Political Roots Keep Thompson On Message

Friday, August 30, 2013

Democrat Bill Thompson addresses a crowd Williamsburg as leaders of the Jewish community endorse him for mayor. (Brigid Bergin)

It's close to 7:30 a.m. on a windy, cloud-covered morning, as Democratic mayoral candidate Bill Thompson arrives to greet voters at a subway stop on the Prospect Heights side of Flatbush Avenue in Brooklyn.

As he shakes hands and introduces himself, voter Clarice Mathews, 57, charges towards him with three dogs: Grumpy Norris, Friendly Buddy and Mean Little Ritchie, whom she describes as her “aggressive, 10 pound dog.”

Thompson leans in to pet one and Mathews snaps, “Oh, they're not friendly.” Then Mathews, a New York City Police Department Retiree,  tells him to convince her. “Tell me why I should vote for you,” she says. “I don’t want to hear about your mother and father. Tell me why I should vote for you, sincerely.”

Thompson’s political roots do run deep. His father was in the City Council and in the state senate and he became an appellate court judge. Thompson himself was president of the Board of Education and served two terms as City Comptroller. But at this point in the race, voters want more than his biography.

After narrowly losing to Mayor Michael Bloomberg in 2009, Thompson thought he had a pretty good shot for mayor this time around. He has the roots, the resume and rarely strays from polished talking points. Yet voters keep asking this seasoned candidate what kind of mayor he’ll be.

For one day, the Thompson campaign let me join him on the trail to hear how the candidate is answering that very question.

Teachers On the Stump and the Trail

Thompson secured the teacher's union endorsement in the spring and that endorsement came with a pledge for resources to help get out the vote. This Tuesday morning, several of the volunteers wear blue United Federation of Teachers t-shirts as they hand fliers to morning commuters. So it almost seems like a set-up when science teacher Joshua Paris is the first voter to really talk to the candidate. He has only one question: “I’m wondering about retroactive pay. What's the story?” Paris asks.

“I'm sure that you are,” Thompson laughs, before settling into a careful answer about bringing union leaders to the table and not negotiating in public. Teachers have been without a contract since 2009 and many hope the next one includes those pay raises they've gone without.

“Being the former education czar here, we thought we’d get a little preferential treatment for the UFT,” Paris says, hoping for at least a wink and a nod. But Thompson pledges no more than getting contracts done, using the careful, measured prose of a practiced politician.

Cautious Communicator

In his tan Chevrolet Suburban SUV, Thompson divides his time between his Blackberry and his iPhone, so I ask what apps he has on it. Even then his answer is reserved. He says news, Politico, weather, some music and, “a couple of ridiculous games.”

“What ridiculous games?” I ask.

“A couple of ridiculous games, and we’ll leave it at that,” he says.

“Come on, are you a Candy Crush kind of person?” I press.

“Yeah," he says finally, "Candy Crush, along with a couple of other dumb games.” He shows me the icon on his phone.

But in the race for Mayor, the matching game is harder to play. Thompson is the only African American candidate in the race. Yet he finds himself competing for black voters with Bill de Blasio, a very tall white man who has been buoyed by his photogenic, mixed-race family. On this topic, Thompson remains reserved.

“There is no taking for granted that any vote belongs to anyone,” Thompson says, clearing his throat. “There is no, 'just because I’m black, people are going to vote for me.'” 

But the tone changes at a breakfast meeting in the steamy basement of the First Calvary Baptist Church. An urgency seeps through as he reminds the crowd of about 60 how wrong the polls were in his last mayoral election.

“With two days to go, they said it was going to be a blow-out. They said I was going to lose by 20 points,” Thompson bellows, sounding more like a preacher than a politician. He reminds them that he only lost to Bloomberg by four and half points and argues that’s because people stayed home.

“Polls never measure things accurately. They don't,” he says, adding, “If you’ve been polled, raise your hand. I’ll be impressed.”

The room chuckles and nods in agreement. This race, he says, is all about who comes out and votes.

Getting Out the Vote

The final public event of the day is an endorsement by a group of Hasidic Jewish leaders in Williamsburg. Loudspeakers are set up so that people around the neighborhood can hear what's happening on this sunny, bright street corner.

Rabbi David Niederman, a leader within the Satmar Hasidic sect, says he and others in the community selected Thompson after meeting with all the candidates. The endorsement is a big deal, since the community is known for voting as a block. That could mean thousands of votes for Thompson.

But the event gets interrupted by a protester who is also Hasidic. A group of men at the press conference surround him, knocking off his black hat and dragging him down the sidewalk, then forcing him into to a storefront on Lee Avenue. Reporters follow the action while Thompson's aide tries to bring us back to the main event.

Back in the car, I ask Thompson about what happened. “There was a little distraction for a moment there,” I say.

His driver Ray chimes in, "That was no distraction. They dragged my man. They said nah come on, you gotta go.”

This does not please Thompson, who reminds him, “I'm being interviewed. Thank you, Ray.”

When I describe what happened, Thompson says he only saw the sign that protester was carrying and some people shouting. I ask if this type of scene would make him worry about intimidation in the community.

“There is no intimidation,” Thompson says, noting he’s worked with people in the community for years.

He and the team are back on message, keeping his comments in check. It’s even true as they drop me off on the Manhattan side of the Williamsburg bridge.

“Careful getting out over there,” Thompson tells me, “Take care.”

Brigid Bergin/WNYC
Bill Thompson greets voters outside a subway stop in Prospect Heights.
Brigid Bergin/WNYC
Thompson rides in the front seat as he shuttles between public events.
Brigid Bergin/WNYC
Thompson makes an impassioned pitch to voters in the basement of First Calvary Baptist Church in Brooklyn.
Brigid Bergin/WNYC
Thompson takes a call before a press conference outside a senior section in Midwood.
Brigid Bergin/WNYC
Thompson plays in a stickball game organized by City & State magazine. He says he's better at stoopball and basketball.
Brigid Bergin/WNYC
Thompson in Williamsburg before he is endorsed by a gathering of Jewish leaders


More in:

Comments [4]

A third post, noting some essential points:

1.) David Niederman, cited in this piece, is a *political*, *lay* leader. While he may be a fine person, I am not sure that I would consider him worthy of the title "Rabbi". Niederman certainly is not renowned for outstanding scholarship and authority in Judaism. I don't think even his most loyal supporters would deny this.

2.) For some time now, the Orthodox and, especially, Hasidic communities have been suffering from both a general, overall crisis in leadership as well as a number of specific disputes. To be sure, there still exist, in all of these communities, many fine people as well as scholars and sages. I can attest to this from personal experience. Unfortunately, for the most part, *they* are not the ones in power. Furthermore even the most righteous and learned among us today do not approach the level of the truly great, universally revered leaders we had in previous generations. Many of the righteous we have today are largely naive and unaware and therefore easily exploited by those who are, at best, merely irresponsible and short-sighted, and, at worst, have less-than-noble motivations. Any power that those with integrity who /are/ savvy have is at best limited.

(This state of chaos, confusion and corruption is all predicted in the Talmud and other texts.)

3.) Regarding Satmar, the particular community mentioned in the article:

Even assuming the best we possibly can about both individuals who currently claim the title of "Satmar Rebbe", both would still be a far cry from the original Rebbe of Satmar. Grand Rabbi Joel Teitelbaum, of blessed memory, was a truly great man, renowned for outstanding righteousness and kindness just as much as he was for brilliant scholarship. The late Rabbi Teitelbaum remains the only one who is /unquestionably/ worthy of the title, "*The* Satmar Rebbe". Most known for his complete and uncompromising rejection and condemnation of Zionism, in /all/ its forms, R. Teitelbaum predicted, to an incredible degree, many of the problems and tragedies that Zionism would bring. This position is /textually/ vindicated in 'VaYoel Moshe', a masterpiece of scholarship that demonstrates the Rebbe's incredible grasp of all sectors of Torah. But /empirically/ and /historically/, as well, the prescient and prophetic warnings of the Satmar Rebbe concerning Zionism have only become increasingly vindicated with the passage of time and the unfolding of events.

Aug. 30 2013 06:20 PM

(Post Two of Two, containing the notes on my first post)

[1] I elaborate upon this in some detail in numerous posts I have made to this site. Click-on my user name to find them. Among the facts I cite are the existence of openly, actively, unapologetically homosexual men who reject and renounce the act of buggery (anal penetration) and its central place in "gay culture", as evidenced at sites such as Bill Weintraub's (contains graphic content) and Rob McGee's (Requisite Disclaimer: Citing/quoting != endorsement)

[2]As opposed to specific laws and directives that apply only to Jews, such as those concerning the Sabbath or 'kashrus'; the dietary restrictions, for example.

Aug. 30 2013 04:03 PM

(Post One of Two)

The piece mentions a "Hasidic protester" but conspicuously absent is any indication whatsoever of *what* the man was protesting about. While I do not, as of this posting, *know* the reason, I suspect that it may very well be explained by the following.

Thompson's support for unrestricted abortion-on-demand and the "LGBTQ" agenda (which, among many other things, promotes a gruesome, inordinately disease-spreading act[1]) is hardly a secret. Such positions constitute grave violations of the *universal* moral code that the *Torah* prescribes for *all* of humanity[2]. For this reason, a number of the foremost, recognized authentic authorities on Jewish law and ethics-- if not a clear, overwhelming consensus--have ruled that it is categorically forbidden for a Jew to support or vote for any candidate who holds such positions. (Whether or not there exist any *qualified* dissenters to this ruling, I cannot say with any certainty.)

Of course, Thompson is far from alone here; to the best of my knowledge, the positions held on these third-rail issues by *all* of the Democratic primary contenders are, with one notable exception, fundamentally the same. The one, notable exception is Erick Salgado. And this is the clear, overwhelming reason why a number of respected Orthodox rabbis have endorsed Rev. Salgado in his bid for the Democratic nomination and declared that it is a 'mitzvah' to support and vote for him.

I happen to be particularly and keenly aware of just how insidious and corrosive-- on numerous levels and EVEN FROM A PURELY *SECULAR* PERSPECTIVE-- the radical sexual agendas in question here truly are. *Empirically*, *manifestly* so.

Thus, as not only an Orthodox Jew but a citizen concerned with the welfare of the *larger, general* society as well, I am far from comfortable with this endorsement of Thompson. And I know for a fact that it is utterly and completely rejected and opposed by more than a few members of the Satmar community, for the very reasons that I described above.

Having said that, I do so see the potential for some positive to come out of this endorsement. Perhaps it can foster improved relations between the Hasidic community and some of the others that Mr. Thompson represents. Perhaps, through this common rallying-point, the respective communities might come to greater understanding and sympathy of each other and find areas of common, mutual, symbiotic interest and concern. This is something that is much needed and an area in which *all* sides have much room for improvement.

See post to follow for notes.

Aug. 30 2013 03:57 PM

My main concern about Bill Thompson is his coziness with the extreme Orthodox Jewish leadership. As a community their interests sometimes run counter to the needs of the larger New York community(ies). I worry that at those times, his loyalties will be on the "wrong side" of a public issue.

I believe in separation of church and state. Mr. Thompson has yet to prove that he does too.

Aug. 30 2013 01:41 PM

Leave a Comment

Email addresses are required but never displayed.

Get the WNYC Morning Brief in your inbox.
We'll send you our top 5 stories every day, plus breaking news and weather.


Latest Newscast




WNYC is supported by the Charles H. Revson Foundation: Because a great city needs an informed and engaged public


Supported by