The gloves come off: Can Nicole Malliotakis land any punches?

Profile photos by Celeste Sloman, photos from the Dominican Day Parade by Jeff Coltin
Nicole Malliotakis.

The gloves come off: Can Nicole Malliotakis land any punches?

Nicole Malliotakis is the GOP’s best hope to knock out Bill de Blasio
September 15, 2017

Mayor Bill de Blasio’s entourage rolled by like a tank. They’ve been marching in parades for a long time, and the 2017 Dominican Day Parade in Manhattan was nothing out of the ordinary. There was the banner, in front and perfectly centered: “Mayor of New York City Bill de Blasio.” Then there was a second banner behind that one, specific to the parade: “Mayor Bill de Blasio celebrates Dominican heritage.” The flags the group waved matched the ones held by the crowd that pressed against the barricades lining Sixth Avenue. De Blasio’s team was loud and proud. This was their city.

Assemblywoman Nicole Malliotakis stood off to one side with her own group of about two dozen supporters, watching de Blasio walk by – his group triple the size of hers – with all the pomp and bombast of a prizefighter entering the ring. Her group had been ushered to the side of the road, told to wait while the mayor and a few other groups walked by before she could enter the parade herself. There must be distance between them – after all, she’s the Republican mayoral candidate in an overwhelmingly Democratic city, taking on the Democratic incumbent in the November election.

Malliotakis faces long odds in a sleepy mayoral race, but she’s framing herself as the clear alternative to de Blasio, who has more than his share of critics in this most outspoken of cities. Everything would have to go right for the Republican assemblywoman to win, but she’s hoping enough discontented voters will pull the lever for a fresh face – if they ever get to know her.

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As de Blasio’s parade contingent passed, some of Malliotakis’ supporters jeered. “You’re outta here, sucker!” shouted one, with an outstretched thumbs down. Malliotakis herself smiled at the mayor and waved. De Blasio studiously avoided looking in her direction.

She’d seen it before. Just minutes before, actually. While the groups were getting into position before the parade, City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito and a dozen or so elected officials all walked past Malliotakis. It was crowded, and most passed within a few yards of her, including some of her colleagues in the Assembly, like Marcos Crespo. Malliotakis stood calmly and smiled as they passed. Not one acknowledged her.

And she saw it again, later in the parade, as her group passed the platform where the parade organizers sat. Marching groups were announced to the crowd – but not hers. An official walked up, checking a clipboard. Looks were exchanged from the platform to the marchers in the street. No announcement was made. Music played as the Malliotakis group marched on.

Malliotakis shrugged with a smile. “They don’t know what to do!”

Nicole MalliotakisNew York has had Republican mayors and young mayors, mayors who served in the state Legislature and unmarried mayors. But never has the city had a mayor who was all of these things at the same time. De Blasio may have felt new, but the city has been led by a tall white progressive before, and an Italian Brooklynite has lived in Gracie Mansion. De Blasio’s not even the first mayor to have a black wife (here’s looking at you, Joyce Dinkins). De Blasio has the progressive résumé, but in a time when identity politics are at the forefront of discussion, and in a city where identity politics has elected mayors for generations, it’s hard not to talk about Malliotakis’ identity.

Malliotakis was born on Veterans Day in 1980, the only child of a Greek immigrant father and a Cuban immigrant mother. She’s lived on Staten Island her whole life, and currently resides with her parents in a home in Bay Terrace, a middle-class neighborhood of detached homes, halfway down the borough’s east shore. More than 18 miles from Gracie Mansion, it’s not literally the farthest place in the city from the mayor’s residence, but it sure feels like it.

Malliotakis got into Republican politics early, volunteering on campaigns and serving as an aide for both state Sen. John Marchi and Gov. George Pataki, but she’s worked in the private sector too. After college at Seton Hall University in New Jersey, she worked for a nonprofit community theater. And after getting an MBA from Staten Island’s own Wagner College, she worked four years as a public affairs manager for Con Edison. In 2010, she challenged two-term incumbent Democrat Janele Hyer-Spencer for her Assembly seat and won, at the age of 29. She’s been in the seat ever since, easily winning re-election in 2012 and 2014, and running unopposed in 2016.

If Malliotakis were to beat de Blasio, she would be New York City’s first female mayor. She would be the first mayor from Staten Island, the city’s least populous borough. At age 36, she would be the city’s third-youngest mayor. And – with the possible exception of mayor John Purroy Mitchel 100 years ago, whose grandfather was a Venezuelan-born diplomat – she would be the first Hispanic mayor.

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Despite all these potential historic firsts, Malliotakis doesn’t really talk about it. Her speeches generally avoid discussing gender or race, and she rarely mentions her identity without being asked. Her first television ad is all about her legislative record – set in a boxing gym, while the candidate straps on the gloves she wore in the boxing fitness classes she used to take in Albany.

“She’s being true to her ideology. Identity politics is not a part of what she believes,” said Assemblyman Ron Castorina, chairman of the Staten Island GOP. But, he admits, it’s still a big deal. “Who she is … it would be historic, and should be celebrated.”

Ruth Messinger, the only previous woman to win a major party nomination for New York City mayor, said that Malliotakis is “wisely running as who she is, and what she wants to do in the city, and not just running around saying, ‘I’m a woman, I’m a woman, I’m a woman.’” Messinger, a Democrat who lost the 1997 race to Rudy Giuliani, said voters will notice anyway.

“You don’t have to announce that you’re the woman candidate or you’re the candidate of color or you’re the Latino candidate because people know that,” she said. “It doesn’t mean you should never mention that, but it means that you don’t really need to talk about it that much.”

“I hope that me being in this election and running this campaign just gives young girls a feeling that they can do anything that they want to do.”

Malliotakis has occasionally tripped when talking about identity. At the New York Caribbean Carnival Parade in Brooklyn, she tweeted a picture of herself holding the Puerto Rican flag and calling it the Cuban flag. It was deleted quickly, and the mistake was blamed on an aide, but not before the Puerto Rican-born Mark-Viverito drew attention to it. And talking about de Blasio’s lack of verbal support for keeping the Christopher Columbus monument in Manhattan, Malliotakis said he “should go back to using his birth name of Warren Wilhelm because he obviously doesn’t have the heart and soul of an Italian.” De Blasio, who had an alcoholic, absentee father, changed his name as a young adult, and the de Blasio campaign called Malliotakis’ comment “a vile remark” and an example of “Trump-style campaigning.”

But on the campaign trail, her identity can set her apart. On T-shirts made by supporters, the classic “WW” Wonder Woman logo is flipped to become and “MM” – Malliotakis for mayor. It’s a good match for her Wonder Woman iPhone case. And while her Spanish may not be strong enough to explain her policy positions well, she could share a basic pitch with a supporter at the Dominican Day Parade. “Quiero ser la primera mujer alcalde” – I want to be the first female mayor.

When asked directly if she thinks about being the first female mayor, she immediately said no, then acquiesced. “I think it’s exciting! And I think it’s past due, quite frankly,” she said. “For a city that claims to be so progressive, that we haven’t had a female mayor is quite disappointing.”

Malliotakis said she remembers, as a 16-year-old, watching Messinger run for mayor. “No one remembers who ran against Rudy Giuliani that year. I remember that!” she said, laughing. “Because it was a woman who was running.”

Malliotakis hopes she can be a similar inspiration: “I hope to be the first woman mayor, but even if I don’t, I hope that me being in this election and running this campaign just gives young girls a feeling that they can do anything that they want to do.”

Messinger, who also served in the New York City Council and as Manhattan borough president, admits she was flattered that Malliotakis made the connection. “I would point out,” she said, “that the fact that she voted for Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton makes it a little less warm and fuzzy than it might have been otherwise.”

Nicole Malliotakis at the Dominican Day PArade

The de Blasio campaign is hoping that connection to Trump is her downfall, and he takes every opportunity to emphasize it. The campaign has fundraised off of a photo of Malliotakis and Trump in a 2013 meeting, and has called her a “Trump acolyte” in campaign literature. While Malliotakis said she doesn’t regret voting for Trump – “You need somebody to shake up the status quo” – she shies away from any comparisons, calling de Blasio’s efforts to paint her as an ally “ridiculous.” She’s careful to note she has disagreements with the president, saying immigration policy needs reform, and that proposed changes to health care policy and a plan to eliminate certain federal tax deductions would hurt New York City.

Malliotakis has gotten frustrated with reporters asking about Trump, bristling when asked about Trump’s controversial statement about white nationalist marchers in Charlottesville, Virginia. “I’m not him so why are you trying to attribute his comments to me?” she asked. But she understands the mayor’s ploy.

“If I had (de Blasio’s) lousy record,” she said, “I would of course be deflecting to the guy who has 18 percent favorability in the city. But the reality is, people know I was the state chair for Marco Rubio.” The mayoral election isn’t about Trump, she says in an oft-repeated line. “It’s about transit, traffic and trash.”

RELATED: Malliotakis, Castorina: Protecting IDNYC records is not about immigration

A spokesman for the de Blasio campaign knocked off a list of accomplishments in response, saying the mayor has expanded pre-K for 3- and 4-year-olds, crime is a record low and jobs are at a record high. “That is the Mayor’s record, and it is one that New Yorkers are rallying around,” he said.

Malliotakis didn’t take the typical path to the Republican nomination. She declared her candidacy in April, after another Republican candidate, Paul Massey Jr., had already been a declared candidate for nine months and had a war chest of more than $4 million. But the real estate executive unexpectedly dropped out of the race in June, blaming the extraordinary cost of challenging an incumbent. Other long-shot candidates failed to make the ballot, and Malliotakis avoided a September primary.

But even as the lone Republican on the ballot, she has failed to win over all of the party’s few elected officials in the city. While Staten Island City Councilman Steven Matteo endorsed her candidacy early, fellow Staten Island City Councilman Joe Borelli, who declined to comment for this article, has been lukewarm on her candidacy, and wouldn’t name a single accomplishment of hers when asked by the Staten Island Advance.

The other Republican in the City Council, Eric Ulrich of Queens, felt like Malliotakis’ socially conservative positions are too far outside of the mainstream in New York City.

“If I had (de Blasio’s) lousy record, I would of course be deflecting to the guy who has 18 percent favorability in the city.”

Malliotakis voted against legalizing same-sex marriage in 2011, and has voted against GENDA, a bill that would expand protections for transgender New Yorkers. She also voted against a bill that would block the state from ever prohibiting access to abortion services, and called on de Blasio to end his “sanctuary city” policy for undocumented immigrants. Malliotakis has since moderated some of her views, saying she regrets her vote on same-sex marriage, and that she would merely limit the existing sanctuary city policy, but Ulrich remains unconvinced. “I think that, while those views jibe pretty well for people in her district and on Staten Island, they don’t reflect the mainstream views of the majority of New Yorkers.”

Ulrich cited the city’s demographics. “With a massive Democratic voter enrollment advantage, I don’t know that Nicole appeals to Democratic voters that elected Mike Bloomberg and Rudy Giuliani,” he said.

Instead of Malliotakis, Ulrich is backing Bo Dietl, the private eye and political gadfly who’s running an independent bid for mayor on the “Dump de Blasio” ballot line. Dietl, a showman who’s known for his direct language, has called on Malliotakis to drop out, fearing the two will split the anti-de Blasio vote.

Malliotakis is also lagging in fundraising. As of Aug. 28, she had only raised under $500,000, but her campaign said it expects to qualify for matching funds at the next filing deadline, which would substantially increase her resources. Still, whatever she raises will be a pittance compared to the nearly $8 million raked in by de Blasio. She is also currently short of Dietl, whose nearly $900,000 in campaign contributions are expected to qualify him for the Oct. 10 debate hosted by the New York City Campaign Finance Board.

But Malliotakis’ biggest challenge is unseating an incumbent Democrat in one of the bluest cities in the country. Among active voters in New York City, Democrats outnumber Republicans by more than 6 to 1.

RELATED: Will Latinos lend a hand to Nicole Malliotakis?

“Right now, it doesn’t seem like anybody has a chance to beat de Blasio, whether they’re a Republican or Democrat,” said Joseph P. Viteritti, a professor of public policy at Hunter College and author of a recent biography about de Blasio. And Malliotakis in particular has a tough case to make.

“She’s got the baggage of Donald Trump to carry with her among a New York electorate,” he said, “which is a pretty heavy burden.”

Viteritti said a Republican could only win the city if their name recognition were great enough to overcome party identity, but there, Malliotakis has struggled. The July 31 Quinnipiac University poll found that 78 percent of voters hadn’t heard enough about her to form an opinion. In a head-to-head matchup with the mayor, voters picked de Blasio 57 percent to 22 percent.

But still, Malliotakis soldiers on with a crowded campaign schedule, trying to win over the 46 percent of voters who don’t think de Blasio deserves re-election. The weekend after Labor Day, she campaigned at seven events: at least one in each borough, with two in Manhattan and Queens. And she said she’s finding fans wherever she goes. “I thought Staten Island was disenchanted with this mayor? You should go to Queens.”

“I thought Staten Island was disenchanted with this mayor? You should go to Queens.”

Malliotakis lacks the easy charisma of Giuliani and the headline-grabbing spontaneity of Trump, but her campaign has landed some punches. She appeared on Fox News’ “Fox & Friends” in September, tailoring her pitch to the national audience. “We are in a position to win this election and make de Blasio a one-term mayor and stop his plans to run for president in 2020,” she said. (De Blasio has denied any plans, despite rumors he was putting out feelers.)

Malliotakis has seized on other headlines too, holding a press conference outside a subway station and calling on de Blasio to direct more city funding to the much-maligned subway system. After a New York Post story said de Blasio often took midday naps, she got some great photos offering the mayor a Red Bull. And she stood on the steps of City Hall with a clock counting up from the time that de Blasio first promised to provide a list of donors who did not receive favors. The clock continues to run on her website, since the essay the mayor published didn’t name a single contributor or project.

Malliotakis is looking to the last time a Republican defeated a Democratic incumbent, and borrowing from Giuliani’s 1993 playbook. She’s focusing heavily on quality-of-life issues, and constantly decrying the mayor’s poor management of the homeless population and lack of enforcement on “aggressive panhandlers.” Although crime overall is at a historic low in the city, Malliotakis often focuses on sex crimes in particular, which have gone up during de Blasio’s tenure – although some advocates attribute that to an increase in victims reporting those crimes. “It seems like the media and the mayor want to say we’re all safe, but you know, women, in the city, are not,” Malliotakis said.

Nicole Malliotakis Dominican Day Parade

At the New York Caribbean Carnival Parade in Brooklyn, the Malliotakis campaign was looking more professional. Gone was the generic “Malliotakis for Mayor” banner from the Dominican Day Parade the previous month. A special “Caribbeans for Nicole Malliotakis for Mayor” banner took its place, festooned with flags of the region. Her team was bigger, joined by the Republican candidate for public advocate, J.C. Polanco, and for comptroller, Michel Faulkner, as volunteers handed out posters to the crowd. Malliotakis was relatively quiet, mostly sticking to walking and waving, which she blamed on a cold. But her excitement was palpable whenever she saw a rare Cuban flag in the crowd, inevitably getting her to jog to the barricade and start a conversation.

The parade, held every Labor Day, is the city’s biggest and probably the single best chance she’ll have to be seen by voters before Election Day. The Republican group was conservative even in marching, and lacked speakers blasting music that gives the parade its Caribbean flavor. A supporter did his best to excite the crowd, shouting into a loudspeaker, “Forget de Blasio!” and “Let’s give a woman a shot at City Hall!”

Her group had once again been placed far behind de Blasio, and with two months to go until the election, her bid felt like just as much of a long shot as ever, but one thing had improved. As the 2017 Republican nominee for mayor of New York City passed the cameras, the officials and the stage, her name was announced to the crowd. 

Jeff Coltin
is a staff reporter at City & State. He covers New York City Hall.
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