In the mayoral race for the country’s largest city, the once little-known New York City Public Advocate Bill de Blasio has emerged in first place amid a crowded field of big Democratic personalities.
The 52-year-old former city councilman, who now stands—literally at 6’ 5”— a head above his challengers in the latest polling, is running as a far-left, progressive candidate whose unique background, he argues, makes him best to represent New York’s diverse electorate. (The city’s great melting pot was 44% white, 25% black, 28.6% Hispanic, 12% Asian, according to the latest Census data.)
The stories of onetime frontrunners, City Council Speaker Christine Quinn and former Rep. Anthony Weiner, are hardly dull: Quinn’s election would break barriers as the city's first female and first gay mayor and Weiner’s comeback from a sexting scandal would be, well, its own type of New York success story. But it’s De Blasio who came out on top with the support of 30% of likely Democratic voters in latest Quinnipiac poll, after the flameout of Weiner following new sexting allegations. Quinn, who is endorsed by outgoing Mayor Michael Bloomberg and often criticized as an administration clone, fell to 24%.
De Blasio is running as a family values man and a candidate who sticks up for the little guy, pitching himself as both the anti-Weiner and anti-Bloomberg. His multi-racial family has joined him on the campaign trail in recent weeks, including his impressively-afroed 15-year-old son Dane who appears in an ad insisting that his father is the only candidate who’s willing to break with “the Bloomberg years” and adding that his dad would tax the city’s rich to fund education (de Blasio wants to tax New Yorkers who make more than $500,000 to pay for early childhood education), focus on affordable housing, and find another option to the city’s stop-and-frisk tactics, which have received a ton of attention after a federal judge ruled the New York practice is unconstitutional.
De Blasio frequently touts economic fairness on the campaign trail. On May 30, he said that without a "dramatic change," 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."
His wife, writer and activist Chirlane McCray, who is African-American and fell in love with de Blasio after years of identifying as a lesbian has also spoken at events. She penned an essay in 1979 for Essence called “I Am a Lesbian." But recently, she told the same magazine her marriage happened “by putting aside the assumptions I had about the form and package my love would come in.”
De Blasio himself has spoken openly about his personal life including an absent father. His parents split up early, and he was raised by his mother. “Every time I saw him, he was drunk," de Blasio said of his father in a campaign video. "It was just the reality."
"Something I feel very strongly is you've got to treat your family and the other people in your life with a lot of love and respect and you've got to treat the society around you the same way. I know people who've done one, but not the other," he added.
“De Blasio’s message is now beginning to come through,” said Doug Muzzio, a political science professor at Baruch College. “I think it resonates with people. I think that inequality is a serious issue in New York City….People have been searching for a candidate who would mobilize the anti-Bloomberg wing of the Democratic Party.”
Jeanne Zaino, a professor of political science at Iona College and of political campaign management at New York University, added that de Blasio is doing a good job of capturing the non-white demographic, groups he’ll need to win the primary on Sept. 10. And he’s painted the picture that Quinn “is Bloomberg. She’s part of that 1%.”
Of course, Quinn is extremely well-known and also strong on issues like fair housing and viewed as incredibly tough. Yet, the narrative remains that Quinn, a longtime Bloomberg ally, might be viewed as more of the same by critics of the Bloomberg administration. She clearly sees de Blasio as a threat. At this week’s mayoral debate, Quinn declared de Blasio was on the City Council for eight years and “he didn’t pass one bill to create a good paying job, not one bill to help our schools, not one bill to keep our city safe. That’s not a record of results.”
Weiner pointed out that both Quinn and de Blasio have been entrenched in city politics under Bloomberg. “The only difference between Speaker Quinn and Bill de Blasio is Speaker Quinn has been more successful,” Weiner said. “They made the same promises to the same people. She got elected speaker and he’s never gotten over it.”
Another obstacle for de Blasio: He's running a very progressive campaign, which might not go over well in the general election, where he’ll be counting on independent voters.
“The strategy for winning a primary is oftentimes a strategy for losing the general election,” said Muzzio. “You have to always be careful of running too far to left. I don’t’ think he’s done that yet, but its’ a real danger,” said Zaino.
But De Blasio seems to have accrued substantial votes from both black and white voters. According to the Quinnipiac poll, 39% of black voters favor Bill Thompson, with 22% for de Blasio and 18% for Quinn. Among white voters, 39% support for de Blasio, 31% for Quinn and 12% for Thompson.
Gender did not seem to be an issue, as 31% of women favored de Blasio, 26% for Quinn and 23% for Thompson. Among men, 30% went for de Blasio, 22% for Quinn and 20% for Thompson.
To advance to the general election on Nov. 5, a candidate must receive a substantial 40% of the vote—or face a runoff election in October.