In an election where public interest is anemic and turnout comes in at just 11 percent of the eligible voters, organization on the ground is everything. City Councilman Bill de Blasio, who won 32.5 percent of the Democratic primary vote for Public Advocate Sept. 15 in a surprise first-place finish over former incumbent Mark Green, acknowledged as much while campaigning that afternoon.
"We assumed it would be low turnout so we worked very hard trying to reach people, then turn them out to vote," he said in Harlem, where he greeted voters near P.S. 175. "It's what we expected. I'm sorry about it, I think it's a pretty stark contrast to [last] November, which was stunning, and now we're back to a low-turnout dynamic."
Ran Hillary's First Campaign
Mr. de Blasio, a Brooklyn Councilman who chairs the General Welfare Committee, has strong ties to labor and a deep political resume that includes a ranking staff job in the administration of Mayor David Dinkins and running Hillary Clinton's first U.S. Senate campaign in 2000.
Although he first mulled running for Brooklyn Borough President, the extension of term limits changed the dynamics of city races and he instead thrust himself into a crowded Public Advocate race that included Queens Councilman Eric Gioia and civil rights lawyer Norman Siegel. His leadership in the Council in unsuccessfully fighting the term limits change earned him valuable publicity and support out of the gate.
While Mr. de Blasio also received the early and crucial support of the labor backed Working Families Party, he was placed at a disadvantage by the late candidacy of Mark Green, who served as Public Advocate from 1994 to 2001 before losing the 2001 mayoral election to Michael Bloomberg and the 2006 State Attorney General primary to Andrew Cuomo.
With Mr. Green capitalizing on his name recognition to take a big lead in the polls, it became clear that organization on the ground would be the best way to even the odds, and Mr. de Blasio's campaign, also backed by the United Federation of Teachers, District Council 37, Transport Workers Union Local 100 and the Uniformed Firefighters Association, among others, delivered.
Motivating Their Members
"In this kind of election, if organizations you're a part of reach out and say it matters, it really helps," Mr. de Blasio said. "Because basically, it's easy for people to stay home otherwise."
Last week's primaries were unusual in that down-ticket races were competitive, with fiercely contested races for Public Advocate, Comptroller and Manhattan District Attorney, and several close City Council elections. But the Democratic race for Mayor was never in doubt, with City Comptroller William C. Thompson Jr. the heavy favorite over Councilman Tony Avella.
"With no mayoral primary to speak of, it's not surprising that people weren't inspired," Mr. de Blasio said. "There's not that kind of atmosphere around that's telling everybody that it's important to vote."
Questions were raised, mainly by Mr. de Blasio's opponents, about the nature of his voter outreach, with Mr. Green and Mr. Gioia publicly calling for further investigation of the murky ties between the Working Families Party and Data and Field Services, a consulting group that was hired by Mr. de Blasio's campaign, along with other local campaigns backed by the WFP.
"Based on information acquired by the board to date, it is the board's understanding that DFS exists as an arm of the Working Families Party," the Campaign Finance Board said in a statement earlier this month. DFS provides staff members to knock on doors and canvas for votes, allegedly for fees far lower than is standard for such consulting firms, and works exclusively for WFP-backed candidates.
"[Campaigning] has to be more pinpointed. And membership organizations reaching out to people are really important," Mr. de Blasio said of his field operation. "People come up to me on the street who are [Service Employees International Union] 1199 members, for example, and said, 'The union called me and said it was important to come out and vote.' I've talked to 1199 folks, I've talked to Communication Workers of America folks, I've talked to DC 37 folks; certainly there's been a really good outreach effort."
Mr. de Blasio clearly owed his comefrom behind showing to his institutional support. While he still faces a runoff on Sept. 29 against Mr. Green, who garnered 31 percent of the vote, the momentum is on the Councilman's side, because Mr. Green started with a large edge in name recognition and leads of more than 20 points in early polls.
CSA Among Backers
"We sent notice to our members, encouraged them to get out and vote.We realized, in the primary, very few people would get out and vote, so it was critical," said Council of School Supervisors and Administrators President Ernest Logan, who endorsed Mr. de Blasio and was at his victory party in Brooklyn that night.
"He follows basically what we do as school leaders; when the Mayor is correct, we work with the Mayor, when he's wrong, we criticize and try to make a change," Mr. Logan said. "We truly believed that Bill de Blasio was the best person for Public Advocate."
Mr. de Blasio also had a cadre of elected officials out on the streets with him Sept. 15, helping him flag down undecided voters in neighborhoods like downtown Brooklyn, the Upper West Side and Harlem.
Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer, who shook hands outside P.S. 9 with the Councilman, said that while he thought Mr. Green had been a good Public Advocate a decade ago, "it was a different time in our city." He contended Mr. de Blasio would be "somebody who can adapt to this generational change in the city."
'He's on Our Team'
State Sen. Eric Schneiderman, who wryly predicted that the low turnouts this year would be matched with "a total bloodbath" next year when he and his much-maligned Albany colleagues are up for re-election, said that onthe ground work was necessary in an election where "a lot of folks here are pretty satisfied with the field and would be okay with either side."
In Harlem, State Sen. Bill Perkins noted that while Mr. Green had been a candidate with heavy African- American support at one point in his career, he "burnt himself significantly when he ran for Mayor," which is why support had shifted for the 2009 election. "De Blasio. . . he's on our team," he said.
In his victory speech at the Water Street Pub in DUMBO, Mr. de Blasio praised the coalition that had backed him in his campaign, saying, "if we can just bottle this energy, there is gong to be so much change in this city. . . you pulled off one miracle tonight, you can do it again.
"No one needs to sleep for the next two weeks, right?" he joked. But given the troops he had on the ground that day, he was probably only halfkidding.