Policing, taxes at issue as New Yorkers choose a new mayor

NEW YORK -- New York City’s mayoral campaign drew to a close Tuesday as voters began choosing between two main candidates who portrayed themselves as far different from outgoing Mayor Michael Bloomberg, but who each offered starkly opposing views on key issues such as policing and taxes.

Opinion polls showed the Democratic candidate, public advocate Bill de Blasio, 52, with a huge lead over Republican Joe Lhota, 59, who was deputy mayor under Rudolph Giuliani. Democrats outnumber Republicans in the city by more than 5-to-1, and political pundits say Lhota’s campaign has been too lackluster to gain ground.

In recent weeks, however, Lhota’s campaigning took on a more aggressive tone in debates and in TV ads, which used images of the city in its grim, crime-ridden past to warn voters of how he said things could be under De Blasio.

“What’s at stake is the vision for the future,” Lhota said Monday in his last full day of campaigning.

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De Blasio has campaigned on a promise to end the police department’s stop-question-frisk practice, which he said amounts to racial profiling, and to replace longtime Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly, described by critics as the architect of the policy that they say is racist.

Lhota said he would retain Kelly, whom he credited with keeping the city’s crime rate at record lows.

De Blasio’s stance on the issue struck a chord with voters in the increasingly diverse city, as did the candidate’s personal life: He is white, his wife is black, and his telegenic children proved a hit with voters when they appeared in TV ads for their father.

“We have big changes to make in the city,” De Blasio said in his final day of campaigning. Citing statistics that show more than 40% of the city is living at or near the poverty level, De Blasio said: “Our mission is to address that reality with every tool we have.”

Lhota warns that De Blasio's plans would probably involve tax increases. De Blasio has vowed to pursue a tax hike on the city’s wealthiest residents to fund educational programs.

New York has not elected a Democrat as mayor since they chose David Dinkins in 1989. Giuliani, a Republican, defeated Dinkins in the 1993 election and served two terms. Bloomberg, a one-time Democrat,registered as a Republican to get on the 2001 ballot. He subsequently became an independent and went on to win two more terms.

Political experts say several factors, including the city’s shifting demographics, set the stage for the mayor’s mansion to be returned to Democratic hands.

After 12 years under Bloomberg, a billionaire whom Forbes ranks as the 10th-richest American, voters hit hard by the recession and by the city’s notoriously high housing costs are eager for change. The crime and other crises that steered voters toward law-and-order candidates, and that led them to seek stability in the form of incumbents, have ebbed. And Lhota has not been a compelling enough candidate to overcome the Democrats' advantage, they say.

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“Could there be a Republican candidate to beat De Blasio?” said Bruce F. Berg, who teaches political science at Fordham University. “I suspect if Raymond Kelly had run, that would have been a fascinating race,” he said, referring to the police commissioner, who is a Republican and whose name was floated early on as a potential mayoral candidate.

But Berg said Lhota, despite earning praise for managing the city’s public transit system through last year’s Superstorm Sandy, lacked the “pizazz and the policy portfolio to knock off a Democrat.”

Polls in New York opened at 6 a.m. and close at 9 p.m.

One of the early voters was Alma Rodriguez in Brooklyn, who said she had cast her vote for De Blasio because she believed he had more empathy for working-class residents such as herself.

“Lhota seems like a nice man and I worry about crime returning, but I have to think of my children and how they will live in New York if we don’t get change,” she said.

Lhota, though, remained optimistic that moderate Democrats fearful of De Blasio’s liberalism would vote Republican and give him a victory.

“A lot of people come up to me and talk to me … ‘I’m a Democrat but I’m voting for you, Joe,’ ” Lhota said. “I hear it all over the place.”

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