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Asleep at the Wheel: NYC Mayoral Candidate Bill Thompson Sleepwalks Through Campaign

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It seems New York City's uneventful mayoral race is putting even Controller Bill Thompson to sleep. He's supposed to be Mike Bloomberg's Democratic challenger, but throughout the campaign, he has kept a relatively low profile and allowed Bloomberg do all the talking. As a result, most voters are still hard-pressed to identify a single issue of Thompson's, except that he disapproves of Bloomberg strong-arming his way to a reversal of the two-term limit law. His advertisements have been few and far between. Voters are in fact more likely to see him in a Bloomberg ad than in one of his own.

Staffers blame the relatively sedate pace of Thompson's campaigning on his lack of funding -- his total estimated budget is around $6 million -- but Thompson himself, apparently, doesn't seem interested in getting out of bed on most days. Reports are that he is often late for his own events or simply doesn't show up at all. His campaign staff also points to Bloomberg's relentless advertising blitz, which has pinched more than $65 million from the change purse of one of the world's richest men. Yet, polls indicate that Bloomberg's advertisements have in fact done little to change voters' attitudes -- and early on, his ads were actually turning them off. Throughout the summer, for example, Thompson was gaining on Bloomberg in the polls for no other reason than the fact that voters were growing irritated by Bloomberg's overly aggressive efforts to win their love.

Early to Bed
It is possible that Thompson was spoiled by his early successes. He was gaining on Bloomberg without even trying, and so he didn't see the point to exerting himself for the vote. In August, the sleepy mayoral race received a jolt of energy when New York City's largest municipal union, District Council 37, threw its support behind Thompson -- a direct snub to Bloomberg, who had fully expected to receive their vote. Representing 120,000 city government workers, the endorsement made enough of a dent to get Bloomberg's attention. Suddenly, Thompson's campaign had gained street cred; he became the clear Democratic front-runner, with an almost certain lock on the Democratic nomination.

But, in a move that has characterized his lackadaisical campaign strategy, Thompson did little to capitalize on the endorsement. Other key endorsements followed unbidden from unions that included firefighters and transit workers, offering strong indications of underlying dissatisfaction with Bloomberg among the city's rank and file -- the very people Thompson was trying to court. Thompson also got the endorsement of the New York Times, which believed Thompson would give Bloomberg "a real contest in his well-financed quest for a third term." Yet Thompson again did little -- if anything -- to publicize his bounty.

At first, it was assumed that he was saving up his meager funds for a major blitz in September. But after winning the Democratic primary and boldly proclaiming himself the "champion for the middle class and the millions of New Yorkers who have been forgotten by our current mayor..." he appeared to go back to bed.

Sounds of Silence
Perhaps Thompson never really had his heart in the campaign. Or perhaps he assumed that, as long as he kept quiet, Bloomberg would talk himself out of the lead and he would win by default. However, the truth may be that Thompson never expected to win anyway, and all the endorsements that suddenly began to pile up at his feet actually flustered and disoriented him, rather than emboldened him. In his recent "press conference" to thank President Barack Obama for his endorsement, for example, Thompson appeared disorganized and unprepared. He rambled on and seemed shocked that Obama would consider endorsing him -- or even that Obama knew who he was.

Surprisingly, Thompson could still give Bloomberg a run for his money. Today's voters are notorious for turning on a dime, and New Yorkers are not exactly passionate about Bloomberg -- they just don't see a viable alternative. An aggressive campaign that clearly lays out Thompson's platform and assures people of his enthusiasm for the job could still shake up voter apathy. He doesn't need a lot of money. Publicity is there for the taking. The New York media would love to have something to write about. But at this point, it doesn't appear that Thompson has the energy for it. It may also be beyond the ability of his current staff to pull it off.

In any event, it doesn't seem like Thompson ever got the memo that when you announce your candidacy for a position, you're supposed to campaign for it too. After Election Day, he may find himself facing many frustrated and resentful union leaders, who took a political risk snubbing Bloomberg.

Barring a major misstep, Bloomberg no longer has to worry about filling out a change of address form. He's going to be at the City Hall address for a few more years.