How Bill de Blasio is Making History in the New York Mayoral Race

So, what is going on in New York City? What explains the rapid ascent to the top of the Democratic primary polling heap by Bill de Blasio, NYC’s Public Advocate? Is it his multi-racial family? Is it that liberals always do well in New York among Democratic primary voters? Is it that his main rival, Christine Quinn, totally mishandled the Paid Sick Days, as Ginia Bellafante suggested in the Saturday New York Times and let her base drift away? And, most importantly, does it have any broader meaning for American politics?

No doubt it’s a combination of factors. It always is. But here’s something that should make progressive-minded voters cheer, as it validates a bedrock belief of the practical American left: namely, that if voters actually hear our ideas clearly and consistently articulated by a credible candidate, they like what they hear.

At this writing, it is of course impossible to say with any certainty what will happen in Tuesday’s primary. Perhaps more  African-American voters will return to Bill Thompson,  former city comptroller. Perhaps enough  women and gays will scramble  back to Christine Quinn, the telegenic Speaker of the City Council who was the front-runner for a very long time. Most likely, there will still be a run-off, as the 40% barrier is a pretty high one in a 5-way race. But I like de Blasio’s chances in both rounds, and there’s every reason to think he will be the next Mayor of New York.

History in the Making

In this most important national race for progressives since last year’s Elizabeth Warren Senate victory in Massachusetts, NYC Democratic Primary voters appear to be taking the steps to make de Blasio the first Democratic mayor in New York in 20 years.

And when you factor in Ed Koch’s mostly conservative 12 years, it is only the four years of David Dinkins, between 1990 and ’94, that there has been anyone close to a progressive in City Hall since 1977. You have to go back to the era of John Lindsay during the 1960’s to find a candidate with the potential to reach voters across race and class, as de Blasio is showing he can. And of course this is driving the Bloomberg people absolutely crazy, as they publicly trash de Blasio for being Lindsay redux.

Five reasons come to mind for the de Blasio surge.

  1. Inequality really is the defining characteristic of American society today, and he hit that nerve over and over again. Economic inequality isn’t just a slogan,
    it’s a reality. As the Working Families Party pointed out years ago in a battle to raise high-end taxes, there are something like 25,000 taxpayers in New York City earning more than $20,000 per week. And there are 2 million earning less than $20,000 per year. That’s not a democracy, it’s a plutocracy. De Blasio’s focus on inequality sunk in.

  2. Paid Sick Days and Stop and Frisk. These are the two issues that did Quinn and Thompson in and opened the door to the de Blasio surge. In the first case, Quinn mysteriously adopted the Bloomberg position that a modest requirement on employers that would help about a million low-wage workers in New York was too much for business to bear. Long-time NYC political people were amazed. It took her three years to come around, when her record as the chair of Health Committee as a rank-and-file Council member would have made you think it would take her 3 days. That was a critical mistake, as it turned off younger women who should have been part of Quinn’s natural base. (It even cost her some celebrity support, as when the twitter storm aimed at Susan Sarandon in the midst of the Paid Sick Days battle forced her away from Quinn and eventually to de Blasio). In the second case, the intense energy around Stop-and-Frisk left Thompson flat-footed and Quinn trying to both be anti-Stop and Frisk even as she proposed retaining its main architect, Ray Kelly, as Police Commissioner. Thompson’s desire to have the endorsement of the Police Union seemed to prevent him from taking a stronger position early enough in the campaign to matter, and his late- to-the-party anger about it may get him into the run-off, but is not likely to get him over the finish line.

  3. Bloomberg Fatigue Syndrome. This should have helped every one but Quinn, but for some reason de Blasio did the best job of emerging as the anti-Bloomberg tonic that so many city residents want. It’s odd, of course, as the Mayor is popular and did win election three times. But of course he did it with absurd amounts of spending. So who knows if he is really popular or it’s just the money talking.

  4. Public Financing of Elections. All of the candidates have more or less the same amount of money. So it means everyone gets heard equally. It is impossible to overstate how important this is to progressives and anyone else who still favors democracy.

  5. He Stuck to his Guns.  De Blasio’s success is rooted in his disciplined decision to run, and keep running, as an unabashed progressive. And he made it come alive with his proposal, stated and re-stated, for a small tax on the super wealthy ($40,000 per week or more in income) to  fund early childhood education. This was common-sense progressivism that everyone could understand. Sadly, his opponents and their supporters, including the national head of the American Federation of Teachers, Randi Weingarten, were left with little to say except that he was “unrealistic.”

If I’m right, what does this mean to New York and the nation?

Bob Master, a leader in both the Communications Workers and the WFP and a strong de Blasio backer, offers a positive vision: “A de Blasio victory can bring New York back to the time when it was a beacon of progressive values and fresh ideas – to the time when Al Smith was NY governor, succeeded by FDR, and where some of the New Deal ideas were tested, before FDR became President in 1932.”

That may be overly optimistic, but here’s another possible meaning of this election, if it turns out as seems likely. It will undermine the conventional (and annoying) political wisdom of the faux “centrist” candidate, which comes in several guises, as the only effective method for electing Democrats. The Bloomberg version (he was a Democrat before he was a Republican) is the non-ideological technocrat above the political fray, but relentlessly pro business and law and order.

The original model of course is derived from Bill Clinton who mastered the politics of triangulation – as a DLC democrat.  A Clinton protégé, former Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Secretary and New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, has his own version of  pro corporate, centrist politics  on view in Albany today. As Mayor of Chicago, Rahm Emanuel is a also more a New Democrat  a la  Clinton than anything else.

And of course there's President Obama, searching for the "grand bargain" with Republicans, willing to cut social security and on the verge of appointing plutocrat Larry Summers to the Fed. The "centrist" model is essentially anti populist: look to cut taxes and benefits, and for sure don't increase taxes on the wealthy; be friendly with the banks and Wall Street to assure that when you run for office you have the most money, and reduce liberalism to support for gay marriage, perhaps medical marijuana, transportation, bike lanes and public spaces, etc. But do nothing that confronts corporate power. Above all, one must be  comfortable with—or do little to nothing about-- growing income inequality. And therein lies the difference with de Blasio. He has named the problem. Whether he can do anything about it will be the test of his administration, should he take the prize.

De Blasio’s clear eyed politics means that he’s the candidate of the grass roots and the net roots, and not the political establishment. He was recently resoundingly endorsed by the online group, which has reportedly  some 300,000 members in New York, when the total turnout in the primary is expected to be about 700,000. And the  younger  bloggers seem to be “leaning in” for the tall progressive with a message about class and race. Quinn may have been endorsed by the three major dailies, including The New York Times, but it turns out that it isn’t all that it once was.

Political operatives always talk about a campaign “narrative.” The De Blasio “narrative” has broken through, and to many New Yorkers, it is an intriguing one. He is married to an African American former lesbian activist and poet named Chirlane McCray, whom he met while working for David Dinkins, and who has turned out to be a great asset on the stump. But getting the most attention and chatter was a TV spot featuring their 15-year- old son Dante, who sports a tall afro and a spirit that gets New Yorkers excited.

I’ve got no data on this, but my gut is that another irresistible part of the de Blasio narrative is that he and his wife send their kids to public schools. Many well-meaning progressive and liberals talk about public education, but walk their kids to private schools in the morning. Not de Blasio. In fact researchers have wondered when was the last time a NYC mayor sent their kids to public school. Last we heard, they haven't found any, at least in anyone’s memory.

Think about all the public school parents, and especially teachers who admire de Blasio for that when they go to the polls. Makes you wonder why the teachers union endorsed Bill Thompson in the first place, as he showed no such personal family commitment to public education, despite his quite decent service on the Board of Education.

The Platform

De Blasio’s “Tale of Two Cities” has found a very receptive audience – the specter of a city where middle class slides further down the economic ladder, unemployment stays high, and a very small number of people reap the benefits--while banks and corporations squeeze the population—and a feeble economic recovery produces  mostly low wage job. This is a powerful and accurate analysis put in play during Occupy Protests and still rings true to many.

De Blasio’s vision is strong. “Without a dramatic change of direction—an economic policy that combats inequality and rebuilds our middle class—generations to come will see New York as little more than a playground for the rich...a gilded city where the privileged few prosper, and millions upon millions of New Yorkers struggle each and every day to keep their heads above water,” de Blasio said in a May 30 address.

As David Chen of The New York Times noted, “Mr. de Blasio is critical, at times, of Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, especially in the areas of education and homelessness” and he said that his focus “on addressing inequalities in education, economic opportunities, housing and health care, for starters.

Still, de Blasio is a savvy politician. While he has staked out the fertile ground of race and class, he also readily acknowledges that Bloomberg has a lot in the plus column: strong on the environment, on health issues, transportation, and especially bike lanes. De Blasio can’t wait to expand more of the Bike Share program -- which is perhaps Bloomberg’s signature success -- to other boroughs, doubling the number of bicycles to 10,000 or more.

One of Mr. de Blasio’s ideas includes a municipal identification card that would serve as proof of residence and allow illegal immigrants to access services. He would like to add more bus routes, especially to the Rockaways. He wants to create 20 primary health care clinics for city workers, near their offices, and to open 16 new community health clinics in the city’s neediest neighborhoods. And of course he wants to support early childhood education via some increased taxes on the super wealthy. These are but a few of the many ideas in his detailed policy book One New York, Rising Together

The Reality

Still, to try to paint de Blasio as a radical would be way off base. He is a savvy, cautious consensus-building politician. He had the foresight to establish his principles at the onset of the campaign, accurately read the mood of many Democratic voters and stuck to his guns.

Ken Sunshine, a long time de Blasio supporter, and a famed PR guru to Barbra Streisand, Ben Affleck, Leo Di Caprio and others --and who reportedly introduced de Blasio to his wife back in the Dinkins days when Sunshine was chief of staff -- says: “One of Bill’s big strengths is that he is authentic. He is someone who cares both about progressive ideals and about people...and that comes across --face-to face on the campaign trail, in large gatherings, and in his commercials. People seem to like to be around him.” And while Quinn has a batch of celebrity endorsements, de Blasio has his own crew who are actively campaigning for him including Cynthia Nixon, Harry Belafonte, Susan Sarandon, Steve Buscemi, Alec Baldwin and others.

Bob Master, the CWA honcho sees it a bit differently:

“We’ve endorsed Bill over the past 20 years  no matter what he was running for because when our workers needed his support, he was there. His position, his values are in tune with working people. We are living in a moment that is shaped by the economic crises of 2008, and those who created the crises got away with ripping off the American public. Bill is out ahead in this race because he knows that something had to be said and done to address the terrible divisions we face. He had the strength to articulate a progressive vision, when others were not so bold.“

So is “big Bill” some sort of crazy left-winger? Hardly. He has made deals in the past, including some bad ones (pro-yellow cab instead of pro-more service to the outer boroughs). He has supported some of the most controversial developments in the City, including Atlantic Yards. And no matter who is Mayor of New York, they will need serious allies in the business establishment. De Blasio is smart enough to do that. The question is whether he’ll be courageous enough to really push them to accept the fact that they’ve had their way for a long time, and the pendulum needs to swing back.

We’ll know soon enough. The progressive energy backing up de Blasio is not naïve – but neither is it cynical.

For readers wanting to dig deeper into this story, try this perspicacious endorsement by editor Katrina vanden Heuvel. It got a huge amount of attention as it was e-mailed around to progressive movers and shakers. Also in The Nation: articles by Richard Kim about Quinn’s failure, John Nichols about Bloomberg's fears that de Blasio might establish a fairer tax system for NYC, and Eric Alterman on how de Blasio is showing an electoral path forward for Democrats.


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