It is April 2001 in New York.
Michael Bloomberg, a newly minted Republican who'd made billions in financial information services, is quoted in Newsweek as telling someone privately: "Am I running? Probably. Will I win? Not a chance."
There's no hint, of course, of the seismic catastrophe that in another five months will throw the city into horrific uncertainty and make everything else seem trivial.
Fast-forward to April 2005.
Many of the same issues are on voters' minds: Education, the economy, quality of life. Still, in the nearly four years since they last cast their ballots, the city has changed. The mayor is now in charge of schools, real estate is hotter than ever, and while crime has plummeted, fears of another terrorist attack remain.
Which galvanizing issue will define the 2005 mayoral campaign is unfolding as part of the long march to Nov. 8. But what people across the city are worried about is clear.
Now, as in 2001, property and taxes loom large among voters. Today, though, the real estate boom has replaced Wall Street as the engine of fast bucks, speculation, and new tax revenue. It has meant higher assessed values on homeowners and commercial landlords, more pressure on tenants, and a housing crunch. Everyone's tax bill is up.
Jonathan Gaska, longtime district manager of Community Board 14 in the Rockaways, has seen a remarkable housing boom in the past four years.
His district now has many more people with jobs, comparatively fewer on public assistance. Houses spring up on all kinds of vacant lots. Elected officials hear more appeals for services, such as improvements on the overtaxed 'A' train to Manhattan.
Not all the buzz is upbeat. Last week, Tom LaMarcia of Staten Island rang up a bill on the antique cash register in his barber shop, the Cutting Den, in the Clark Street subway station in Brooklyn, where once he displayed a campaign sign for Michael Bloomberg.
No, he said, he won't vote for Mayor Bloomberg this time. LaMarcia had been a Giuliani fan and thought Bloomberg would stay Rudy's course, but said he was disappointed by the property tax increase.
"Bloomberg is just worried about Manhattan -- and more about the [proposed West Side] stadium than about potholes," LaMarcia said.
More than ever, the real estate boom and the basic issue of space seem to drive the civic agenda.
From one neighborhood to the next, public clashes surround development. In Rego Park, a plan for a Wal-Mart was withdrawn. In DUMBO, the enemy is a garish high-rise condo. In downtown Brooklyn, a major basketball arena is debated. In Williamsburg and Greenpoint, it is the zoning of upscale waterfront housing. In western Staten Island, a speedway.
In 2001 as now, the polls show black and white New Yorkers viewing issues and leaders through different lenses. Opinion surveys often show Latinos' views as between the two -- and representative of the collective whole.
Bloomberg has made a display of seeking to minimize ethnic tensions and has taken a different posture from his predecessor toward police conduct. Some hail the mayor on this point.
For New York, front-page instances of violence -- racial or otherwise -- have repeatedly set the emotional boundaries in mayoral races.
In 1977, the campaign backdrop was the Son of Sam murders and widespread arson. In 1989 came the racial killing of Yusuf Hawkins in Bensonhurst. The Crown Heights riots of 1991 drove election strategies in 1993. In 1997, the police abuse of Abner Louima influenced the primary. And in 2001, the destruction of the World Trade Center, the war in Afghanistan, and fatal mailings of anthrax dominated the news.
Yet there are other widespread concerns. In 2001, as now, the state of the schools is on New Yorkers' minds. But governance has been altered. With the state's dismantling of the Board of Education in 2002, Bloomberg became accountable, saying voters should base his re-election on his education record. Bloomberg's handling of schools is, "a work in progress," says Maurice Carroll, director of Qunnipiac College's polling institute.
"Absent every kid all of a sudden turning into a Rhodes scholar, or the schools collapsing into total chaos, I don't think it's the kind of thing that'll determine if Bloomberg wins or loses."
If true, that might be good news for Bloomberg. When asked what kind of job they thought he was doing to improve public schools, 51 percent of respondents told a Newsday/NY1 News survey either "poor" or "not very good." Another 36 percent said they thought he was doing a "good" job on that issue, and 3 percent rated his performance "excellent."
On other issues, most seem to perceive the quality of life in their neighborhoods -- noise levels, cleanliness and safety -- are pretty much the same as four years ago. While 54 percent saw no change, according to the poll, 24 percent cited improvement, and 15 percent said things got worse. And, as often happens in an election year, the mayor will take the heat for some conditions for which he may not be responsible.
Just how much heat he'll take, and how much the other candidates offer as an alternative, will take the next seven months to unfold.