Commentary: A NY Election Shows Race-Baiting Doesn’t Work

A white district attorney sought to cling to his job in a campaign that sought to stoke fears in white voters.

Posted: 11/06/2013 05:46 PM EST

The victory of Bill de Blasio in Tuesday’s election for mayor in New York City was a foregone conclusion. And it came to pass with de Blasio winning with a margin of nearly 50 percentage points in what seemed to be a quiet, uneventful election period in New York.

But a bit further down on the ballot, there was a race for Brooklyn district attorney that was one of the most fascinating and controversial contests in the city this year. It brought to the fore race-baiting techniques that were not the slightest bit subtle and not what voters have come to expect in this giant, multi-cultural city.

Here's what happened: The longtime incumbent, Charles J. Hynes, sought a seventh four-year term as district attorney in New York’s most populous borough. The 78-year-old Hynes lost the Democratic primary to Kenneth Thompson, an African-American former prosecutor, by about 10 percentage points. Hynes initially accepted defeat graciously, saying he would provide a smooth transition to the borough’s first Black district attorney.

After that, things got crazy. A week after his defeat, Hynes decided to run on the Republican and Conservative ballot lines. Hynes, who is white, waged a vigorous campaign in which he sought to portray his 47-year-old Black opponent as someone whose campaign was assisted by a former convict and placed ads in some of New York’s Yiddish-language newspapers in Orthodox Jewish areas saying that Thompson was victorious in Democratic primary because he was supported by a lawless “minority” element.

Meanwhile, there was a media report of emails between Hynes and his close friend, Sol Wachtler, a Republican former chief judge of the New York Court of Appeals. In those emails, Wachtler, who spent 13 months in prison in the 1990s for harassing his mistress, was reported to have used an anti-Black Yiddish slur in his references to Thompson while corresponding with Hynes. All of this has happened since Hynes referred in what he described as an offhanded jest to his Democratic opponent as someone who trades firearms illegally.

“The ad is meant only to create divisiveness, create hate between one community and another community,” said Dov Hikind, an assemblyman who represents a district with a large Jewish community and who is considered a leading spokesman for Jewish issues. “This is the kind of material that crosses every line imaginable. This is hate-mongering.”

It was a desperate campaign strategy on the part of Hynes, who could have left his legacy intact. He will now be remembered as someone who sought to cling to his position, no matter how poisonous the means he would employ.

The good news is that Thompson won the race with 75 percent of the vote, compared with the 25 percent that went to Hynes. The additional good news is that race-baiting simply didn’t work in this important race in New York. It demonstrates that voters are sophisticated enough to reject divisive politics. If only the Republicans could let that message sink in not just in New York but also around the country.

The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of BET Networks.

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(Photos from left: Steve Sands/WireImage/Getty Images, Curtis Means/NBC NewsWire/Getty Images,Stan Honda-Pool/Getty Images)

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