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Five Weeks Before the Election, Thompson Still Introducing Himself

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Bill Thompson, the Democratic nominee for mayor, has been involved in New York City politics for more than 30 years. He's been Chief of Staff for a New York congressman, a Deputy Borough President, president of the city's Board of Education, and now City Comptroller. Some would say he's perfectly positioned to become mayor, but with less than five weeks before Election Day, he's still introducing himself to New Yorkers. WNYC's Lisa Chow reports.

THOMPSON: Good afternoon gentlemen.

REPORTER: At a senior center in Brooklyn the other day, Bill Thompson weaved between tables as about 100 local residents prepared to eat lunch. David Ackerman stood up to make a point to the 56-year-old candidate.

ACKERMAN: You're not going to beat Bloomberg and his money. Stop wasting your time. Take my advice.

THOMPSON: Thank you for the advice.

ACKERMAN: Take my advice. Think hard on it. Jump out of this election and jump right into the governorship.

THOMPSON: I think I'm going to stay with this one right now.

REPORTER: And this is Thompson's dilemma. Even with all his years of experience, people are still wondering: Why run against the billionaire mayor? Thompson says because he won't be like Bloomberg, who he defines as out of touch with the needs of ordinary New Yorkers. That's a welcomed message for Jacob Daskal, who voted for Bloomberg twice but is ready for a change.

DASKAL: My three-year-old kid can do the same job that the mayor did on the people's back. Taking the people's money, middle class money, hiking everything. Taking a full loaf of bread and giving us back some crumbs.

REPORTER: Unlike Bloomberg, Thompson has spent his entire career in government, with the exception of one year in the private sector, working as a banker. Bloomberg is known for his take-no-prisoners approach, whereas friends and colleagues describe Thompson as conciliatory, someone who doesn't rock-the-boat, who stays under the radar. Maybe a bit too much under the radar.

LILIENTHAL: He's running for mayor too?

REPORTER: Ellen Lilienthal was at a street fair in Riverdale, where Thompson made a quick campaign stop.

LILIENTHAL: Oh, I didn't know. I am Democrat but I think Michael Bloomberg did a very good job. Don't you think so?

REPORTER: While Bloomberg has already spent more than $40 million on his re-election campaign, Thompson's TV commercials just started. Bloomberg controls the news cycle from City Hall. Thompson has gotten relatively little attention from his offices across the street in the Municipal Building.

REPORTER: Your career spans 30 some years. Can you tell me what you think are your top three accomplishments?

There's a long pause.

THOMPSON: I'm going to point to two at the Board of Education. Bringing educational focus to an institution that nobody thought that was going to happen. Changing the governance structure. And I think that Deputy Borough President in Brooklyn, coming in at a time where Brooklyn was viewed as being on the decline and being able to be a part of helping lead Brooklyn to a resurgence.

REPORTER: Thompson doesn't mention his last eight years as Comptroller, what he’s best known for now. The phrase "steady at the helm" comes up when government watchdogs talk about the Comptroller. But they also say he's left no "indelible" mark. Nicole Gelinas, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, does praise Thompson for raising questions about no-bid contracts at the Department of Education.

GELINAS: He is saying you have an agency of government that is able to award these contracts without competitive bidding, so I think it’s useful to have this public debate on that, and he has added to the public debate.

REPORTER: A debate Thompson's been familiar with his entire life. His father was a City Councilman, Brooklyn's first black state senator, and an appellate judge. His mother was a public school teacher.

THOMPSON: I grew up in Brooklyn. I grew up in Bedford Stuyvesant in a house that my family has owned since 1939, with my grandparents on the bottom two floors and my parents and I and my sister on the top two floors. So product of New York City public schools, graduated from Midwood High School.

REPORTER: Thompson went on to Tufts University. And his first job upon graduation was with former Brooklyn Congressman Fred Richmond.

RICHMOND: I gave him his job because of his father, who was a great friend of mine. He's had an easy life, Bill Thompson has.

REPORTER: Thompson worked for Richmond for eight years, rising up to become his chief of staff. But the Congressman’s career ended in scandal. Richmond was convicted of tax evasion and drug possession and went to jail for almost a year. The two don't talk anymore, but Richmond's reference to Thompson's father is not unusual. Former Mayor David Dinkins has had nice things to say about Mayor Bloomberg, but last May, he cited Thompson's pedigree in announcing his support for the Democrat.

DINKINS: I back Billy because he's my friend. His father was my friend. And I think he's been a damn good public servant and will be a fine mayor.

REPORTER: Carl McCall, former State Comptroller, says Thompson's experience in city politics will serve him well.

MCCALL: He comes from a politically connected family. And I say that just because at an early age, he got some good political advice from his father, who was a very experienced politician.

REPORTER: Thompson remains close to his 84-year-old father, but he says he's his own man.

THOMPSON: There are a few people who mention my dad. But most people don’t. And I’m proud of my family’s history. So I think I’ve gotten past the point where that’s not, 'Oooh, that’s his son,' I’ve gotten to a point, 'Oooh, that’s his father.'

REPORTER: In his primary night acceptance speech, Thompson strove to define his own persona.

THOMPSON: And I will be a mayor for all New Yorkers, not just the rich.

REPORTER: Thompson spoke to Bloomberg from the headquarters of the city's largest municipal union.

THOMPSON: You raised our water rates over 98%. You raised our property taxes and our assessments. You raised the sales. You raised parking fines.

REPORTER: Thompson says with city revenues down, he’d raise taxes on wealthy New Yorkers to balance the budget. On the campaign trail, Thompson has struggled to talk about himself in the first person, but he says he's conquered that.

THOMPSON: I've gotten to the point of referring to myself in the 'I'. I’ve gotten past, bit by bit by bit, the 'we' and 'us'. I can do 'I' and 'me' these days.

REPORTER: And then one last question. Tell me Mr. Thompson, when you’re not working.

THOMPSON: When I’m not working these days, I’m sleeping for a few hours.

REPORTER: Sports? Do you go to church? Do have music favorites? Are you reading anything interesting?

THOMPSON: It used to be that when you weren't working that you could play golf, you could spend time with family. You could...

REPORTER: I can't help but point out.

You’re talking in the 'you' again.

THOMPSON: I would spend time with family. Definitely play golf with friends.

REPORTER: Thompson says he bought Dan Brown’s new book and the new Ted Kennedy memoir. But he probably won't have a chance to get to the books either until after the election on November 3rd. For WNYC, I'm Lisa Chow.

For more on Thompson visit our news blog.

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