Is Bill de Blasio the Real Deal?

He’s selling himself as the anti-Bloomberg in New York City’s mayoral race, and it’s working.

In a crowded contest, polls can be decidedly unreliable. Still, de Blasio leads the Democratic field in a new Qunnipiac Poll. Here, he's in Times Square getting musicians' endorsement.
National Journal
Matthew Cooper
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Matthew Cooper
Aug. 14, 2013, 2 a.m.

Elmo was strolling around. So was Cook­ie Mon­ster, each pos­ing for pics. It was an­oth­er day in tour­ist-packed Times Square with its mind-numb­ing ar­ray of fam­ily-friendly draws. Bill de Bla­sio was here for a dif­fer­ent reas­on—to pick up the en­dorse­ment of the mu­si­cians uni­on, which chose the 52-year-old may­or­al can­did­ate for (among many reas­ons) his am­bi­tious plan for af­ford­able hous­ing. The city’s mu­si­cians, so cru­cial to tour­ism, are get­ting pushed out of the city, says K.C. Boyle, polit­ic­al dir­ect­or of Loc­al 802 of the As­so­ci­ated Mu­si­cians of Great­er New York.

A gen­er­a­tion ago, any polit­ic­al event in Times Square would have been com­pet­ing with hook­ers, not Mup­pets. Crime fam­ously drove New York polit­ics. It helped elect Ed Koch in the ‘70s and ‘80s, Rudy Gi­uliani in the ‘90s, and Mike Bloomberg for three terms that are end­ing now. (New York­ers may well have elec­ted a Demo­crat 12 years ago but primary day was 9/11, the elec­tion was post­poned, and Bloomberg and his check­book won.) But with crime down and Free­dom Tower up, per­son­al safety is just not the same is­sue.

How sure is the pro­gress? Can New York slip in­to De­troit-like fisc­al chaos, as Bloomberg re­cently said? “It can’t hap­pen,” de Bla­sio told Na­tion­al Journ­al at a cof­fee shop near Gramercy Park, not­ing how much stronger New York is fin­an­cially. And, he ar­gues, the city’s pro­gress on crime is ir­re­vers­ible. He says this a day after a fed­er­al judge is­sued a re­buke to Bloomberg’s stop-and-frisk policies and the may­or strongly hin­ted that lives would be lost. De Bla­sio notes that the crime fight, like win­ning the Cold War, took place un­der many lead­ers—he does a hat tip to neigh­bor­hood groups, too, and de­clares the war won. “It’s been two full dec­ades of pro­gress,” de Bla­sio says, pick­ing at a pastry. “It’s fear mon­ger­ing to sug­gest” the re­duc­tion in crime could be re­versed.

A former city-coun­cil mem­ber, who now holds the re­l­at­ively new post of pub­lic ad­voc­ate, de Bla­sio is claim­ing the bold­est break with the Bloomberg era on everything from crime policy to eco­nom­ic de­vel­op­ment. (He likes Bloomberg on trans fats, not so much on con­ges­tion pri­cing for cars in Man­hat­tan.) His proto-pop­u­lism has tickled the ero­gen­ous zones of the city’s lib­er­al elite. de Bla­sio has been en­dorsed by The Na­tion and Dis­trict 1199 of the Ser­vice Em­ploy­ees In­ter­na­tion­al Uni­on, the city’s biggest uni­on. New York may have elec­ted Re­pub­lic­ans like Gi­uliani and Bloomberg (be­fore he be­came an in­de­pend­ent) and even John Lind­sey. But at its heart, it’s a lib­er­al city—Pres­id­ent Obama got 81 per­cent of the vote here—and without crime or ab­er­ra­tions like 9/11, it’s a new day.

In a chaot­ic, crowded field, polls can be de­cidedly un­re­li­able. Still, de Bla­sio leads among Demo­crat­ic can­did­ates in a new Quin­nipi­ac poll, one with a 4.1 per­cent­age-point mar­gin of er­ror. He’s one of a few first-tier can­did­ates when the polls open on Sept. 10. If no can­did­ate clears 40 per­cent—and that seems al­most cer­tain—there will be a run­off.

The lead­ing can­did­ate in terms of wealth and ex­per­i­ence, and no­tori­ety, has been City Coun­cil Speak­er Christine Quinn, who would be the city’s first fe­male may­or. With a strong re­cord of ac­com­plish­ment (from budget to ex­pand­ing kinder­garten), a com­pel­ling story (gay, fair hous­ing ad­voc­ate), and the vis­ib­il­ity that comes from be­ing the Coun­cil pres­id­ent, she’s been the fron­trun­ner from the start. Bill Thompson, the city’s comp­troller, has the power­ful teach­ers uni­on be­hind him and would be the first Afric­an-Amer­ic­an may­or elec­ted since 1989.

There are oth­ers, in­clud­ing, ahem, An­thony Wein­er, who con­tin­ues to get a good re­sponse from crowds. At the free Toni Brax­ton con­cert in Crown Heights this week, he got a lot of shout-outs from the Afric­an-Amer­ic­an crowd.

In a sign that his top com­pet­it­ors see the gains he’s post­ing, de Bla­sio took a lot of fire at Tues­day night’s may­or­al de­bate, with Wein­er at one point say­ing de Bla­sio couldn’t stand Quinn be­com­ing speak­er. For his part, de Bla­sio linked Quinn and Bloomberg at every op­por­tun­ity.

How did de Bla­sio get here? By be­ing a ded­ic­ated pol. Kid comes to NYU in the ‘80s. Gets in­volved in polit­ics—neigh­bor­hood groups, school boards, works on tons of cam­paigns. He man­ages Hil­lary Rod­ham Clin­ton’s 2000 Sen­ate bid. He works with An­drew Cuomo at the Hous­ing and Urb­an De­vel­op­ment De­part­ment. He’s close to Har­old Ickes, the famed Clin­ton con­sigliere. (Oops. He was a big John Ed­wards ally, even trav­el­ing to Iowa to help.) But like most people, his fam­ily life is more in­ter­est­ing. He was born with the last name Wil­helm and changed it as he grew closer to his moth­er. His wife, the Afric­an-Amer­ic­an poet Chir­lane Mc­Cray, had been a self-iden­ti­fied les­bi­an be­fore they met. Their son, Dante, who sports a large Afro, has be­come a rock star on the cam­paign, and was the center­piece of the first TV ad.

In a city where ra­cial polit­ics are as com­plic­ated as ever, it’s hard to know if de Bla­sio’s “mod­ern fam­ily,” as The New York Times put it, will help him make enough in­roads among, say, black voters or any­one else to make the run­off. But de Bla­sio is mak­ing a play, shak­ing hands in Har­lem, or bring­ing Dante to that same Toni Brax­ton con­cert. Oth­ers ar­gue that the black vote will grav­it­ate to­ward Thompson, put­ting de Bla­sio out of the run­ning. See Tues­day’s smart piece from The Guard­i­an.

For his part, de Bla­sio in­sists that his sur­tax on the rich—those mak­ing over $500,000—and oth­er policies would be more be­ne­fi­cial to the city in the long run. It’s not ad­dress­ing in­equal­ity that’ll make the city poorer, he ar­gues, say­ing pri­cing mu­si­cians out of the city does not help the tour­ist in­dustry. “He’s try­ing for an in­side straight, say­ing ‘I’m the most anti-Bloomberg can­did­ate,’” says Mark Green, who de Bla­sio ous­ted from the pub­lic ad­voc­ate post, adding that that might be enough in a multi-can­did­ate field.

Can de Bla­sio’s vis­ion sell? Howard Wolf­son worked closely with de Bla­sio on the Hil­lary Clin­ton Sen­ate race in 2000. They were on 7:30 a.m. con­fer­ence calls for more than a year. Now Wolf­son is deputy may­or un­der Bloomberg and, not sur­pris­ingly, doesn’t em­brace the cri­tique of the cur­rent may­or. “Bill is a friend,” Wolf­son told me. “But he has set forth a vis­ion for the city that is very ex­pli­cit—high­er taxes, big­ger gov­ern­ment, more reg­u­la­tion, more man­dates on busi­ness, and in my opin­ion we tried that mod­el and it failed.” After an “I re­spect Howard” qual­i­fi­er, de Bla­sio dis­missed that as “mis­lead­ing” and “fear mon­ger­ing.”

A Quinn ally de­picts de Bla­sio as pug­na­cious and in­dis­crim­in­ate: “You have to know when to fight and when to work to­geth­er. The coun­cil pres­id­ent un­der­stands that.” And that’s a good point. Be­sides, Quinn isn’t the Bloomberg quis­ling that de Bla­sio lam­poons. Still, her nu­anced po­s­i­tions—she’d be in­clined to keep the cur­rent po­lice com­mis­sion­er, Ray Kelly, but in­struct him to over­haul the stop-and-frisk policy he cham­pioned—are, as de Bla­sio sug­gests, a bit flac­cid.

Whatever hap­pens here will be watched closely, es­pe­cially by would-be may­or­al can­did­ates. In city halls across the coun­try, may­ors face a fa­mil­i­ar and un­for­giv­ing chore of bal­an­cing the needs of de­velopers and neigh­bor­hoods while presid­ing over chaot­ic pub­lic schools, keep­ing up de­cay­ing in­fra­struc­ture, and pleas­ing the rat­ings agen­cies (whose word still counts, des­pite the fin­an­cial crisis). If Bill de Bla­sio can make it here, oth­er pop­u­lists are sure to try and, to para­phrase Frank Sinatra, make it any­where.

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