Mickey Mouse made his screen debut in the 1928 animated short, Steamboat Willie. Just four years later, he was sufficiently famous to garner write-in support—along with Al Capone and other Depression era notables—in New York’s 1932 mayoral election.
In a sense, those 1932 write-in “protest votes” were emblems of a uniquely unsettled time; New York City saw four mayors (two acting) between September of 1932 and January of 1934, when Fiorello La Guardia began his three transformative terms in City Hall. But like sex scandals, race-baiting, demagoguery, and lies, the protest vote is an integral part of our political landscape. Whether write-ins (Harambe! Lisa Simpson!) or ballots cast for candidates with no hope of winning, protest votes serve as a measure of the electorate’s faith in the system.
Last September, Bernie Sanders rightly noted that the 2016 presidential election was “not the time for a protest vote.” Still, roughly 6 million Americans backed candidates who could not win—some because they genuinely believed in a given platform, others because they embraced the asinine notion that there is “no difference” between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. (How’s that working out, folks?)
On Tuesday in New York, I’ll cast my first protest ballot in four decades of going to the polls, penciling in some hopeless candidate or other—because the prospect of voting for Mayor Bill de Blasio’s re-election is just so unappealing.
This is all the more dismaying because, on paper, de Blasio (who I voted for the first time around) is a candidate I would ordinarily support. I lean further to the left on most issues than the majority of my fellow Americans, but here’s the thing: Bill de Blasio leaves me cold. He simply doesn’t inspire. Admittedly, I have never spent time with the man, face to face—but from what I’ve seen, heard, and read, there isn’t much there. And what does appear to be there seems a breed of abiding self-satisfaction, rather than authentic leadership.
No one denies that de Blasio has enjoyed some impressive successes. His universal pre-K policy, despite a rocky start and enduring imperfections, is praised even by his foes. The Vision Zero traffic-safety program has literally saved lives. His affordable housing initiatives have gone some way toward blunting, if not yet reversing, the toxic effects of colossal wealth disparity across New York, and violent crime rates continue to flirt with, or blow right past, historic lows.
Alas, one gets the sense that de Blasio sees his successes as evidence that he is now, or is destined to be, not just a national political figure but an international force. Ego-inflation, after all, is an occupational hazard: Pols of all stripes have long viewed City Hall as a stepping stone—even as countless Gotham mayors have faded into irrelevancy or devolved into atrocious self-parodies once they left office.
Mayor de Blasio’s ambitions, meanwhile, likely include Albany and, perhaps, the presidency—and why not? If an unprincipled autocrat like Donald Trump and his cabinet of corporate goons can set up shop in the White House, anything is possible.
But on Nov. 7, I see little reason to vote for the incumbent mayor, whatever his future hankerings might turn out to be. Personally, I’d rather not back someone who, on inauguration day in January 2014, sat by while speaker after speaker ripped into his predecessor who shared the stage and gamely took the abuse. Love him or hate him, Michael Bloomberg showed more grit and grace that day than de Blasio and his supporters, who somehow managed to sound bilious and vindictive, even in victory.
I’d rather not support a guy who flew off to Germany—right after an NYPD officer, Miosotis Familia, was shot to death in July—to protest at the G-20 summit. What sort of mayor believes that his presence overseas is more “progressive” than staying put in the immediate aftermath of a cop’s murder? One hardly has to share the politics of those on the right to see de Blasio’s trip to Hamburg as self-serving and breathtakingly tone-deaf.
I’d rather not cast a ballot for a mayor who campaigned in 2013 on a promise to re-write what he characterized as the Bloomberg era’s “tale of two cities”—i.e., the haves and the have-nothings—but was himself caught up in a corruption probe involving deep-pocket donors currying favor at City Hall. Neither de Blasio nor anyone on his staff was charged, but Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance Jr. made clear in a tartly worded letter to the Board of Elections that the decision not to pursue legal action was “not an endorsement of the conduct at issue.”
I’d rather not vote for a politician who, while eager to come off as a tough, no-nonsense New Yorker, frequently exhibits the sort of petulance that most of us associate with the shrill rants of the Complainer-in-Chief—especially when it comes to his treatment in the media.
I could go on, but I won’t support Bill de Blasio for all sorts of reasons that, in the end, have little to do with ideology or policy. Does that put me in the same camp as voters who back a candidate based not on experience or qualifications, but on whether or not one could have a beer with him? Probably. But in this election, I don’t see a single candidate I’d want to spend five minutes with, much less the next four years.
As a New Yorker, I wish Mayor de Blasio the best. I really do. But he will win re-election, regardless of how I vote. And if we see an even more shameful voter turnout than the pitiful low that won him office in 2013? Well, perhaps that says as much about personalities as it does about politics, even when a candidate’s politics happen to jibe with my own.
My protest vote won’t make a material difference this year—but maybe a certain famous, resourceful rodent will appreciate it, all the same.