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De Blasio: Right candidate at the right time for NYC?

5 min

After coming from behind to win the Democratic nomination, Bill de Blasio is poised to be the next mayor of New York City. His progressive politics and multicultural, gay-friendly family seem to make him the right man at the right time.


Just a few months ago, Bill de Blasio was the underdog.

An affable, gangly 52-year-old New York City public advocate (the elected official who serves as liaison between mayor and residents) running to be the Democratic candidate for the mayoral election to be held on November 5, de Blasio struggled to snatch the spotlight from his party’s more flamboyant contenders.

Today, de Blasio is poised to take over from Michael Bloomberg as the city’s next mayor, with recent polls giving him a 50-point lead over Republican nominee Joseph Lhota.

A true-blue progressive who once sang the praises of “democratic socialism”, supported Nicaraguan revolutionaries, and honeymooned in Cuba with his African-American, formerly lesbian wife, de Blasio has effectively cast himself as the anti-Bloomberg – as well as an emblem of a multicultural New York ready to return to its liberal roots.

Indeed, though the city is a left-wing bastion – US President Barack Obama won 81% of the vote in 2012 – it has not had a Democratic mayor since David Dinkins left office in 1993.

The Dante factor

De Blasio was not considered the most qualified Democrat. He ran Hillary Clinton’s successful 2000 senatorial campaign and was a member of the City Council (New York’s lawmaking body), but his legislative record has been painted as thin. Moreover, some of his signature policy proposals in the mayoral race, like offering free nursery school paid for by a tax rise on the wealthy, have been slammed as pipe dreams.

But the Italian-American, who lives in Brooklyn with his wife and two children, tapped into disillusionment with the politically independent billionaire Bloomberg, running on a “Tale of Two Cities” message that struck a chord with New Yorkers hit hardest by the economic crisis.

He also emerged as a vocal opponent of the controversial “stop and frisk” programme (which allows officers to search people they believe are acting suspiciously) championed by Bloomberg, but criticised by many as disproportionately affecting blacks and Latinos.

In a moment pundits consider a turning point in the race, the de Blasio campaign released an online ad in which the candidate’s 15-year-old son Dante, looking at the camera, said his father was “the only one who will end an era of ‘stop and frisk’ that unfairly targets people of colour”.

The video went viral, garnering 100,000 downloads before it was even promoted by de Blasio’s team. In a country that counts increasing numbers of young people who identify as mixed-race, the ad seemed to turn Dante not just into the hero of his father’s campaign, but also into the face of 21st century urban America.

In the wake of the ad, De Blasio surged in the polls – and Dante’s Afro became a hot topic, with even US President Barack Obama, who has endorsed de Blasio, recently noting at a fundraiser: “[M]y Afro was never that good”.

A cross-demographic success

The Democratic nominee’s wife, 58-year-old poet Chirlane McCray, has also played a prominent role in his candidacy. A New York Times profile deemed the couple “as much a package deal as Bill and Hillary Rodham Clinton”, and the constant presence of McCray at her husband’s side is thought to have helped him pull even with African-American rival Bill Thompson in attracting the “black vote”; they each took 42% of the city’s black voters in the Democratic primary, and de Blasio handily beat Thompson among African-American women, 47% to 37%.

Bill de Blasio with son Dante, daughter Chiara and wife Chirlane McCray (Photo: AFP)
Bill de Blasio with son Dante, daughter Chiara and wife Chirlane McCray (Photo: AFP)

McCray identified as a lesbian before marrying de Blasio -- whom, she has said, won her over in 1991 with his persistent courtship – and she is known to bristle at any attempts to re-define her as a straight woman. Asked by a journalist in December if she still considered herself gay, she responded: “I am married. I have two children. Sexuality is a fluid thing, and it’s personal. I don’t even understand the question, quite frankly.”

There has been speculation that McCray’s refusal to disown her past as a lesbian activist helped de Blasio peel LGBT voters away from the former frontrunner in the Democratic primary, openly gay City Council speaker Christine Quinn; he ended up winning 47% of the “gay vote” to Quinn’s 34%.

According to some analysts, de Blasio’s strong showing across various key demographics-- he was the top choice of the city’s women, Jewish and Latino voters, as well as of all income brackets -- is a reflection of the evolving nature of New York’s famous melting pot.

“This is like a post-racial election. I don’t know if I could ever remember a race where a black guy is close to losing the black vote, the woman is losing the woman vote, the Jewish guy is losing the Jewish vote,” Joe Lenski, co-founder of polling firm Edison Research, told New York Daily News. “It’s quite impressive.”

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