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The Mild-Mannered Democrat Who Just Might Win The NYC Mayor's Race

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AP Photo / James Keivom

Polls show all of the leading Democrats would handily defeat their hypothetical Republican opponents, so the crucial contest in the mayoral election is the Sept. 10 Democratic primary. De Blasio's arrival this week as the latest in a revolving cast of frontrunners to top the polls in that race was accompanied by breathless press coverage that cast him as the one true progressive running for mayor. Thompson disputes that notion.

"I've looked at myself as a progressive Democrat," Thompson told TPM during a telephone conversation Wednesday. "If you look at a number of progressive issues, I guess I've always been there. So I don't -- I would disagree with Bill that he's the real progressive, or the only progressive in this race."

In recent weeks, de Blasio was touted on the only real progressive by multiple national, liberal outlets including Salon, The Nation, and on TPM's editor's blog. Thompson attributes this to effective messaging from de Blasio's campaign team rather than substantive political differences.

"Tell you what, the one thing in that regard they have done is that they're trying to package and sell a message," Thompson explained. "And you're kind of like, 'Uhhh, I'm not sure that's an accurate depiction.' But then again, they're getting away with it."

Other politicians might get angry and loud if they felt they were facing inaccurate polling and coverage. That's not Thompson's style. Thompson, who has faced doubts he doesn't have the passion necessary to win the race, said he has a "thoughtful" approach to politics that isn't about speedy sound bites and scoring easy points.

"You know, the one thing I've tried not to do is to bend the things that I believe in to be able to have things kind of fit in a political box, or to be able to make cheap political points. I don't talk in sound bites," said Thompson. "I think that's the one thing that it may be, at times, frustrating to talk to you or to some reporters who might like more of a sound bite. I don't talk in sound bites and I try to speak about the things I believe in."

For example, while bashing the current occupant of City Hall has been a popular tactic for many of the current hopefuls, Thompson concedes there are some things about Bloomberg's tenure as mayor that deserve praise. Though he said he would focus more than Bloomberg on "health disparities" that exist "between black and Latino communities and other communities," Thompson said he applauds Bloomberg's work on health issues, the environment, and gun control.

"But I would give the mayor credit for things like the smoking ban, calorie counts, trans fats, things like that. I think that has been helpful. Focus on sustainability and making New York a greener city, I think that's excellent and I think he's done a very good job there and has left a stronger platform to build on," Thompson said. "And I think that if you look at his fight against guns, that's something that has particular meaning in New York City. I know it's been a national fight, but particular meaning in New York City given gun violence in communities of color, in black and Latino communities. We want to see gun use eliminated. It's cost us too many of our children."

Another area where Thompson has staked out a fairly nuanced position is the debate over the police department's stop-and-frisk policy. He has said he would reform the implementation of the policy rather than eliminating it entirely. However, unlike de Blasio, Thompson has opposed a bill to have an independent inspector general monitor the department and a proposed ban on racial profiling. Still, Thompson argues his position on the policy is "similar" to his main rivals -- de Blasio and City Council Speaker Christine Quinn.

"The truth is, if you speak to them and you boil it down, I think our positions in a number of ways on stop-and-frisk look kind of similar. ... I have said for years that stop-and-frisk has been misused and abused by this administration and that people have been stopped because of who they are and what they look like. People have been profiled," said Thompson. "I have been consistent on that, calling for a change in that structure. I have not said end stop-and-frisk. I have said it's been misused and it needed to be used correctly. So, I still have always believed that peoples' constitutional and civil rights can be protected while we also fight to maintain safety and get guns off the streets."

Stop-and-frisk was cited as a major reason behind the Quinnipiac poll released Tuesday that saw de Blasio rocket into first place with 30 percent. That poll found Quinn in second with 24 percent and Thompson with 22 percent. However, there is a compelling argument that Thompson has a better shot at City Hall than these numbers would have you believe.

If no candidate earns at least 40 percent of the vote in the Sept. 10 primary, the top two finishers will move on to a runoff Oct. 1. That scenario seems likely, but while the most recent poll shows de Blasio surging ahead, aggregate data continues to show Thompson in second place. Based on poll averages, it is also Thompson, not de Blasio, who has experienced the most growth in the past two months.

Furthermore, in 2009, pollsters badly underestimated Thompson and, specifically, his support in the black community. Exit polls of that race showed Thompson, who is the only black candidate among the leading Democrats this year, received 78 percent of the black vote in that race while a set of polls prior to the election only had him at about 50 percent. Recent polls of this election have showed Thompson's support among blacks growing, but at 39 percent in Tuesday's Quinnipiac poll, Thompson's black base is still far smaller than it was in the last race. Historically, New York's black voters make up their minds later than other segments of the electorate and Thompson said he thinks those voters will come out for him on Election Day.

"I'm very confident that, if I continue to speak -- I mean, it's not just showing up. it is in the issues you talk about, does it have resonance with black and Latino voters?" Thompson said. "And I think that, as people pay more attention, as people start to compare candidates, as they get closer to the election my support has continued to grow."

Thompson's efforts to earn black support have been complicated by the candidacy of Anthony Weiner, who even after his latest sexting scandal, has continued to maintain relatively strong support among black voters. According to Thompson, this is due to Weiner's scandal-driven celebrity status. He expects that situation to change as well.

"Anthony probably has 100 percent name recognition. So, I think that a lot of that is based on name recognition and based on people being forgiving," said Thompson. "I think, over a period of time ... things have started to change and I think that they're going to continue to change over the next month."

In fact, not only does Thompson believe he will ultimately get to City Hall, he also thinks he has a shot to avoid the runoff entirely.

"I'm going to try and get to 40 percent on Sept. 10," Thompson said. "If not, then I'm going to work as hard as I can to be the Democratic nominee in a runoff on Oct. 1."

About The Author

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Hunter Walker is a national affairs reporter for TPM. He came to the site in 2013 from the New York Observer. He has also written for New York Magazine, Gawker, the Village Voice, Forbes, The Daily, and Deadspin. He can be reached at hunter@talkingpointsmemo.com