NEW YORK CITY—Next to a fresh produce market offering Tuscan kale, sugar-snap peas, and sour cherries, mayoral candidate Christine Quinn declared war on the Happy Meal.
Her plan to require restaurants that sell kid’s meals loaded with saturated fat and sodium to meet certain nutritional standards comes less than three months after a proposal to raise the minimum age to buy cigarettes from 18 to 21. “Public health is absolutely what New York City’s mayor should be worried about,” she said after Monday’s press conference in the trendy Union Square neighborhood.
For all of the kvetching about Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s “nanny-state” crusades against smoking, trans fats, sodium, oversized sodas, Styrofoam containers, and even bottle-feeding, there are scarce signs of a backlash in the campaign to succeed him. Quinn is clearly embracing the mayor’s public-health agenda to appeal to his coalition of white and well-heeled voters, while her rivals have raised few objections. Bloomberg's longtime adversary, Anthony Weiner, who once said that if elected he was “going to have a bunch of ribbon-cuttings tearing out your [expletive] biking lanes,” has even warmed up to the mayor’s cycling program.
“A lot of these public-health initiatives have been good fodder for late-night TV, but New Yorkers slowly have been giving a thumbs-up to a lot of it,” said Lee Miringoff, director of the Marist Institute for Public Opinion, which found Weiner inching ahead of Quinn in a recent poll. “If these nanny issues were big losers, you’d be hearing a lot more about it on the campaign trail.”
While Bloomberg’s public-health agenda has been largely successful, voters rank the economy as their top priority. It’s not clear that other chief executives, especially in more conservative parts of the country, could withhold calories and cigarettes without more significant blowback. Under Bloomberg, jobs are up and murder is down.
“Overall, the mayor has done a pretty good job on issues like education, the economy, and crime, which helps to keep him at 50 percent in the polls,” said Republican strategist Mike McKeon. “Politicians who think they can forsake the fundamentals to take on a public-health agenda will pay the price.”
Indeed, while many politicians would envy Bloomberg’s approval ratings of just below 50 percent after 12 years in office and a father-knows-best management style, there are risks in being too closely associated with the bombastic billionaire, whose support wanes among black and lower-income voters outside of Manhattan.
Quinn, who backed lifting the law that would have limited Bloomberg to two terms, has flaunted her independence in serious debates over the city’s “stop-and-frisk” crime-fighting policy and in more lighthearted stunts aimed at the mayor’s proposed ban on giant sodas. The day after she launched her campaign in March, she gleefully brandished a 32-ounce cup of Diet Coke in a nationally televised interview with CNN’s Piers Morgan.
Quinn, who has spoken publicly about her struggle with bulimia, is concerned that making big drinks off limits will only make New Yorkers want them more. The onetime front-runner has slipped in the polls after facing an avalanche of attack ads from an outside group.
“When the mayor and I agree, I’m all in,” said Quinn, who would be the city’s first openly lesbian mayor. “And when we disagree, I’m respectfully all the way out.”
Of all of Bloomberg’s public-health initiatives, the soda ban has been the single biggest bust. A state judge in March struck down the limit on sugary beverages over 16 ounces, and polls have consistently found a majority of voters against it. The soda ban is especially unpopular among African-Americans; a Quinnipiac University poll earlier this year found 60 percent opposed.
A long subway ride from Quinn’s event, in the predominantly Hispanic and less upscale Washington Heights neighborhood, supporters of the only black candidate for mayor gathered at the United Palace Cathedral, a grand old former vaudeville theater that has evolved into an evangelical church and arts center. Maria Luna, a Dominican-born Democratic Party leader, was dressed up in pearls and pumps to endorse Bill Thompson despite the torrential rain that morning.
“Bloomberg is a fool,” said the petite, white-haired lady. “He can’t tell people what to buy unless he’s going to give it them for free. Someone like him who has a chef at his house is going to tell me what to eat and drink?”
Thompson, she said, will focus on more important issues in lower-income communities, such as education. “Someone who will represent us instead of patronizing us,” she said.
The former city comptroller, whose New York accent doesn’t betray his Caribbean roots, unsuccessfully challenged Bloomberg in 2009. He’s running third in the polls behind Quinn and Weiner in a crowded Democratic race. And after eight years of Republican Rudy Giuliani and 12 years of the Republican-turned-independent Bloomberg, the winner of the Democratic primary is expected to prevail in this increasingly diverse metropolis.
“We have to move this city in a different direction,” Thompson told a smattering of supporters and press. “We’re not going to come close this time. We’re going to win this election.”
Thompson was less emphatic when asked about the soda ban, which the mayor is appealing in court. “It’s something I don’t support,” was all Thompson would say, wary of ending up on the wrong side of a public-health debate. One of the only mayoral candidates who support the soda ban, former Democratic city Councilman Sal Albanese, also wants to legalize marijuana.
Weiner's political base consists of much more moderate, outer-borough residents, and he hasn’t waded into the battle over Big Gulps. He's positioning himself more as a libertarian, unveiling on Wednesday "a Declaration of Independence from Albany" that would give the city more control over schools, taxes, and transportation. The former House member resigned in 2011 after admitting to sending naked pictures of himself to women online, making him an unlikely choice for New Yorkers looking for another nanny-in-chief. The only public-health initiatives in his 64-point campaign plan are to require city workers who smoke to pay higher health care costs and to give tax breaks to employers who promote biking to work.
Ilan Weisberg, a gastroenterologist, was doing just that on a recent morning in midtown Manhattan. “Remember when people didn’t wear seat belts?” recalled the 38-year-old in the preppy uniform of khakis, a light-blue shirt, and Top-siders. “Now everyone does, so regulation really can change behavior.”
He added, sheepishly, “I’m not wearing my bike helmet today, but I usually do.”
More than 45,000 people have bought annual memberships in the city’s month-old bike rental program, which was endorsed across the board in a recent Quinnipiac University poll. The backlash has been limited to a not-in-my-backyard reaction from some neighborhoods to the locations of the bike racks and lanes.
In what the mayor's office sees as validation of his agenda, the average life expectancy in New York City has increased to a record-setting 81 years, outpacing the national average. Bloomberg views protecting New Yorkers from lung cancer, heart disease, and obesity the same way he views protecting them from crime.
His public-health crusade began with a controversial ban on smoking in restaurants and bars in 2003, and he's vexing industry interests again by proposing to do away with Styrofoam containers and to require stores to hide cigarettes behind the counter. His willingness to pick unpopular fights puts him in the company of potential Republican presidential contenders such as New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, although their targets were the unions that are so reviled in their own party.
“The lesson is that the mayor was willing to be bold, willing to be experimental, willing to take on special interests, and he had a real impact,” said Howard Wolfson, the city’s deputy mayor. “We don’t govern by referendum.”
But Bloomberg has been a unique figure in New York City politics. He made his fortune in the financial services industry, and while he’s not the first limousine liberal to govern New York City—in fact, the term was coined by 1969 mayoral hopeful Mario Procaccino to attack incumbent John Lindsay, who won anyway—Bloomberg isn’t a career politician. He swore off the major political parties at the same time his wealth allowed him to spearhead nationwide battles for gun control and immigration reform.
“You’ve got 12 years of an aberration—a zillionaire who doesn’t need the job and doesn’t respond to normal political pressures,” said Maurice Carroll, director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute. “What you got coming in are pretty standard New York politicians who rose up through the ranks. The nanny stuff is a Bloomberg shtick.”
And so, with the larger-than-life mayor on his way out, the Happy Meal and Big Gulp may live to fight another day.