New York Mayor Hopefuls Hit Campaign Trail

New York City mayoral candidates are going through the time-honored ritual of neighborhood hopping. That's where they learn how to say a few words in Cantonese, don an Indian scarf and navigate the line between empathy and pandering.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

It's an election year in New York City, and because it's the nation's largest city, this is an opportunity to see local politics, maybe not that different from the politics of other American cities, but practiced on a grand scale. The politicians who want to be mayor are going through the time-honored rite of neighborhood hopping. NPR's Robert Smith reports from the campaign trail that winds through dozens of ethnic neighborhoods.

ROBERT SMITH reporting:

At an Indian restaurant in Jackson Heights, Queens, Mayor Mike Bloomberg is dressed for the campaign trail. Over his gray suit is draped a bright Indian scarf. A woman offers him another garland of flowers.

Mayor MIKE BLOOMBERG (Republican, New York City): Well, I can honestly say I've never in my life been given as many things to put around my neck or as many flowers...

(Soundbite of laughter)

SMITH: Every politician has a formula for trying to win over a crowd that comes from a different culture. Bloomberg always attempts to speak their language.

Mayor BLOOMBERG: I guess I should start by saying (foreign language spoken). How's my pronunciation? Not good. OK.

SMITH: And then Bloomberg goes for an even difficult trick. The billionaire Republican mayor tells a roomful of immigrants that he can identify with them.

Mayor BLOOMBERG: I come from a community like this one, a little bit more suburban in Medford, Massachusetts. My mother still lives in the house I grew up in.

SMITH: This is what a New York City mayor's race sounds like four months before the primary. Before the TV ads and slick mailers and televised debates, Mayor Bloomberg and the candidates who want to replace him must make their pitch one neighborhood at a time in community halls, ethnic festivals and parades.

Former Mayor ED KOCH (New York City): Most people want to see a street campaign. They want to see the candidates. They want to touch them. They want to be asked personally for their support.

SMITH: That's former New York Mayor Ed Koch, who was a master at working the room. He says you have to walk the line between making a connection with people and pandering to them. Rather than trying to speak a foreign language or wear ethnic dress, Koch says he always tried to appeal to a shared desire to be middle class.

Mr. KOCH: The message, whether it's to Russians in Little Odessa by the Sea in Brighton, or to the Asian Indians, it was the same message.

SMITH: The four Democrats vying for the chance to run against Mayor Bloomberg are still searching for their messages and looking for any ways to help voters identify with them. For C. Virginia Fields, the Manhattan borough president who lives in Harlem, that meant attending a Passover Seder and drawing parallels between the African-American and Jewish struggles against oppression.

Ms. C. VIRGINIA FIELDS (Manhattan Borough President): I'm going to ask you to join me in singing a favorite freedom song of mine.

(Singing) Oh, freedom. Oh, freedom...

SMITH: For those candidates who don't have the pipes, there's always the personal story. Congressman Anthony Weiner from Queens tries to connect with Chinese immigrants downtown by talking about his own family's rise from the neighborhood.

State Representative ANTHONY WEINER: Woolf Weiner--That was my great-grandfather's name, Woolf Weiner--who started out with a fur shop here on the Lower East Side, his great-grandson is now a congressman running for mayor because of the economic opportunities that New York City and particularly this community created.

SMITH: But sometimes all you need to get a community group on your side is the right word. New York Council Speaker Gifford Miller, from the Upper East Side, got a round of applause in Chinatown for just trying a little Cantonese.

Councilman GIFFORD MILLER (New York City): (Cantonese spoken)

(Soundbite of applause)

SMITH: It may look easy, but in politics, tailoring your message to different constituencies can backfire. The man who was considered the front runner in the mayoral race, former Bronx borough president Fernando Ferrer, sent his campaign into a tailspin earlier this spring when he told a gathering of police officers that the 1999 police shooting of an unarmed immigrant, Amadou Diallo, was not a crime. He then had to turn around and explain those remarks to an African-American audience at the National Action Network convention.

Mr. FERNANDO FERRER (Former Bronx President): The words I used were careless, and I realize that those words caused a number of people who believed in me all these years--caused them some pain. And I've felt pain as well.

SMITH: The controversy cost Ferrer his lead in the polls, and Ferrer ended up replacing his top advisers.

(Soundbite of restaurant activity)

SMITH: Back at the Indian restaurant in Queens, the voters who came to see Mayor Bloomberg speak were more forgiving of the mayor's attempt to say hello in another language.

Mr. CHICO SONNI(ph): He said (foreign language spoken), but he didn't pronounce it properly. But it was good enough. Everyone understood.

SMITH: Chico Sonni and Amro Paulie(ph) were just thrilled that the mayor even ventured up to Jackson Heights.

Mr. SONNI: It means a lot just to come here.

Ms. AMRO PAULIE: He wouldn't have made an appearance if he didn't care.

SMITH: And for a mayor that's often seen as aloof and unable to connect with real New Yorkers, that's a welcome compliment. Forget the message. In politics, sometimes the most important thing is just showing up.

Robert Smith, NPR News, New York.

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