The New York City Marathon is typically held two days before Election Day each November, ensuring a duel of citywide spectacles and plenty of timely running puns for tabloid headline writers. When Mayor Mike Bloomberg merged the two on Sunday, he made the metaphors easy. Bloomberg waved from a car along the 26-mile route – maximising his face time and minimising the sweat. His Democratic challenger, Bill Thompson, has had a harder time on the campaign trail: on Saturday, he was dodging puddles on a Harlem sidewalk as a campaign staffer chanted “Let’s tell Mike to take a hike!” through a megaphone.
Bloomberg was supposed to be on his way out of office, after serving the two terms limited by law. But a year ago, in the wake of the Wall Street crash, the mayor convinced city council to pass a one-time exemption to the term limits that would permit him to run once again. He has failed to make a good case for the reprieve, other than to argue that these are dangerous times and he is the only one with the wits and financial expertise to see New York through. Once again, New York’s wealthiest resident is financing a campaign from his own pocket. This time, Bloomberg appears certain to spend over $100 million, possibly twenty times more than Thompson, with a dazzling burn rate the Associated Press calculated at $35,000 per hour.
In the absence of so much cash, Thompson, an African-American who said he was inspired to run while waiting in line to vote for Obama, has grasped desperately for the White House’s backing. But Obama has resisted, allowing a spokesman to endorse Thompson only as “the Democratic nominee” and not by name. Obama has refused to campaign with Thompson, denying the campaign valuable pictures of the two as a team. (The “Endorsed by Barack Obama” signs festooning Thompson’s Harlem caravan have the two politicians’ silhoutetted heads floating in proximity to one another.) At the same time, Obama has happily met throughout the year with Bloomberg, whom he introduced once as an “outstanding mayor.”
Few New Yorkers quarrel with Bloomberg’s successes, and the closest Thompson comes to a coherent critique of Bloomberg’s New York is to argue that the mayor’s accomplishments in lowering crime and improving schools have made the city too liveable. Neighbourhoods in the outer boroughs and on Manhattan’s margins – which middle-class families eagerly fled for suburbs in the 1970s and 1980s – have become magnets for the wealthy, driving up rents for everyone. “New Yorkers need a mayor who’s going to fight for them rather than squeeze people out of the city,” Thompson argues.
After welcoming runners at the marathon’s finish line Sunday, Bloomberg headed to some of the outer-borough neighbourhoods he says are safer and more prosperous than ever before. In Jackson Heights, a dizzyingly multi-ethnic district of Queens, the mayor exited his Chevy Suburban in field jacket and open-collar shirt – his preferred campaign clothes. The outfit may have tried to communicate that the billionaire was an everyman, but his supporters’ chant – “New York Needs Mike” – indicated he had successfully convinced them he was an indispensable one.