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First ad blitz in New York City mayor’s race has an unlikely star: Barack Obama

  • NEW YORK TIMES / 2014
                                Shaun Donovan, center, then the director of the White House Office of Management and Budget, with then-President Barack Obama at a White House meeting.

    NEW YORK TIMES / 2014

    Shaun Donovan, center, then the director of the White House Office of Management and Budget, with then-President Barack Obama at a White House meeting.

NEW YORK >> With the pandemic transforming New York City’s mayoral race into a mostly virtual affair, the best way to connect directly with voters would seem to be through television ads. Yet so far, the airwaves have been silent.

That will change Tuesday, when Shaun Donovan, the former Obama and Bloomberg administration official, kicks off the first television ad campaign of any significance in the contest.

By being first out of the gate, Donovan is trying to gain attention and seize a narrative advantage, an opportunity that will diminish over time as his better-funded rivals, with presumably bigger advertising budgets, join the television fray. Still, this is the race’s first television advertising purchase, according to AdImpact, an advertising analytics firm.

As of Monday afternoon, the campaign had reserved $75,000 worth of cable advertising space for the week of Feb. 9, according to AdImpact. The ads will run on CNN, MSNBC and NY1.

The airing of the first ad will cost six figures, according to the campaign, which hopes to spend more than $1 million on television advertising by the June 22 primary. The ad’s timing, more than four months before that primary, is not coincidental.

“It doesn’t quite smack of desperation yet, but it’s clearly motivated by the fact that he’s in real danger of being marginalized as a second-tier candidate quickly,” said Neal Kwatra, a Democratic political consultant who is unaffiliated with any of the candidates. “And that matters a lot in a race that is so compressed and is such a sprint.”

The race is certainly far different from the campaigns New York City is accustomed to. Meeting voters face-to-face is a risky endeavor; candidates now must jockey for attention in a seemingly endless series of livestreamed forums and fundraisers. At least three of the race’s more than 30 candidates have already been sidelined by quarantine. One of those three candidates is recovering from the coronavirus.

Still, for Donovan, being first out of the gate on television could carry some risk.

By the January filing deadline, Donovan had yet to raise enough money to quality for the city’s generous matching funds system. Should he spend down his campaign funds too early, he risks running low on cash during the pivotal weeks before the primary, when New York voters will presumably pay the closest attention to the race.

Nor is this tactic without historical precedent. Six months before the scheduled 2001 mayoral primary, Alan G. Hevesi, then the city comptroller, launched the race’s first television ads to try to gain early traction. The effort failed: Hevesi did not win enough votes to qualify for the Democratic runoff between Mark Green and Fernando Ferrer, which took place against the backdrop of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

Today, New York City also faces profound crises. Donovan, a Democrat who served in the Obama administration as budget director and housing secretary, has sought to focus voter attention on his experience in Washington and his ability to wrest meaningful aid from the Biden administration.

His first ad campaign hits that theme, beginning with former President Barack Obama extolling Donovan’s virtues after he nominated him as the White House budget director in 2014.

“Shaun’s just one of those people where he sees a problem, and he will work to solve it,” Obama said then.

The 30-second ad then progresses through images of President Joe Biden warmly embracing Donovan, and Donovan meeting with Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

Throughout his campaign, Donovan has seemed to distance himself from former Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, for whom he ran the city’s housing department. The commercial continues in the same vein, with Bloomberg making a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameo.

Part of Bloomberg’s face can be seen in an image of Donovan on Marine One with Obama and Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo as they respond to the destruction wrought by Hurricane Sandy.

Donovan’s ad, produced by the Win Co., will run on cable television in all five boroughs.

Katie Hill, a spokesperson for Obama, heaped praise on Donovan in a statement, even as she said the former president was unlikely to endorse in the mayoral race.

“Secretary Donovan helped lead our country out of the 2008 housing crisis, and later, as the director of OMB, he steered top policy priorities like health care access, climate change, inequality and public health, including pandemic preparedness and response,” Hill said. “President Obama is always heartened when alumni of his administration answer the call to run for office, but he does not typically weigh in on primaries and believes that the voters of NYC should make this decision for themselves.”

Donovan has yet to break through to the front of the pack in this year’s race. He has about $900,000 in cash on hand, according to the New York City Campaign Finance Board. The Brooklyn borough president, Eric Adams, has $6.7 million on hand; the city comptroller, Scott M. Stringer, has $5.8 million on hand; and former Citi executive Raymond J. McGuire has $3.8 million at his disposal.

“I represent real change,” Donovan says, speaking to the camera from in front of a row of brownstones in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Prospect Lefferts Gardens, about 3 miles from his Boerum Hill home. “But the change candidate usually has the least experience. I actually have the most.”

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