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As New York City Mayoral Race Limps to a Finish, What’s Missing? Ed Koch.

In Hizzoner’s absence, candidates struggle to inspire the city—and build crucial coalitions ahead of next month’s primary

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Left to right: former mayor Ed Koch, and mayoral candidates Bill de Blasio, Christine Quinn, Anthony Weiner, and Bill Thompson. (Collage Tablet Magazine; original photos Michael Loccisano/Getty Images, Spencer Platt/Getty Images, and Mario Tama/Getty Images)
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Today there’s no such thing as “the Jewish vote.” A 2012 survey released by the UJA-Federation of New York revealed that Jewish New Yorkers—roughly 1.5 million of them—are more religious, less educated, less affluent, and less liberal than they were at the turn of the millennium, thanks to the increase in ultra-Orthodox Jews and the influx of politically conservative Russian-speaking Jews in Brooklyn and Queens. Together, those two groups make up more than half the city’s Jewish population—a new majority. “The Jewish vote is not monolithic, it’s overrated, it’s less and less significant,” said Luchins. “Jews vote less and less in special elections, and the Jewish turnout numbers have been going down in the city, not up; Jewish registration numbers are down in the city.”

Thompson, the only black candidate in the mayoral race, has gone out of his way to court the Orthodox vote in the Brooklyn neighborhoods his father, a state legislator, once represented. Weiner—a son of Brooklyn whose mother, Frances, taught at Midwood High School—was recently run out of Flatbush, and while he might have been the natural choice for liberal, secular Jews, the descent of his campaign into embarrassment has opened up opportunities for other candidates. “Chris will do well among Manhattan Jews,” predicted George Arzt, Koch’s longtime spokesman. “Bill de Blasio will do well among groups of Jews in the outer boroughs.”

But it’s going to come down to a numbers game, whereas Koch was playing at something much larger: mobilizing whole communities. “I can’t think of a candidate who’s a favorite among the universal group of Jews,” Arzt said. “I don’t think there’s anyone who can coalesce such a coalition around him.” And it’s not just about personality—it’s about taking real stances on issues that matter to voters. “You don’t hear anybody in the mayoral race with a foreign policy,” Arzt went on. “Ed Koch always had a foreign policy, Israel being his key priority. But it used to be Ireland, Italy, and Israel.” Now, he said, “no one really speaks of a foreign policy except to address immigration as a broad issue.”

It’s not just the metaphorical Koch who’s missing. As a power broker, advocate, spokesman, and salesman, the ghost of the actual Ed Koch has also shadowed the summer’s campaign. Seemingly everyone who’s run for office on the local, city, state, or national level in recent times has pined for Koch’s elusive stamp of approval—an endorsement that, once won, guaranteed a candidate could count on Koch to bring a bullhorn to the ballot box.

New Yorkers seem genuinely less informed about the mayoral race without Koch there to help define the issues, whether you agreed with him or not. In this election, while his absence is to the detriment of everyone, probably no one misses him more than Christine Quinn, who won Koch’s endorsement in 2011—so early that almost no one remembers it. “He would have been a steadying influence on her campaign and would have brought many Jewish voters, especially centrist voters, to Quinn,” said Arzt. “Certainly, his absence hurts Quinn a lot.”

And it hurts everyone else, too. After 12 years, the reign of Michael Bloomberg has been too anodyne to produce a good foil for him and has endured too long for New Yorkers to want a sequel. But it’s tough to replace a titan without another titan. “I see very little passion in the election,” said Luchins. “I remember ’69. I remember ’77. I remember 1993. There was passion.”

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As New York City Mayoral Race Limps to a Finish, What’s Missing? Ed Koch.

In Hizzoner’s absence, candidates struggle to inspire the city—and build crucial coalitions ahead of next month’s primary

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