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William Thompson still boasts about how in 2009 he came within 4.3 percentage points of denying New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg his third term even though the billionaire incumbent outspent him 10 to 1.
Thompson waited two months after that election to announce he would run again. Since then, the 59-year-old former city comptroller says he’s been fighting the idea that he lost because of a lackluster and amateurish campaign. A joke still makes the rounds: If Thompson had only campaigned harder, he would have lost by more.
“The one thing I learned is that perception is reality,” said Thompson, who’s running a distant second to Council Speaker Christine Quinn in early polls of Democratic mayoral hopefuls. “To those who say, ‘He lacks fire in the belly or he’s cautious,’ I say look at my history. This time, we’re not going to allow a different perception to set in.”
Thompson, the only black candidate in a five-way primary, wants to capitalize on changing demographics and what he calls voter frustration that New York’s outer boroughs have been ignored in favor of Manhattan. He touts his background in municipal finance and education, and courage in taking on Bloomberg when most political analysts said he had no chance.
In 2010 Thompson became senior managing director of Siebert Brandford Shank and Co. LLC, a minority-owned municipal-bond underwriter.
“He’s held citywide office, he’s worked on Wall Street, he’s got all the credentials,” said William Cunningham, a senior adviser to former U.S. Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Governor Hugh Carey and Bloomberg. “Once everybody’s satisfied that Thompson’s running to win, the African-American base will be very strong for him.”
Bloomberg, 71, who spent $108 million against Thompson, is legally barred from seeking re-election, giving Democrats a chance to retake City Hall for the first time since David Dinkins left office in 1993. The Sept. 10 primary may be decisive in the general election because Democrats outnumber Republicans 6 to 1.
Jerry Skurnik, a Manhattan-based political consultant, says blacks, Latinos and Asians may comprise 58 percent primary vote, up from 55 percent in 2009. The winner must capture 40 percent to avoid a runoff among the top two vote-getters.
A Feb. 14 NY1-Marist College poll of registered Democrats suggests that may be an ambitious goal for Thompson. He placed second, with 13 percent, behind Quinn’s 37 percent, with 26 percent undecided. Even among blacks, Quinn led Thompson, by 29 percent to 24 percent.
“He needs to hone his message and be able to connect more than he has,” said poll director Lee Miringoff.
During a debate in Harlem last month, Thompson brought several in the audience to their feet as he assailed Bloomberg’s stewardship of the city’s schools and said he would replace Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly. While he denounced Kelly’s stop-and-frisk crime-fighting policy, he said he would rather limit than end it.
“I’m not keeping other people’s people,” he said to cheers at a Martin Luther King Jr. Day celebration hosted by Al Sharpton. “The current police commissioner will not be retained.”
Hank Sheinkopf, who worked for Thompson’s 2001 campaign for comptroller and for Bloomberg in 2009, said it would be a mistake to underrate Thompson.
Those who say he lacks intensity don’t realize it’s “because he’s not bombastic,” Sheinkopf said. “In politics today, when you’ve got no pointed edges, it appears as if you’re weak.”
During the last campaign, Thompson rarely spoke about his personal life. This time, he often mentions his wife, Elsie McCabe Thompson, the former president of Manhattan’s Museum for African Art whom he married in 2008 after two divorces. The couple lives in Harlem with her two children. Thompson also has a daughter from a previous marriage.
Thompson grew up in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, where his father served as city councilman, state senator and appellate court judge. His mother taught public school.
He entered politics soon after his 1974 graduation from Tufts University, working as an aide to former U.S. Representative Fred Richmond, who resigned in a scandal in 1983. He served as deputy to Brooklyn Borough President Howard Golden, who appointed Thompson to the city Board of Education in 1994. He became board president two years later, then was elected comptroller in 2001.
As steward of the city’s finances, Thompson audited agencies and oversaw five pension funds, which then held assets of about $80 billion.
“He has mostly praised the mayor’s budgets, smiled on his economic policies and hailed Bloomberg’s accomplishments with the city’s schools,” wrote Jarrett Murphy, editor of City Limits, a nonprofit journal of public policy, in a 2009 review of Thompson’s performance. Bloomberg is the founder and majority owner of Bloomberg News parent Bloomberg LP.
Thompson recalls it differently. “I wasn’t shy, I wasn’t quiet, I was aggressive,” he said.
He cited his 2004 lawsuit against a Bloomberg plan to give beverage maker Snapple exclusive rights to sell its drinks in all city-owned buildings. Courts allowed the deal to go ahead. The city abandoned the deal anyway in 2009 after it failed to provide the $166 million in revenue that Snapple forecast.
Thompson’s tenure coincided with a national scandal in which politically connected placement agents got paid to set up deals between asset managers and public pension funds. In April 2009, Thompson was among several pension stewards who barred investment firms from using such intermediaries.
The combined return of the city’s pensions performed above the median for half of Thompson’s eight years as comptroller, when compared with an index of pension funds larger than $5 billion by Wilshire Associates Inc., a Santa Monica, California consulting firm.
The number of asset managers increased to 255 from 91, and they helped push investment expenses up to $427 million from $96 million. The increases were the result of portfolio diversification beyond stocks and bonds to real estate, private equity and hedge funds, Thompson said. The mayor’s office and the pension boards also were part of the decisions, he said.
Thompson also reaped hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions from placement agents and money managers, a subject that Bloomberg’s campaign used to attack him. He denies any correlation between donations and pension-board investment decisions.
“The people who made decisions on money managers had no idea who contributed to my campaigns, and I made sure it stayed that way,” he said. “There were people who contributed who didn’t receive any business.”
He counts as one of his most courageous moments his support for Harold Levy, a Citigroup Inc. executive, as schools chancellor over opposition from Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, a Republican who distrusted Levy’s ties to the teachers union and Democrats in the state Assembly. Giuliani backed Richard Kiley, former president of the New York City Partnership, a civic group composed of corporate chief executives.
“It took standing up to threats from City Hall,” Thompson said. It also took guts, he said, to challenge Bloomberg, the two-term incumbent with an unlimited campaign war chest, “when everyone else walked away.”
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