Why This New York Mayoral Election Is Unlike Any in Decades

With crime down and with fears of terrorism receding, voters are free to focus on issues such as income inequality and affordable housing — and it’s why Bill DeBlasio is the unlikely front-runner.

FILE - In this Aug. 14, 2103, file photo, Public Advocate and New York City mayoral candidate Bill de Blasio accepts the endorsement of the Committee of Interns and Residents in New York. Although his opponent Bill Thompson nearly overtook Mayor Michael Bloomberg four years ago on the strength of black voters, de Blasio, a harsh critic of "stop and frisk" and father of interracial children, is challenging him for their support. 
A2013
Matthew Cooper
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Matthew Cooper
Sept. 5, 2013, 4:10 p.m.

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.

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