Swinging for the Fences: How and Why I Decided to Run for Mayor

This is the first in a series of posts on the 2013 New York City mayor's race.

On October 31, 2012, New York City was reeling. Hurricane Sandy had unleashed unprecedented destruction on huge swaths of the five boroughs. In Breezy Point, Queens, dozens of homes burned like islands of fire surrounded by the rising sea.

In southern Brooklyn, where I live, there was no one who didn't know someone hit by the storm. Community and religious groups, newspapers, even political campaigns shifted into relief operations, collecting food, clothing and toys to distribute to affected families. As an unprepared Board of Elections scrambled to pull off an election just days later, military helicopters flew overhead to deliver aid and search for the missing.

Quickly, public unity transformed into outrage at a city government that was incapable of communicating with itself and its citizens in the most critical of times. Survivors held rallies, demanded answers, delivered petitions. But it was obvious that the influencers in town had moved on.

For me, Sandy was personal, but it was also the last straw. In the years after I left the City Council, I'd watched City Hall grow more reactive and out of touch with my neighbors. They deserved to be heard, now more than ever, but the political class just didn't give a damn. Barack Obama's 2008 campaign had revived my faith in the potential of grassroots politics, so I decided that, after 15 years out of government, it was time to jump back in.

I approached Chris McCreight, a native Chicagoan and record store owner turned campaign operative, to run my campaign. We had met when I was one of the city's first delegates for the 2008 Obama campaign. When Sandy swept into the city, Chris was running an impressive but ultimately unsuccessful campaign to elect a Democrat from Bay Ridge to the State Senate.

Chris suggested that I hire Todd Brogan to head up communications. He'd spent his life in campaigns and organizing, but he had never made his living that way. That's what I wanted; no mercenaries. He framed our campaign well: "It's about a working class reformer who defied the stereotypes to rise to prominence, and now he's back to run for Mayor against candidates representing the Celebricrat and Corporacrat wings of the Democratic Party."

They knew this would be a heavy lift: electing someone who had disappeared from the scene for more than a decade and who didn't want to take checks from lobbyists and developers. It would be difficult to crack the "uncompetitive candidate" perception.

Having spent the past 15 years in pension investment management, the economy was on my list of priorities. My prescription? Diversify the economy with more Roosevelt Island-style tech partnerships. Use the bully pulpit to push the federal government to strengthen regulations of the banks that had crashed the economy. Bring small manufacturing back to the dying industrial areas of the city by building our buses, subway cars, and taxis right here. Reform the pension system and model it on Toronto's. Keep unions strong and keep the wealthy here to help pay the bills.

As a former teacher, education was my strongest suit. The public schools turned me from a shy, Italian-speaking immigrant kid into a "true New York story" with a Master's in health and a law degree. They had inspired my daughters to become teachers, too.

More than anything, I wanted to revolutionize early childhood education, starting as early as six weeks old. While I'm bullish on pre-Kindergarten, I've never believed it was enough. We have to tackle the root cause of failing schools, which is poverty. The formula is simple: poverty causes stress, stress causes developmental issues, and once that starts, kids never catch up. A book by author Paul Tough, called How Children Succeed, opened my eyes. If New York City could establish pediatric wellness centers in the most impoverished neighborhoods, we could eliminate learning gaps and create the smartest city in the world.

(Public safety, infrastructure and transit, and health care were high on my list, but I'll cover those in detail in future posts.)

With this reservoir of ideas overflowing, I declared my candidacy. My opponents represented the who's who of political hacks, ineffective city officials, and faux progressives. I hoped to give New Yorkers a chance to choose grassroots reform over the party machines of the past or oligarchs of the present.

I respected Mayor Bloomberg, a billionaire, for not being indebted to the special interest groups that had been pickpocketing New Yorkers for decades. When he ran for Mayor in 2001, he sought my counsel, inviting me up to his small, cluttered office at Bloomberg LP. But I had no love loss for the guy. Each year, he became increasingly incapable of talking to non-billionaires. He had a tin ear and couldn't hide his disdain for the common man. The mayor's decision to buck term limits -- and the political class's acquiescence -- was a bridge too far for me.

When I entered the race, Christine Quinn had already been dubbed Bloomberg's likely successor. I'd known Christine during her days as an aide to Tom Duane when he and I served on the City Council together. But my first campaign encounter with the Speaker of the City Council came during a forum hosted by Reverend Al Sharpton in Harlem on January 15.

I was the first candidate to arrive in the crowded National Action Network headquarters. In Reverend Al's office, we were surprised to find Mayor Bloomberg. "Mr. Mayor!" I said, extending my hand. We spoke briefly, recalling our meeting more than a decade earlier. "You didn't talk me out of it," Bloomberg said. "Twelve years of my life gone." Chris, my campaign manager, whispered under his breath to me, "It didn't have to be 12 years."

After a couple of minutes, the mayor shrugged me off. "Talk to Wolfson. Call Howard Wolfson about that. He'll tell you better than I can." This seemed typical. Bloomy was uncomfortable engaging in a casual conversation without an aide to hand it off to. He retreated to a corner with his staff for some small talk, which included discussion of "cruise ship flu" and jokes about one staffer burning her boyfriend's stuff. They chuckled. It was weird.

Then Al walked in the room. He took his jacket off, greeted the mayor, and then saw me. "Sal!" he said and came over to talk to his old rival. We have a long history, stretching back to Al's historic marches in my City Council district, one of which ended with him being stabbed by Bensonhurst resident Michael Riccardi. I visited Al in the hospital at the time, joking with the heavy set reverend that he was lucky to "have those extra layers" to protect him. "You sure know how to hurt a guy, Sal!"

In 1997, we had waged a three-way fight for the Democratic nomination for mayor with eventual nominee Ruth Messinger. The tabloids at the time reveled in "Sal vs. Al" lines. In 2013, I found a very different Sharpton. He was fit, dressed to the nines, and basking in his glory as every decision-maker's favorite civil rights actor.

"I got more votes than you," Sharpton recalled. "Don't rub it in," I responded.

Then, Christine Quinn entered the building. New York Magazine describes how that typically went: "You hear her coming down the great marbled halls and the carpeted ballrooms of New York -- Aaaaaah-HA-HAHAHAHA-HAAAAA!!!! -- well before she presents in the flesh." She methodically buttered up everyone in the room. I stood quietly in the hallway, hoping to avoid the green room chit chat among adversaries. But when she wants to talk, there is no avoiding Christine Quinn. She struck up a conversation, recalling my days in City Hall and inquiring with fascination about my daughters.

Soon Public Advocate Bill de Blasio and Comptroller John Liu entered the fray. De Blasio slunk in with his wife, Chirlane McCray. Now called the "co-mayor," we didn't know just how omnipresent she would be on the trail until later, even texting talking points to her husband as he sat on stage at forums. When Bill entered NAN, he shrugged his shoulders and lowered his head, despite three feet of clearance over him. Liu, who like me seemed to be half de Blasio's height, came next. He held his head high and puffed out his chest. Neither of them engaged anyone beyond courteous hellos. Polar opposites of Quinn.

Nine months later, I'd get my butt kicked in the primary. But on that night in January, the voters didn't love anyone yet, and the opportunity to break through was palpable. The big question then, as I posed to my staff a few days later in Staten Island was this: Can a campaign of substance prevail?

In posts to follow, I'll discuss why that question went unanswered and why the issues debated and the people debating them are so relevant to the future of the five boroughs.

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