NEW YORK — Voters headed to the polls Tuesday in what has been one of the city’s wildest and most unpredictable primaries in more than a decade as residents of the nation’s largest city begin the process of choosing a successor to outgoing Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
It’s the first time in 12 years that New Yorkers are picking a new mayor, and while Bloomberg isn’t on the ballot, it’s a race that increasingly has been about him and his legacy on everything from income inequality to affordable housing and public safety.
On the Democratic side, polls showed Public Advocate Bill de Blasio within striking distance of the 40 percent threshold necessary to avoid a runoff election.
A Quinnipiac poll released Monday found de Blasio with 39 percent support among likely Democratic voters — a major lead over former Comptroller Bill Thompson, who had 25 percent support; and City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, who had 18 percent. The other candidates, including former Rep. Anthony Weiner, trailed in single digits.
That marked a dramatic turnaround for de Blasio, who rocketed from fourth to first place in the polls just a month ago thanks to a campaign in which he’s cast himself as the anti-Bloomberg in the race.
Among other things, de Blasio has vowed to roll back the city’s controversial “stop and frisk” tactic, a Bloomberg-backed public safety measure that allows police officers to randomly search people. And he’s also campaigned on making the city more accessible to the middle class and the poor — arguing that New York has become “a tale of two cities” under Bloomberg’s tenure.
“I am the only person in this race who represents real change to the Bloomberg years,” de Blasio said at a campaign stop in East Harlem late Monday.
De Blasio’s populist message was also backed up by the popularity of his interracial family. An Italian American, de Blasio is married to a black woman, and their multiracial kids have been mainstays on the campaign trail — including his 15-year-old son, Dante, who starred in two television ads for his father and whose bushy Afro has become one of the most memorable images of the campaign.
Last weekend, Bloomberg said de Blasio’s heavy use of his family during his campaign was “racist” — a charge that quickly drew condemnation from the entire mayoral field.
De Blasio’s rise appeared to catch his rivals off guard and came after a topsy-turvy summer in which the campaign saw three different front-runners at various points, including Quinn, who had been viewed as Bloomberg’s heir apparent, and Weiner, who launched a last-minute bid for City Hall in May.
But Weiner’s campaign was felled in July by the revelation that he had continued to exchange sexual messages with women he met online even after he was forced out of Congress in 2010 over the same issue. Voters quickly soured on him, even after an emotional press conference in July — in which his wife, longtime Hillary Clinton aide Huma Abedin, said she had forgiven him.
Quinn, who is vying to be the city’s first female and first openly gay mayor, had led the polls for months but has seen her numbers drop over the summer as de Blasio and other rivals have hammered her for her ties to Bloomberg. Among other things, she’s been attacked for helping to roll back a voter-backed term limits measure that allowed Bloomberg to seek a third term in 2009.
Bloomberg’s rival that year was Thompson, who lost the race by less than 5 percentage points even as the billionaire mayor spent more than $20 million of his own money on the race.
Thompson is the lone black candidate in this year’s mayoral campaign, but he’s struggled to maintain support among black voters, who have been learning toward de Blasio in the race.
Seeking to secure a spot in a runoff election, Thompson and Quinn have gone after de Blasio, accusing the mayoral front-runner of campaigning on policy he can’t deliver — including a proposal of raising taxes on the rich to fund prekindergarten programs in the city.
Both have argued they are in a better position to deliver actual “results” at City Hall — an argument Quinn echoed at a campaign stop in Queens on Monday.
“I think New Yorkers want a mayor who has a progressive vision and a progressive record of getting results. They want vision and results,” Quinn said, arguing that she is in the best position to actually implement “change.”
The race marked a dramatic turnaround for Quinn, who was at risk of not making a runoff election in spite of the fact that she’s won the majority of political endorsements in the city and has been backed by all three of the city’s daily newspapers.
Asked if she misread the mood of the voting electorate, Quinn insisted she wouldn’t change any aspect of her campaign and seemed hopeful that voters would see her as someone who could “get real results.”
The unpredictable nature of the Democratic primary had largely overshadowed the Republican mayoral primary.
Joe Lhota, a former aide to ex-mayor Rudy Giuliani who until recently ran the Metropolitan Transportation Administration, is battling John Catsimatidis, a billionaire grocery store magnate who has spent more than $4 million of his own fortune on the race.
While the GOP race has been tamer than the Democratic primary, there have been trivial moments. Heading into the final days of the campaign, Catsimatidis has sought to portray Lhota as unlikable — in part by criticizing Lhota’s recent statement that he would not have shut down a subway line in Brooklyn last month to rescue a pair of runaway kittens who had become lodged under the train tracks.
That prompted an unusual exchange at Sunday’s GOP debate, in which Lhota insisted that he was not “the anti-kitten candidate.”
Both men have largely campaigned to keep Bloomberg’s legacy intact — especially his record on public safety, which has helped New York see its lowest crime rates in years.