Whether or not politics was involved, Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s decision this week to inform the public of a terror threat that was later discredited shifted the focus of the fast-moving campaign to security issues.
That’s a development that only serves to strengthen the mayor, observers say. "It tends to reinforce support for the incumbent, who gets to show that he’s making decisions and taking certain steps," said John Mollenkopf, a political science professor at the CUNY Graduate Center. While the airwaves filled with images of Bloomberg detailing increased security alongside his veteran police commissioner, Raymond Kelly, Democratic challenger Fernando Ferrer and his supporters were left wondering how to tap into public cynicism without appearing to downplay the threat.
Word that a band of malevolent Iraqi fugitives might be plotting to carry explosives-laden baby strollers onto the subway came just hours before a debate in Harlem that Bloomberg refused to attend — an issue that had been giving the mayor the worst week of his campaign. That fueled speculation among subway riders and political commentators that the timing was too good to be coincidental.
But Ferrer had to tread carefully in taking up the issue, knowing that second-guessing the mayor on security in these treacherous times could easily backfire.
Speaking to a group of Jewish community leaders early Tuesday morning, Ferrer said, "I do not disagree with the mayor and his police commissioner with respect to the information they received. I don’t think you can skimp on keeping New Yorkers safe." He then added: "Now that the alert is over, I think New Yorkers are due a fuller and more clear explanation as to why we sounded the alarm in the first place."
Ferrer then went on to outline how he would beef up security in the transit system by using federal funds to improve communications underground, increase the training of Transit Authority personnel and invest in more security cameras and bomb-detection technology. Subway security was an issue that surfaced often during the Democratic primary, particularly after the July bombings in London.
But Bloomberg is the only candidate who can claim experience in dealing with post-9-11 security threats, and that could make voters resistant to change.
"Most people would prefer more caution rather than less," said Republican consultant Roger Stone. As to the cynicism of subway riders interviewed by the New York Times, many of whom chalked the alert up to a "wag the dog" diversion, Stone said, "Michael Bloomberg is not so irresponsible that he is going to alarm the public for political advantage. Whatever partisans would believe that are already voting for Ferrer."
Democratic consultant Norman Adler agreed. "Average New Yorkers are still in the ounce-of-prevention-is-worth-a-pound-of-cure mode. I’ve done a fair amount of polling on this issue, and people expect their representatives to be proactive. They are not much interested in ‘maybe it wasn’t entirely necessary.’ The proof is that Freddy couldn’t attack [Bloomberg] on this. What it shows is an advantage to incumbency that challengers cannot equal."
The security issue may resonate particularly strongly in Jewish communities, where many synagogues and other institutions have applied for and won federal funds to make their facilities less vulnerable. Communal leaders seemed to feel that there was no downside to refocusing the public on keeping their eyes and ears sharp.
"In my experience, people arenít paying attention unless you focus them," said David Pollock, associate director of the Jewish Community Relations Council. Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, which has coordinated a new Secure Community Network to disseminate threat information, said that while authorities have in the past shared warnings about Jewish targets, none was associated with this alert.
Though the threat announced by the mayor was later deemed by the FBI as not credible, Hoenlein said sharing the warning was justified. "People will appreciate that the regrets would be a lot worse if something happened than the feelings of inconvenience and a little bit of sacrifice," he said.
But assuming the best, that no incidents occur before the Nov. 9 election, voters will most likely refocus on issues such as housing and education in the weeks ahead, said Mollenkopf. "Whether [the warning] was a legitimate thing or not a legitimate thing won’t make any difference in how the mayor’s race unfolds," he said. "There are many more news cycles between now and then."
Like the two debates Bloomberg has agreed to, the mayor’s appearance before leaders of the city’s Jewish community councils and other organizational leaders will also take place in the final stretch of the campaign, when people are most focused on the race.
Ferrer’s appearance Tuesday turned out to be poorly scheduled, coming between Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur, and the conference room at a Midtown law firm was a sea of empty seats. Some of those invited to the meeting were out of town, while others were delayed by long morning synagogue services. Bloomberg’s appearance will take place after the holidays, on Oct. 31. Pollock of the JCRC, which is coordinating the sessions, said the scheduling was done in consultation with both campaigns. "We tried to make accommodations for each campaign, subject to constraints of Jewish holidays," he said.
Since attendance is by invitation only, and few of those invited are likely on the fence at this point, neither event is likely to sway many undecided voters.