Why on Earth Is Bill Thompson Smiling?

Bill Thompson was making the rounds at Casa Boricua Senior Center on East 172nd Street in the Bronx today, beaming. Earlier he gripped and grinned along Third Avenue in Melrose alongside attorney general Andrew Cuomo. Before that, he flashed the pearly whites at commuters getting on or off the 2/4/5 trains at 149th Street and Grand Concourse.

Half of politics is theater, so Thompson putting on a happy face doesn't say much itself. But for a guy down 18 points in the polls, he looks more like he's trying to close the deal than just play out the string. Aides say Thompson is running late into the night this week, and since his public schedule doesn't usually go too deep into the evening, that suggests he's dialing for dollars to pay for a final push.

Given the financial disadvantage Thompson faces, losing by a respectable margin to Mike Bloomberg can be spun as a moral victory, so in a sense Thompson can't lose. But his people think they can win, and much of the comptroller's schedule this week indicates why: There is a vein of discontent about Bloomberg's mayoralty.

On Sunday, Thompson spoke at a rally by community groups opposed to the Bloomberg administration's plan to grant millions in subsidies to the Related Companies to build a shopping mail in the Kingsbridge Armory in the Bronx. After a decade of struggle, the groups got the administration to support a school as part of the project and vow to favor developers that would pay living wages to employees in the new complex. Both promises have fallen by the wayside. Bloomberg's City Planning Commission has approved the deal. It goes to the City Council shortly after the election. Bronx Beep Ruben Diaz, Jr., has voted against the project—calling his move the start of a "revolution" against the way development has been practiced in the city.

On Tuesday and Wednesday Thompson hit senior centers in Queens and Brooklyn. There he fired up the crowd over Bloomberg administration plans to switch the senior meals program to frozen meals and to consolidate senior centers. "You have earned the right to be treated well and we owe you a debt of gratitude," he told the lunchtime crowd at a center on 34th Avenue in East Elmhurst. They ate it up faster than the sliced turkey. Legendary hack Jack Dym was there, and told me: "The taxi industry will never vote for Bloomberg."

Today the target it was the perpetually underserved South Bronx. His mere presence impressed a guy named Joe. "It's cool to see him at 149th. You would never see Bloomberg here," he said. Would he vote for him? "Yeah, just because I see him down here with the people, the real people." During his noon walkaround with Cuomo, as the pack stopped for some questions from the press, onlookers chatted, wondering if the president was the one walking around with Thompson—a reasonable thought, with all the Billy-and-Barack signs Thompson's aides were handing out.

"It's not Obama," explained one woman. "This other guy's endorsing him as well. But who the hell is he?" Told it was Cuomo, she shouted out, "What are your views on Access-a-ride? Bloomberg wants to cut that."

"Oh, they can't cut that," says a guy. "Eight years is enough."

At Casa Boricua, all it took was State Senator Ruben Diaz, Sr. to make reference to the frozen meals to get the crowd pounding on tables chanting "Eight is enough" in Spanish.

This evening Thompson is due to speak at a forum on poverty sponsored by groups including the Coalition for the Homeless, Community Voices Heard, Tenants PAC and Urban Justice Center—none of whom have heaped praise on the Bloomberg administration. Bloomberg turned down an offer to speak, the organizers say.

That there are people pissed off at Bloomberg doesn't mean he's a bad mayor—you'd have to be doing something wrong as New York City mayor not to get a few tens of thousands of people angry with you over eight years—or that Thompson will win. A coalition of the disenchanted would have to have numbers, not just passion. Recent polls say it won't be nearly enough. The most recent Quinnipiac Poll has Bloomberg up by 18 percent and the latest Marist survey has the lead at 16. The Q poll has barely moved in a month; Marist had the gap at 11 points in mid-September. (Marist comes out with new numbers on Friday).

Thompson losing ground in both surveys is probably not the reason he's smiling. But some solace might be taken in how wrong the polls were four years ago. Right before the 2005 election, Quinnipiac gave Bloomberg at 38-point lead and Marist had him up by 34 over Freddy Ferrer. In the end, Ferrer lost by 19 percent—still a gaping margin, but only about half as bad as the polls said it would be. Turnout was 13 percent lower in '05 than in 2001, but more people turned out last time than did in 1981, 1985 or 1997 general elections, so it's not clear that the closer-than-expected result four years ago was merely the impact of Bloomberg voters staying home.

Mayor Bloomberg, however, doesn't seem terribly worried. He's kept to a light schedule this week on both the official and the campaign side, with an emphasis on events related to the World Series. (Perhaps Bloomberg is trying to correct the most glaring flaw of his mayoralty: The Yankees are now 27-28 in the playoffs during his administration. Under Rudy Giuliani, they went 58-25.)

Indeed, even in Thompson-friendly camps, the mayor has supporters. One woman at the Kingsbridge Armory rally said despite her concerns about the Related Companies project—which would use public subsidies to open stores that would compete with existing merchants in the area, some of whom are unionized and pay wages accordingly—she backs the mayor. Her T-shirt read "Vote Independence, Column C, Bloomberg," a plug for the party to which the mayor has given $1.6 million in the past two years.

"The only thing I can say," she answered, "is the mayor is for progress, not politics."