May 20, 2005

Diaspora: Big apple, small potatoes


The race for New York City mayor has been under way for quite a while, but the campaign's real public kickoff came this week, when Mayor Michael Bloomberg launched his first ad campaign with a series of Spanish-language TV spots touting his accomplishments during his three and a half years in office.

By speaking directly to Spanish-speaking voters, Bloomberg was both firing a broadside at the campaign of one of his lead Democratic rivals, former Bronx borough president Fernando Ferrer-a Spanish speaker of Puerto Rican descent-and harking back to a long tradition of New York City politicians showing they can speak in the variegated tongues of the city's many foreign-born residents.

For some, it means a few words spoken in Spanish, Russian, Chinese or Yiddish. The late Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia famously could pander to New Yorkers in three different tongues-English, Italian and Yiddish. Nowadays, most candidates make do with cultural gestures like wolfing down a tongue sandwich on the Lower East Side, marching in the St. Patrick's Day Parade, or going shopping in Chinatown.

In the six months left before the November election, New Yorkers can expect to see a lot more of these gestures, and the same faces popping up over and over again at parades, street fairs, and gala dinners.

There's Gifford Miller, the baby-faced City Council speaker with high political ambitions and a penchant for the theatrical. There's Rep. Anthony Weiner, a Jewish congressman from Brooklyn whose district, style and forbearance are not unlike that of his predecessor in the position, Sen. Charles Schumer. And there's Ferrer, a repeat mayoral contender who never has been able to build much of a constituency beyond his native Bronx or natural Hispanic constituency. All are Democrats.

All are also poor-at least, compared to the billionaire Bloomberg. Despite the liberal politics of the overwhelming majority of New Yorkers-the city's voters are heavily Democratic-it's likely to be an uphill battle against Republican Bloomberg, largely because the first-term incumbent has a war chest far greater than any of his rivals.

Last time around, in 2001, the businessman-turned-mayoral hopeful spent more than $75 million to beat his Democratic rival, Mark Green, breaking the spending record for a mayoral candidate. He was helped by voters' seeming willingness to risk change at a time when the same old, same old, simply wouldn't do: New York had just suffered the attacks of Sept. 11, the city seemed headed for economic collapse, and Green's campaign didn't offer much by way of new ideas at a time the city desperately needed them. New York voters opted for the funny-sounding businessman in Bloomberg (he retains his native Massachusetts accent) rather than the consummate politician in Green. Both are Jewish.

Now, nearly four years later, Bloomberg actually has a lot to show for himself, even if the voters generally seem not to know it. Most notably, he rescued the city from a potentially devastating fiscal crisis following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, and the city's crime and murder rates have continued to drop to near historically low levels under his watch.

Lately, however, Bloomberg has run into stiff opposition to his dogged advocacy for the construction of a football stadium on Manhattan's West Side, considered crucial to the city's bid to bring the 2012 Olympic Games to New York. The decision on the stadium may not come before the International Olympics Committee meets to make its final choice from among five remaining candidate cities, jeopardizing New York's viability to host the Summer Games. Meanwhile, many New Yorkers are furious that the mayor has pushed for building a publicly subsidized athletic arena rather than zoning the largely industrial area for new residences or businesses.

But Bloomberg's main problem remains his inability to connect to voters; hence, the Spanish TV ad. Bloomberg's Spanish is far from perfect, but the mere gesture is important. Bloomberg is not known for pandering to voters-the man sometimes looks uncomfortable in his own skin-but New Yorkers should expect a lot more of these sorts of gestures in the coming months.

Last week, for example, Bloomberg donned a kippa for an Israeli Independence Day event organized by the American-Israeli group Dor Chasash at Crobar, an upscale Manhattan nightclub. He ended his remarks with a less-than-resounding "Am Yisrael Chai," which the Jewish mayor inconveniently mispronounced.

But it didn't really matter. Bloomberg got his applause anyway. And with millions of his ready for the campaign, a record of some substantive accomplishments and a Democratic field that still appears to be groping in the dark for a coherent message or attack line that will stick, Bloomberg can rest easy.

Am Bloomberg Chai.