NEW YORK — Incumbent Republican Michael Bloomberg defeated progressive Democratic challenger Fernando Ferrer by 19 percentage points in the Nov. 8 elections, in a city where Democrats outnumber Republicans five to one. The big question, as taken up in the news media and by democratic forces, is: Why?
A New York Daily News writer pointed out that Ferrer’s message was the most progressive in years, and that he spoke — more than any recent Democratic candidate — to the issues of greatest concern to New Yorkers: failing schools, high unemployment and out-of-control housing costs. Yet he was still defeated.
Some point to his campaign’s shortcomings. But others point to the influence of anti-Puerto Rican chauvinism, splits in labor and the traditional democratic coalition, the questionable ethics surrounding Bloomberg’s use of incumbency, and especially the issue of money.
Ferrer was vastly outspent. Bloomberg poured nearly $100 million of his $6.5 billion net worth into the race, while Ferrer had to struggle to raise about $9 million. Bloomberg’s spending, called “obscene” by various sources (including some of his own supporters), allowed Bloomberg to dominate nearly all the media. For example, according to Mediaweek, Bloomberg bought 996 radio advertisements, compared with Ferrer’s 143. The Times reported that Bloomberg had 10 times as many television ads as Ferrer.
Bloomberg’s billions allowed him to hire an army of campaign workers, many of them teenagers paid at an hourly rate higher than the salary of rookie policemen.
The British Daily Telegraph noted the 10-1 spending advantage, saying that Bloomberg was “floating to a second term on a vast cushion of his own money.”
The money issue hurt Ferrer in two ways: it allowed Bloomberg, not Ferrer, to paint a picture of who the Democrat was, as well as to portray his message in a skewed way. In addition, very early in the debates, when Ferrer was handily beating Bloomberg in opinion polls, much of the news media declared a Bloomberg victory inevitable, based on his huge reserves of cash.
The idea of inevitability grew throughout the campaign, and, many say, served to keep Ferrer’s supporters at home. Voter turnout was only 1.2 million, compared with 1.4 million in 2001. Accordingly, Bloomberg’s victory was won with only 15.4 percent of the electorate’s vote.
In addition to direct election spending, Bloomberg made personal “donations” totaling up to $182 million to community organizations — many of them Democratic-leaning, just prior to Election Day.
Democrats are usually outspent, one commentator wrote, but depend on an army of volunteers, often mobilized by labor, to win. Ferrer could not count on this either. Aside from the Transport Workers Union, the Civil Service Employees Association/AFSCME, SEIU 1199, and the Communications Workers, nearly all the city’s other unions endorsed Bloomberg, despite that fact that he had been battling with most of them for years.
For many union leaders the question became tactical: Support Ferrer and hope he wins, or support Bloomberg and hope that that support will count once he won, as most expected he would.
Also, just before the election, Bloomberg settled a number of contracts — with police, sanitation workers, teachers, and others — with cash bonuses up front. The question before labor leaders became whether or not to campaign for Ferrer and receive a better contract under his administration, or to assume Bloomberg would win, and take what they could get.
Because of his wealth, Bloomberg did not have to participate in the city’s progressive campaign finance law rules, including debate requirements. Bloomberg had the upper hand here, and scheduled only two debates, one of which was at 9 a.m. the Sunday before Election Day. Bloomberg was rightly worried about debates — Ferrer was declared the winner of both. Unfortunately, they were too close to the elections to change anything.
Also, the issue of racism cannot be overlooked. If it were just Latino and Black voters who decided the election, Ferrer would have won. However, Bloomberg received 70 percent of the white vote. Even in liberal, mainly white areas, Bloomberg handily defeated Ferrer. This suggests that racism played an important role in this election.
Looking at these trends, it seems that, at a certain point, Bloomberg’s money and unethical use of his incumbency became insurmountable problems for Ferrer, no matter how he ran his campaign. Progressive forces are now debating what needs to be done, and surely rules around campaign spending are on the agenda, as well as a fight against racism in general, and anti-Puerto Rican chauvinism in particular.