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
See more stories about...
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.

What We're Following See More »
AFFECTS NOVEMBER ELECTIONS
North Carolina Voter ID Law Struck Down
2 hours ago
THE DETAILS

The US Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals on Friday overturned North Carolina's 2013 voter ID law, saying it was passed with “discriminatory intent." The decision sends the case back to the district judge who initially dismissed challenges to the law. "The ruling prohibits North Carolina from requiring photo identification from voters in future elections, including the November 2016 general election, restores a week of early voting and preregistration for 16- and 17-year-olds, and ensures that same-day registration and out-of-precinct voting will remain in effect."

Source:
NORTH DAKOTA TO ILLINOIS
Massive Oil Pipeline Approved for the Midwest
3 hours ago
THE DETAILS

An oil pipeline almost as long as the much-debated Keystone XL has won final approval to transport crude from North Dakota to Illinois, traveling through South Dakota and Iowa along the way. "The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers gave the final blessing to the Dakota Access pipeline on Tuesday. Developers now have the last set of permits they need to build through the small portion of federal land the line crosses, which includes major waterways like the Mississippi and the Missouri rivers. The so-called Bakken pipeline goes through mostly state and private land."

Source:
DISAPPOINTING RESULTS
GDP Grew at 1.2% in Q2
4 hours ago
THE DETAILS

The U.S. economy grew at an anemic 1.2% in the second quarter, "well below the 2.6% growth economists surveyed by The Wall Street Journal had forecast." Consumer spending was "robust," but it was offset by "cautious" business investment. "Since the recession ended seven years ago, the expansion has failed to achieve the breakout growth seen in past recoveries. "The average annual growth rate during the current business cycle, 2.1%, remains the weakest of any expansion since at least 1949."

Source:
‘DEMOCRATIC GENERATION’
Schumer: We’ll Take the Senate
5 hours ago
THE DETAILS

Sen. Chuck Schumer, the majority leader in waiting, not only thinks his party will take the Senate this fall, but that it's on the cusp of an era of "electoral dominance." He told Politico: “We’re going to have a Democratic generation. [President Barack Obama] helped create it. But it’s just where America’s moving demographically, ideologically and in every way. We’ll have a mandate to get something done.”

Source:
TAPING IN NEW YORK TODAY
Biden to Guest on ‘Law and Order: SVU’
6 hours ago
WHY WE CARE

"Vice President Joe Biden will appear in an episode of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit that will mention the backlog of untested rape kits in many cities, as well as efforts to end violence against women—an issue close to Biden, who authored the Violence Against Women Act in 1994." He'll be in New York to tape the episode today.

Source:
×