The 1976 Democratic primary for the U.S. Senate seat now held by Kirsten Gillibrand pitted feisty Upper West Side Congresswoman Bella Abzug against reserved former U.N. Ambassador Daniel Patrick Moynihan. The New York Times editorial board endorsed Moynihan in an election he won by fewer than 10,000 votes, and longtime New York City civil servant Henry J. Stern later wrote that the election “was probably decided by the New York Times endorsement.”
But it wasn’t supposed to happen that way.
The story is well told in Edwin Diamond’s Behind The Times. Editorial page editor John Oakes and the editorial board actually were leaning toward Abzug. Even so, Oakes determined it would be permissible to defer to genteel Times tradition and not take a side in the primary, and went on vacation to Martha’s Vineyard in late summer with the understanding that this is what would happen. While he was gone, though, Times publisher Arthur “Punch” Sulzberger Sr. had Max Frankel, an eventual executive editor, write an editorial backing Moynihan. Oakes, infuriated, began to write his extended rebuttal while on the ferry back; Sulzberger reduced it to a 40-word letter to the editor (who, technically, was Oakes himself). The board’s one black member wrote a signed editorial comment attacking Moynihan’s writings on blacks for publication just before the primary; Sulzberger made sure it ran the day after voting.
The incident helped establish the principle that when it comes to all-important Times endorsements, the publisher can exercise final sway. This remains true today: In an email to me last week, a Times spokesperson wrote, “The final decision is made by the editorial board, Andy Rosenthal and Arthur Sulzberger”—Rosenthal being the opinion editor and Sulzberger being Arthur “Pinch” Sulzberger Jr., Punch’s son. (The newsroom, led by executive editor Jill Abramson, is kept separate from the Opinion section.) And the principle may come into play sometime in the next few weeks, when the Times endorses a Democratic mayoral candidate for the September 10 primary. Some amateur tea-leaf reading suggests that City Council Speaker Christine Quinn is the candidate who would stand the most to gain should Pinch pull a Punch.
There are more than one million digital and print Times readers in the New York City area, and that doesn’t include the many, many more who will learn whom the Times endorsed because it is an inherently newsworthy event. “It’s important to get a good housekeeping seal of approval,” explained Democratic political consultant Evan Stavisky, who is not working for any of the candidates, “and as large as the Times readership is, its endorsement is seen as persuasive even to voters who don't necessarily read the paper.” With a close primary, a city with a six-to-one Democratic-to-Republican edge, and a weak Republican field, the Times’ backing in the primary and the likely run-off on October 1 could prove crucial to determining New York’s next mayor.
There are plausible reasons to believe that the Times board would endorse any of the three leading candidates—Quinn, Public Advocate Bill de Blasio, and former comptroller Bill Thompson—on the merits. Three of the other four Democratic candidates are too far behind for the Times to consider endorsing them, according to observers, and the fourth is Anthony Weiner, whom the Times has essentially said should withdraw.
Nobody at the Times talks much. “I help set up the interviews and I work with Eleanor Randolph, who’s done this for years,” board member Lawrence Downes, who is spearheading the endorsement process this cycle, told me, referring to another board member. (David Freedlander profiled Randolph last year in the New York Observer.) “It’s all a collaborative process, and we speak as one voice as a board,” he added. A Times spokesperson would not even comment on when the editorial would run, although Downes jokingly admitted that it’s coming “sometime pretty soon, before the election.”
The interviews themselves, by all accounts, play out like something from a high-minded middle school civics class. “I think they sincerely wanted to try to find the best candidate,” recalled Fernando Ferrer, a onetime Bronx borough president who won the Times’ 2005 primary endorsement. Added George Arzt, another unaffiliated Democratic consultant, “You always feel that they have an open mind, and that you can convince them.”
For that reason, many of the people I spoke with saw the Times endorsement as fair-minded. “It’s just a snapshot of their point of view,” said C. Virginia Fields, a former Manhattan borough president and 2005 Democratic mayoral candidate who did not secure the Times' endorsement (or the nomination). Added Mark Green, the former public advocate who said he has sought a Times endorsement seven times, including for mayor, senator, and congressman: “Unlike an election itself, where money can be a big variable, a New York Times endorsement is as close to a merit test as you get in public life.” (The Times endorsed Green for mayor in 2001, a week before then-Republican Michael Bloomberg, who spent $74 million on his campaign, won by 35,000 votes.)
The board’s stances on the basic issues are well-known, and in many cases jibe with most Democratic candidates’ priorities. It is anti-Albany, but that doesn’t apply in the mayoral race. It hates scandal, and indeed Scott Stringer was widely considered a lock to earn the comptroller endorsement over Eliot Spitzer, as he did Saturday. It has an established tendency of picking the winner, which could suggest a desire to pick the winner: Green said that in 1986, when he was the Democratic nominee against Republican Senator Al D’Amato, the board wanted to back him but, seeing D’Amato as the overwhelming favorite, “grumpily endorsed” the incumbent, who went on to win by double digits.
Policy-wise, de Blasio probably best matches the board. He is the most obviously progressive: For example, he favors raising income taxes on those making over $500,000, to help pay for universal pre-K. Last week, the Times even published an extraordinary editorial heaping praise on him for bringing attention to hospital closures. But was that a sign that it is preparing to endorse him, or the sentimental whimpers of a board whose heart may be with him but whose head—its figurative head or its literal head, Sulzberger—may force it in a different direction?
Thompson, who is polling just behind de Blasio and Quinn, probably least matches the board's positions. He was endorsed by the teachers’ union, of which the Times is leery, and has been iffiest (due to the police union’s endorsement) on stop-and-frisk, which the Times opposes. But some, including Green, suggested the Times may want to endorse Thompson, who is black, because in the two other citywide races they are likely to endorse white people (Stringer and aspiring public advocate Daniel Squadron, who is already backed by Sen. Chuck Schumer and Ad-Rock). Besides, the board did endorse Thompson in the last mayoral primary.
Quinn, though maybe not quite as synced with the Times as de Blasio, would certainly make sense. She is, after all, also a progressive. She would be New York’s first woman and first openly gay mayor, which the Times could see as an intrinsically good thing. Earlier this year, the board bashed Quinn for opposing mandatory paid sick leave, but she has since changed her mind. Quinn opposes stop-and-frisk, but on the other hand has said she would keep controversial Police Commissioner Ray Kelly, who, along with Bloomberg, is most closely associated with the policy (the board has essentially punted on Kelly).
That’s the rub: Bloomberg. The Times endorsed him in the 2005 and 2009 general elections. And Quinn, more than any other person (arguably including Bloomberg!), was responsible for allowing Bloomberg to bypass statutory term limits—a move the Times strongly supported (it even argued, in its endorsement of his 2009 candidacy, that Bloomberg would be wrong to restore them). Using this reasoning, Quinn is the most likely recipient of the Times nod. Which in a sense would be honest: The Times, like Quinn, is anti-term limits.
But here is where it gets really tricky. “Arthur overruled the board on term limits,” Green said flatly, referring to widespread reports. “The billionaire's pact: Mike, Arthur, Rupert, Mort.” (That is: Bloomberg; Sulzberger, of the Times, who almost certainly isn’t a billionaire; Murdoch, whose News Corp. owns the New York Post; and Zuckerman, who owns the New York Daily News). Ferrer, who won the Times' endorsement in the 2005 primary but lost it to Bloomberg in the general, was only a little more circumspect. Of that Bloomberg endorsement, he told me, “Considering what they had written about the mayor and his blowing off debates and spending money and all that stuff, they really had to contort themselves into that editorial.” Or, I suggested, they were instructed to do so. “Yeah, c’mon!” he replied.
It isn't far-fetched to believe that Pinch put his thumb on the scale for Bloomberg. In 2008, according to a report in—where else?—the Times, Bloomberg approached Sulzberger, Murdoch, and Zuckerman (Green’s “billionaire’s pact”) to “gauge” where they stood on term limits. “The paper had editorialized its vehement opposition to [Rudy] Giuliani’s bid for a post-9/11 term extension,” reported New York’s Chris Smith in 2009. “But Bloomberg’s close friend Steve Rattner, the investment banker and former federal car czar, is also a longtime friend of Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger, and eventually the Times editorial page threw in with the mayor.”
Were Sulzberger to intervene on behalf of Bloomberg one more time, it would almost certainly be for Quinn. This time two years ago, Bloomberg’s support for Quinn was unofficial but not exactly a secret. Top Bloomberg advisor and spokesperson Howard Wolfson, a deputy mayor, has not been shy about attacking both de Blasio and Thompson recently.
Nobody I spoke to would hazard a guess as to whom the Times will endorse in this year's primary. Too unpredictable—like the race itself. But I think it will go to Quinn, who has made herself acceptable on enough issues (like paid sick leave) and, despite de Blasio’s strong polling, may still be most likely of the three to qualify for the run-off. Quinn also gives the board the opportunity to play queenmaker. "Who needs it the most?” mused another unaffiliated Democratic consultant, who wished to remain anonymous because of future potential business with the editorial board. “Who would suffer the most by not having it? I think Chris Quinn is probably that candidate.” Why? “Given the fawning of the editorial board over Bloomberg over the past 12 years, the assumption has been that she would have it.” In other words, if endorsing somebody else would be a body-blow most of all for Quinn, that means the Times can take substantial credit if it endorses her and she wins.
A Quinn endorsement would not necessarily mean that Sulzberger overruled the board: There are, again, plenty of on-the-level reasons for it to pick her. But if it turns out Sulzberger does get his way, it is hard to believe that the endorsement wouldn’t be for Quinn. “It’s a bit of a Vatican situation,” said Green. “The pontiff has the power, but you don’t always know what influenced the call.” Andy Rosenthal, incidentally, did not return a request for comment. Maybe he’s on vacation.