Among the list of those Bill de Blasio thanked for his impressive victory in New York City’s Democratic mayoral primary, one name was conspicuously missing from the list: Mayor Michael Bloomberg. Yet the city’s current mayor probably did more to aid de Blasio in his win than anyone else.
Though he was not on the ballot, Bloomberg’s name was frequently invoked in debates and on the campaign trail, rarely in a flattering way. Since voters could not vote against him, they appeared to take their displeasure out on the next best person — his longtime ally, City Council Speaker Christine Quinn. The close alliance between Bloomberg and Quinn, seen by many as his protégé, was supposed to ease her path to the mayoralty. Instead, his endless gaffes and outsized ego made her road tougher.
While Quinn and de Blasio’s primary rivalry drew comparisons to the Obama-versus-Clinton showdown in 2008 — a female candidate running to make history has her frontrunner status thwarted by a more liberal upstart — the more noteworthy parallel might be a comparison between the relationship of Bill and Hillary Clinton with that of Michael Bloomberg and Christine Quinn.
Much of Hillary Clinton’s perceived inevitability as a candidate stemmed from her husband’s political power base. Though certainly she is smart and accomplished in her own right, her husband’s vast network of political allies, donors and advisers was supposed to give her a leg up over potential Democratic competitors. Additionally, her years by his side in the White House were perceived to have imbued her with a measure of insider experience that others were unlikely to have.
Similarly, Quinn’s close and cordial working relationship with Bloomberg gave her the opportunity to see the city from a mayor’s vantage point in a way none of her competitors can lay claim to. Her ability to work amicably with him, and often compromise with him, set her a part from the Democratic critics with whom he was often at odds. As a testament to the professionally intimate nature of their relationship, when critics (including myself) derided the mayor’s critiques of Quinn’s wardrobe and hair color, she brushed them off, declining to categorize them as sexist.
The depth of their symbiotic relationship was most embodied by her willingness to help him secure the council votes necessary to overturn term limits, thus giving Bloomberg a third term. Some criticized her for being too cozy with the mayor and not having the courage to stand up to him for fear of losing him as an ally. Others saw it as the two protecting each other. At the time her office was embroiled in a scandal regarding allegations of a slush fund suppposedly used to punish and reward various council members. Bloomberg’s third term bought Quinn four more years to rehabilitate her office and her image.
Helping to deliver a third term for Bloomberg came back to haunt her. It was used constantly as a point of attack by her Democratic rivals, who attempted to paint Quinn as someone who does not value the democratic process. It also inspired a multimillion-dollar grass roots organization, “Anybody But Quinn,” which had volunteers knocking on doors to spread an anti-Quinn message far and wide before Election Day.
While Hillary Clinton’s campaign should have been bolstered by her husband’s terms in office during a period of economic prosperity, she was also hampered by his complicated legacy. Unpleasant memories of Monica Lewinsky, the impeachment, and the brutal conservative culture wars of the ’90s likely helped fuel the popularity of the 2008 campaign tagline “No drama Obama.”
The former first lady was further damaged by her husband’s behavior on the campaign trail. He generated negative headlines for calling then-Sen. Obama’s opposition to the war in Iraq “a fairy tale.” After then-Sen. Clinton’s account of dodging sniper fire in Bosnia was questioned, the former president reignited the controversy by commenting on it after it had died down. After Obama defeated Clinton in the South Carolina primary, the former president seemed to dismiss Obama’s viability by saying, “Jesse Jackson won South Carolina in ’84 and ’88. Jackson ran a good campaign. And Obama ran a good campaign here.” Hillary Clinton would later apologize for the comment.
Clinton would later reveal that his wife had asked him to tone it down and “Let me handle it.” This dynamic did not reinforce the image of Hillary Clinton as a strong, independent commander-in-chief.
Quinn, similarly, has been a victim of her mentor’s constant instances of sticking his foot in his mouth. In addition to the aforementioned remarks about Quinn’s wardrobe and hair, the mayor was forced to clarify remarks he made about drunken Irish people (Quinn is of Irish descent). In defending the disproportionate rate at which African American and Hispanic men are stopped in the city’s controversial stop-and-frisk program, Bloomberg argued that it was actually white people who are stopped too much. A federal judge disagreed, finding that the program had violated minorities’ civil rights. (Only 10 percent of those stopped are white.)
But the mayor saved his most controversial comment for last. Just before Tuesday’s primary, a New York magazine interview was published in which Bloomberg labeled de Blasio’s campaign “racist.” Why? Because de Blasio, who is white, had featured his black wife and bi-racial children in his campaign ads and his family had frequently joined him on the campaign trail. Bloomberg said de Blasio was “making an appeal using his family to gain support. I think it’s pretty obvious to anyone watching what he’s been doing.”
As a result of the backlash his comments sparked, Quinn spent the closing days of the campaign denouncing them instead of defending her own candidacy. Many believe the remark, and the de Blasio family’s response to it, solidified de Blasio’s standing.
Should Hillary Clinton run again, here’s hoping she can escape the smothering shadow of her husband in a way that Quinn was unable to escape Bloomberg’s.