Bill Thompson took black voters for granted and it cost him

ANALYSIS - Instead of criticizing police tactics that had angered the minority voters who were his natural base, Thompson ran to the right on law enforcement issues...

Luther Vandross was outed as gay after his death.

Former New York City Comptroller Bill Thompson could have easily run as the anti-Bloomberg, anti-“stop-and-frisk” candidate in this year’s mayor’s race.

He had the resume: the only minority candidate in a race in which police tactics that disproportionately affect blacks and Latinos were sure to be a major issue, a strong base of support among African-Americans activists and stop-and-frisk opponents that included previous endorsements from figures like Rev. Al Sharpton and a surprisingly strong showing against Bloomberg in the mayor’s race in 2009, in which Thompson narrowly lost and carried 76 percent of the black vote and 55 percent among Hispanics.

But instead of criticizing police tactics that angered the minority voters who were his natural base, Thompson ran to the right on law enforcement issues. He opposed modest measures to increase the accountability of New York’s police, such as the creation of an inspector general’s office that would operate outside the NYDP and a city council bill that would make it easier to file suit against police for racial profiling. Thompson memorably told the New York Times earlier this year that there had been an “overreaction to stop-and-frisk” by its critics. He won endorsements from many of the city’s police unions based on these positions.

And yet throughout the campaign, Thompson confidently predicted minority voters would come around to him in the end.

He was wrong.  Thompson’s approach annoyed some of his longtime supporters. Sharpton and some other black leaders refused to endorse him. Bill de Blasio emerged as the vocal opponent of stop-and-frisk that many black, white and Hispanic Democratic voters wanted. And on Election Day, instead of dominating among black voters as he needed to do to win, Thompson effectively tied with de Blasio among African-Americans, both carrying about 42 percent, according to exit polls. De Blasio won Latinos and also dominated among the majority of the city’s Democratic voters who consider stop-and-frisk tactics “excessive.”

Now, Thompson’s six-year push to run America’s largest city could be over. It’s not yet clear if de Blasio won the 40 percent in the Democratic primary to avoid a run-off, but prominent party officials are urging Thompson to bow out anyway and allow de Blasio to focus on the general election.

The rise of de Blasio was in part because of the clever ad featuring his son Dante, the weakness of Christine Quinn and the scandals of Anthony Weiner. But one of the other key factors was Thompson, who either simply does not disapprove of stop-and-frisk as much as other New York Democrats, or more likely, felt he needed to woo white and moderate voters (who tend to be more supportive of the NYDP tactics) and assumed black voters and activists would stick with him because of his long history in the city’s politics and his race.

He was publicly warned that his past supporters would not blindly follow him again.

“I don’t think it’s wise to be distant from a social movement if you are going to run for mayor of this city, especially as a black candidate,” Mr. Sharpton told the Times in May. “I have expressed this to Thompson.”

Back then, stop-and-frisk was not the defining issue of the campaign. But the trial of George Zimmerman, while taking place in Florida, helped start a national dialogue around issues of race and policing that forced the candidates in New York to address it even more. Then last month, a federal judge said the city’s use of stop-and-frisk violated the constitutional rights of minorities in the city, effectively validating the views of the policy’s strongest critics.

Bloomberg sharply denounced the ruling, making it even easier for de Blasio to tie together his campaign themes of opposition to stop-and-frisk, liberalism and an end to the Bloomberg era. Thompson delivered a strong denunciation of stop-and-frisk after the Zimmerman trial, but by then had already defined himself as the more conservative candidate on the issue.

De Blasio’s actual policy views on stop-and-frisk aren’t all that different from Thompson’s. While he supports modest changes like the creation of an outside inspector general that Thompson has opposed, he wouldn’t end stop-and-frisk either.

But rhetorically, de Blasio staked out the strongest anti-stop-and-frisk position of the major candidates in the race. That stance, along with his calls for raising taxes on the wealthy and casting New York as deeply divided between the rich and poor, helped turn him into the candidate for the city’s most liberal voters. That stop-and-frisk stance, along with the prominence of his multi-racial famiily, also helped make de Blasio the second candidate in the race with obvious appeal to black voters.

In contrast, New York voters expressed confusion over exactly where Thompson stood on stop-and-frisk.

To be sure, there is nothing unusual about black candidates not winning the African-American vote. In 2004, when he ran for president, Sharpton himself finished well behind John Kerry and John Edwards among black voters in heavily-African-American South Carolina. The majority-black congressional district in Memphis that was held by Harold Ford, Jr. and his father for 32 years is now represented by a white Democrat named Steve Cohen, who has successfully fended off challenges from black Democrats.

Thompson though, was not a logical candidate to be outflanked on the black vote, particularly from de Blasio, who was well behind Weiner and Thompson among black voters only a few months ago. But Thompson’s stop-and-frisk position left the door wide open, and de Blasio walked through it.