Incumbent-free mayoral election is familiar

Mayor Michael Bloomberg arrives at a public appearance

Mayor Michael Bloomberg arrives at a public appearance after it was revealed that anonymous threats to the mayor were made in letters that contained material that when tested locally, preliminarily indicated the presence of ricin. (May 29, 2013) (Credit: Craig Ruttle)

Talking heads and pundits like to pound the shortcomings of New York City's current mayoral candidates.

The contest generates its public stumbles and forums full of cliches. Some see a charisma drought. And those most comfortable with Mayor Michael Bloomberg's extended stay fret over what lies ahead at City Hall.

But look back to this stage of the last incumbent-free city election and you may find a familiar scene.

To many, if not most, who followed his first campaign at its outset in the spring of 2001, Bloomberg appeared less than ready for prime time. Any candid observer would have found it difficult to imagine that this little-known billionaire would win election not only once, but three times.

Bloomberg's first ad that June seemed to mock the city's campaign-finance program, which of course he didn't need. His spokesman had to explain that Bloomberg didn't oppose the program for others without his kind of wealth.

His campaign aides complained about a Democratic "tracker" sent to record Bloomberg events -- but sent one of their own to the kickoff for Herman Badillo, Bloomberg's GOP primary rival that year.

Bloomberg faced questions about sex discrimination lawsuits against his company -- and about off-color jokes he told there. And that spring, when someone in Queens asked him what he thought of the Second Amendment, he replied, "And that one is . . . ?"

Others in 2001 tried, as always, to use lesser offices as steppingstones. Just as Comptroller John Liu and former Comptroller Bill Thompson run for mayor, so did Comptroller Alan Hevesi 12 years ago. By spring, Hevesi's error-riddled campaign was running aground -- and not even due to outright corruption, as his state career did later.

The council speaker ran in the Democratic primary, as Christine Quinn does today. But, speaker Peter Vallone Sr. finished third. Bronx Borough President Fernando Ferrer ran as representing the "other New York," much as Public Advocate Bill de Blasio this year evokes "two cities." Ferrer landed first in the primary but lost a runoff to Public Advocate Mark Green -- all in the weeks after the World Trade Center attacks. Green ended up narrowly losing the general election to Bloomberg

Privately, even some of Mayor Rudy Giuliani's aides in late 2001 expressed doubts about Bloomberg, whom their boss backed. The city went on, and in some ways thrived.

A sense of "the-current-field-doesn't-inspire" can be crafted to serve specific individuals. It has become a "why-not" rationale for those disposed to embrace former Rep. Anthony Weiner's entry on the strength of millions of dollars in campaign contributions he collected pre-scandal. It could still serve as an impetus for Police Commissioner Ray Kelly to run after begging off.

Downplaying differences among Democratic hopefuls -- "they're all the same," or "it's a circus" -- can prove useful to Republican candidates, who argue at this stage that the majority party candidates are too beholden to certain "interests" to manage effectively. Whether that works again could be this November's biggest question.