(The Root) — After endorsing Democrat-turned-Republican-turned-independent Michael Bloomberg in a previous mayoral campaign, the Rev. Calvin Butts, pastor of the famed Harlem-based Abyssinian Baptist Church, last Friday announced his support for Democrat Bill Thompson in the race to succeed Bloomberg. But the reasons he gave for the endorsement are raising eyebrows.
According to Politicker, during a press conference Butts said the following: "What do I say to African Americans? I say, 'Yes, I stand with Bill Thompson' because I think he is the enlightened African American who can provide great leadership for this city."
He added, "The city needs the right African American. It's one thing to re-enact the March at Washington, but we need progress more than we need protest. We need jobs, we need housing, we need education, and I think Bill Thompson is the man to represent us."
Though Butts made it clear that race was not the only reason he endorsed Thompson, the mere mention of Thompson's race will be enough to spark controversy. The race to become New York's next mayor has become increasingly racially contentious. According to polls, New York Public Advocate Bill de Blasio, who is white, recently went from third place to front-runner. His lead has increased so dramatically that he is now within four points of avoiding a runoff. (If no candidate secures 40 percent in the Sept. 10 primary, the two top vote-getters move on to a runoff.)
The timing of his incredible comeback is noteworthy. It comes on the heels of his nationally praised ad featuring his teenage son, Dante, who is biracial (de Blasio's wife, Chirlane McCray, is black), saying his father would be the toughest candidate on stop and frisk. Days after the commercial appeared, a federal judge found the New York City Police Department's enforcement of stop and frisk, which disproportionately targeted people of color, unconstitutional.
Overnight, stop and frisk became the defining issue of the race, and not just with voters of color. As such, stop and frisk and race in general have increasingly been topics of discussion in recent debates and campaign ads. In the recent Republican primary debate, grocery-store magnate John Catsimatidis said that if his son were stopped, he would ask the boy what he had been doing or wearing, a response sure to haunt him should he face Thompson or de Blasio in a general election. But it is the fight between Thompson and de Blasio over the racial implications of stop and frisk that has surprisingly upended the race.
After the success of the ad featuring his son, the de Blasio campaign launched another ad, titled "Dignity," more heavily focused on stop and frisk. In it a voiceover, echoed by similarly worded text that appears on the screen, says de Blasio is "the only candidate to end a stop-and-frisk era that targets minorities." Thompson demanded that the ad be taken down, calling it misleading, since he, too, wishes to curb stop and frisk. However, Thompson opposed two City Council bills aimed specifically at making it easier for victims of stop and frisk to seek restitution and to penalize law enforcement for abuses. De Blasio supports the measures.
Nevertheless, Thompson's campaign is irked by the ad and probably even more irked that a white candidate is seeing the greatest electoral bump from a civil rights issue, when there is a liberal black candidate also in the race. As a testament to how seriously he takes the issue, Thompson's campaign released a new ad featuring Thompson looking into the camera, calling de Blasio's new ad misleading and denoting that racial profiling is an issue with which he has coped personally. Therefore, the endorsement from Butts — which comes on the heels of the endorsements of various black elected officials critical of de Blasio, and Butts' acknowledgment that race was at least one factor influencing his decision — is likely to add further fuel to the race flap engulfing the mayoral campaign.
It is now looking very likely that for the first time in the era of the first black president, a major election will be determined by which candidate is most progressive when it comes to protecting the civil rights of black Americans.
Keli Goff is The Root’s special correspondent. Follow her on Twitter.