At 6 feet 5 inches, Bill de Blasio isn’t just the tallest candidate running for mayor of New York. As the front-runner, he’s also become the biggest target. Once something of a liberal long shot, the 52-year-old has become the likely next mayor by being the toughest critic of the current one. De Blasio captured the anti-Michael Bloomberg mood of the city’s Democrats far better than the now-fading Christine Quinn, the City Council speaker who is vying to be the city’s first female mayor—and its first openly gay one. Quinn said, for instance, that she’d keep Bloomberg’s police commissioner, Ray Kelly, the architect of the stop-and-frisk policy.
De Blasio’s progressive surge is remarkable in a city that hasn’t elected a Democratic mayor in 24 years. It’s not that New York is conservative, of course. (President Obama won 81 percent of the vote in 2012.) But crime and safety have driven New York politics into the hands of Republicans such as Rudy Giuliani and tough-on-crime Democrats such as Ed Koch. With crime down, New Yorkers are free to turn to progressive issues such as income inequality and affordable housing. It’s telling that curtailing, not beefing up, the police force is a key issue this year.
“This election is not going to be about crime, as some previous elections were,” de Blasio told National Journal last month. “It used to be in New York you worried about getting mugged. But today’s mugging is economic. Can you afford your rent?” With the influx of moneyed professionals into urban cores in Manhattan, D.C., and elsewhere, the issues at play in this race could be a harbinger of political battles elsewhere.
A political operative-turned-politician, de Blasio boasts ties to Hillary Rodham Clinton (he managed her 2000 Senate bid) and countless other New York Dems, including Gov. Andrew Cuomo (they worked together at the Housing and Urban Development Department). With his wife, Chirlane McCray, an African-American writer who identified herself as a lesbian until they married, he has a personal story that goes beyond being an outer-borough Italian white guy. His son, Dante, sports big hair and was the centerpiece of an ad denouncing Bloomberg and giving the campaign what’s been called “Fro-mentum.”
Now that New Yorkers are no longer focused on their personal safety—whether threatened by robbers or terrorists—they have the liberty to focus on the kinds of issues that de Blasio is raising in what he incessantly dubs his “Tale of Two Cities” campaign. He’s called for a tax on those earning more than $500,000. He was an early critic of Bloomberg’s stop-and-frisk policy, under which police have dramatically increased the number of individuals detained on probable cause. By making himself the anti-Bloomberg, de Blasio is not only leading the pack, he’s also got a shot at avoiding a runoff election.
There’s plenty to back up de Blasio’s claim of inequality. By one index, Gotham is the most unequal city in the U.S., and inequality has grown four times faster than in the rest of the country since 1980. These days, just 1 percent of New Yorkers take in one-third of the city’s income—about twice the national average. The high cost of housing has exacerbated the differences. The question for New York and the nation is what to do about it. Through any number of policies, such as proposals to implement a surtax on higher incomes and to stop funding cuts to schools and hospitals, de Blasio wants to rebuild the middle class.
But the trends that have driven inequality nationally, even globally—among them, the cost of higher education, global competition, and punishing conditions for dropouts—aren’t easily remedied. In New York, the explosive growth of the financial sector, even after the banking crisis, has helped widen the divide. De Blasio is not Huey Long and he’s not wonky, but he’s got a good knack for finding symbols of the new Gilded Age, recently tweeting about one chic spot offering a $350 steak. His opposition to Bloomberg’s “congestion pricing” tax for cars entering Manhattan helps him gain currency in Queens and Staten Island.
De Blasio is surging now, yet when we spoke with him in mid-August at a Gramercy Park coffee shop, his entourage totaled one guy, and no polls had him in the lead. (Anthony Weiner had imploded by then, but the polls had yet to reflect that.) Asked about crime and whether the city could slip back to the bad old days, De Blasio emphasized vigilance but suggested that the progress wouldn’t erode. “The foundation we have now is fantastic,” he said.
No candidate used to utter the words "fantastic" and "crime" in the same sentence, but the campaign traces the cultural shift that has transformed New York from a city of romance (think of the 1957 film An Affair to Remember), to a city of dread (1971's Panic in Needle Park; 1974's Death Wish), back to a modern urban playground (2009's New York, I Love You). Koch, Giuliani, and Bloomberg rode the Needle Park wave as long as it could hold, but times are changing.
The open question is whether New York’s situation is unique. Would a de Blasio candidacy work in a city such as Chicago, where crime is still high, or places struggling to lure business, like a Saginaw or a Stockton? But in cities such as Washington, where yoga studios, condos, and organic markets now crowd out longtime residents, a campaign built around inequality could find some traction—assuming a candidate like de Blasio can really do anything about it.