Public Advocate Bill de Blasio, a candidate for mayor of New York City, campaigns outside City Hall. (Photo: Mickael Johnson)
At a recent press conference hastily squeezed beneath a scaffolding across the street from Brooklyn Borough Hall to avoid a drizzle of midday rain, Bill de Blasio was talking about his plan to raise taxes on the wealthiest New Yorkers to fund universal prekindergarten education—one of the three main planks of his candidacy for mayor, along with ending stop-and-frisk and addressing the city’s growing income inequality.
Usually at such an announcement, pedestrians blow by, annoyed at the obstruction to their path, but as de Blasio raised his voice to invoke the theme of his campaign, a “Tale of Two Cities,” several people of varying age, gender and skin color, stopped to nod in appreciation of de Blasio’s message. A middle-aged white woman drawn in by the candidate’s words stood rapt a few steps behind the assembled crowd, punctuating the end of each of his declarations with a breathless “Yes.”
Perhaps the reason these passersby in downtown Brooklyn took the time to stop is because New Yorkers are finally taking an interest in the mayor’s race after months of largely ignoring it—and the polls substantiate that de Blasio’s simple, consistent platform has struck a chord with the electorate. Since late July de Blasio, New York City’s public advocate, has rocketed from being an essentially unknown and ignored candidate to crossing the 40 percent threshold in Quinnipiac University’s September 3 poll, thus threatening to pull off the once inconceivable feat of winning the Democratic nomination without having to endure a runoff.
In his ads de Blasio has cast himself as “The Progressive Choice for Mayor,” and based on the New York Post’s response to his candidacy, as well as that of many of the city’s fiscal conservatives, it would be easy to conclude that de Blasio is a dyed-in-the-wool liberal, preaching class warfare and intent upon leading New York back to the bad old days when it teetered on the brink of financial ruin.
In a recent article for Breitbart.com entitled “Bill de Blasio: The Most Dangerous Man in New York City,” right wing talk show host David Webb and his co-author, Thomas J. Basile, accused de Blasio of perpetrating “the same leftist, us-versus-them mindset that reduced the city to an unlivable, burned-out, bankrupt shell of its former self back in the mid-’70s.”
Webb and Basile go on to predict that if the “antibusiness” de Blasio is elected, he will reduce the Big Apple to “Detroit with bigger buildings” and bring about “the worst example of government failure in the nation’s history at the hands of another radical progressive.”
Along the same lines, the gist of a September 3 blog post about de Blasio by Ronn Torossian, the 2013 American Business Awards’ “PR Executive of the Year,” from the conservative FrontPage Magazine’s website can be grasped by its title: “Occupy Wall Street May Soon Occupy New York’s City Hall.”
On the flip side, Eric Alterman, in an article this week for The Nation, the left-wing magazine that has endorsed de Blasio, and in so doing helped cement his progressive credentials in the eyes of the public—along with the endorse-ments of prominent liberal celebrities like Susan Sarandon, Cynthia Nixon and Alec Baldwin—hailed the success of de Blasio’s candidacy as proof that “economic liberalism in America is not dead yet.”
As de Blasio has surged in the polls, he has done little to contradict the impression, held by many of both his supporters and detractors, that fundamentally he is a populist determined to take on the plutocracy that has thrived under the reign of Mayor Michael Bloomberg. On the contrary, he has encouraged it.
What is most striking about this image of de Blasio, however, is that in the opinion of many people who have known him since his days as a city councilman from Brooklyn—and earlier in his career—is that it does not conform with his history as a politician, even dating back to the start of his campaign for mayor.
While few question that de Blasio’s core ideology is in line with the progressive principles he espouses, there was a notable consensus among the individuals interviewed for this article that de Blasio is definitely not the liberal standard-bearer he made himself out to be but rather a centrist in the vein of the Clintons (he served in Bill’s administration as a regional director for HUD and managed Hillary’s first campaign for U.S. Senate in 2000); a shrewd political strategist with a propensity to morph to serve his self-interest. Time and again, the words “pragmatist” and “opportunist” came up in descriptions of de Blasio’s character, both from those who like and those who loathe him.
There was also much agreement that although he now portrays himself as the only candidate for mayor with the gumption to take on developers and tax the wealthy, de Blasio has actually consistently been a friend to business over the course of his political career, particularly the real estate industry.
“I like the term that somebody’s been using for him: faux-gressive,” said Lucy Koteen, the former president of the Central Brooklyn Independent Democrats, a political club based in Park Slope, one of the neighborhoods de Blasio represented as a councilman. “He’s supposedly the guy that the real estate industry hates—meanwhile they gave him fundraisers. Bruce Ratner was on the host committee of one of his fundraisers!” said Koteen, singling out the developer of the controversial Atlantic Yards project, of which de Blasio was an ardent supporter in the Council.
“I think people should know that Bill de Blasio takes care of Bill de Blasio. If it means putting his constituents last, that’s exactly what he’s going to do,” said Katia Kelly, a community activist from Carroll Gardens and the writer of the blog Pardon Me for Asking. “I am incensed that he dares to call himself a liberal or a progressive, especially because of the fact that while he was our councilman, [he] basically was not for the E.P.A. [Environmental Protec-tion Agency] taking over the cleanup of the Gowanus Canal, and protected big developers, because that was who was lining his pockets.”
Kelly was referring to de Blasio’s opposition to the federal government’s designating the notoriously polluted canal a Superfund site—he maintained the city would be able to better conduct the cleanup on its own—and his advocacy in favor of a development project that would have constructed 460 condominiums and townhouses along the waterway.
“You don’t want to drink out of it, you don’t want to eat fish out of it, but it is not a danger to live near it,” de Blasio told the Daily News in April 2009.
In March 2010 the E.P.A. went through with the Superfund designation, based on its findings that the entire length of the 1.8-mile canal was contaminated by toxins, including “pesticides, metals and the cancer-causing chemicals known as PCBs,” according to a New York Times report at the time.
The de Blasio campaign did not make the candidate available to be interviewed for this article, despite numerous written and telephone requests for comment.
Though de Blasio has been extremely effective in distilling his campaign’s message to the succinct, powerful refrain “Tale of Two Cities,” even at the outset of his current campaign he was singing a different tune. Several prominent individuals in the business world, who spoke on the condition of anonymity so as not to jeopardize their relationships with de Blasio, confirmed that in the initial stages of his campaign, the thrust of de Blasio’s pitch seeking their support was that he was the candidate best equipped to bring the business and labor communities together.
The argument was a credible one; he had amassed both a solid pro-business and pro-union record in the Council. Nonetheless, it failed to get much traction with the powerful individuals he approached, most of whom were already committed to supporting Council Speaker Christine Quinn for mayor.
Then in late 2011, the first of what would soon become a pair of arrests rocked City Comptroller John Liu’s campaign, tarnishing Liu with the specter of scandal. Before the onset of Liu’s troubles, the comptroller, a tireless, charismatic retail politician, had positioned himself as the most progressive of the major Democratic candidates, a claim validated by Liu having established himself as the most vocal and vociferous critic of the Bloomberg admin-istration and the mayor.
Liu’s candidacy had posed a significant obstacle to de Blasio’s aspirations. Both men would be vying for the same base of support—liberals, outer borough voters, unions. They would also both be aggressively pursuing the Working Families Party’s endorsement—the WFP had supported both Liu and de Blasio’s respective successful candidacies for citywide office in 2009.
Once it became clear that Liu would no longer be considered a viable candidate for mayor, however—or could even be on the verge of arrest—de Blasio seized the opportunity to tack left, filling the void vacated by Liu as the most progressive candidate in the race.
In late January 2012, de Blasio officially announced his candidacy for mayor in front of his three-story brownstone in Park Slope, with a message that has become his mantra over the last 19 months: “Let’s be honest about where we are today: a city that in too many ways has become a ‘Tale of Two Cities,’ a place where City Hall too often has catered to the interests of the elite rather than the needs of everyday New Yorkers.”
Over the course of his rise, many of those “elites” have bristled at the relentlessness with which de Blasio has hammered away at the issue of income inequality and his extraordinary success in vaulting it to the forefront of the city’s discourse.
Many business leaders, corporate giants, Wall Street titans and one-percenters across the city who have had no prior dealings with de Blasio have grown deeply wary of his candidacy, and now howl at the prospect of his election. Yet those with a history of working with him, shirk off his oratory as harmless, savvy campaigning.
Kathy Wylde, the president and CEO of the Partnership for New York City, said she is not concerned about the prospect of a de Blasio mayoralty. “Bill de Blasio is a smart, practical leader, and I don’t think the business community has to fear that he will be unresponsive on their issues,” said Wylde, pointing out that de Blasio has embraced more of the recommendations made in the NYC Jobs Blueprint the Partnership released in April than any other mayoral candidate.
While Wylde freely admits that de Blasio’s messaging “has alarmed some people” in the business community, she discounts it as “politics,” based upon her experience of having known and dealt with de Blasio on issues important to the Partnership for over 20 years. “Bill has historically not been a divisive, class warfare-type person,” Wylde explained, adding, “I don’t think he’s a captive of his own rhetoric.”
Carlo Scissura, the president and CEO of the Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce, agrees. “I think that people who know him will agree that he’s very pragmatic,” said Scissura, who first met de Blasio when they were both school board members, prior to de Blasio being elected to the Council in 2001.
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