibrand-Schumer forces have got to be worried about this. Schumer can’t lose his race, but Gillibrand is the soft spot on the ticket. Perhaps the White House will announce a major job for Thompson. Perhaps Thompson, a successful city comptroller, will run in a primary for state comptroller, but in years like these, you just never know. Would you rather be a United States senator or a state comptroller? Fascinating.

Originally Published in the Legislative Gazette, 11/16/09

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