He is joking, but he’s not kidding. “When I spoke last time, they needed a much smaller room,” Bill de Blasio says to laughter. “This is the glory of American democracy!” Exactly one year earlier, De Blasio had appeared before the same group, the Association for a Better New York, an alliance of city businesses and civic organizations; the turnout then, in October 2012, was 400, and the reaction was chilly—especially when De Blasio unveiled what would become a signature element of his run for mayor, a proposal to tax the wealthy to pay for new prekindergarten and after-school programs. This morning—fresh off an improbable, resounding victory in the Democratic primary—De Blasio is greeted by a sold-out crowd of 800 and a standing ovation.
Still, there’s a bit of tension served with the scrambled eggs: De Blasio unflinchingly repeats his vow to boost taxes, to which he adds emphatic praise for labor unions and higher minimum wages. To lighten the mood, De Blasio improvises a running joke. He decries the decline in city and state funding to the City University of New York, and the table directly in front of the podium—full of CUNY executives—breaks into loud applause. A few paragraphs later, De Blasio says he wants to restore $150 million in funding to CUNY, producing the same thrilled, noisy result. “I love these guys!” he cracks. “Whenever I need a little pick-me-up, I’ll just say the word ‘CUNY’ and this whole table will erupt!” When he opens the floor to questions, a woman from a tech firm asks how the likely future mayor feels about her industry. “I would like to have seen the same vigorous applause as from CUNY,” he says, “so you need to think about that.” But De Blasio quickly makes it clear he’s joshing, that he loves the tech sector, too. Then, a few minutes later, a representative of the hospital industry stands up and praises De Blasio. “You know, I just want to say, I’ve lost my interest in CUNY,” De Blasio says, smiling. “I think the health-care sector is where I want to put my attention after all! They placated me better than CUNY did! CUNY, it was great while it lasted.”
More laughter, but this time there’s an uneasy undercurrent. And, at a table of real-estate executives, raised eyebrows and shaking heads. They’ve got nothing against hospitals or city colleges, mind you. They’re just wondering what, exactly, the city’s next mayor really stands for.
Bill de Blasio ran probably the most surgically focused mayoral campaign in modern New York political history, relentlessly repeating a few key phrases—“a tale of two cities” … “income inequality” … “end the stop-and-frisk era”—that played brilliantly to the hopes, angers, and guilts of the city’s liberal, Bloomberg-fatigued Democratic-primary electorate. De Blasio genuinely believes in the ideals underlying the progressive rhetoric he’s been retailing; in 1988, he traveled to Nicaragua to support the leftist revolution, and he still converses knowledgeably about liberation theology. But in his own career in elected office—first as a Brooklyn city councilman and then as public advocate—De Blasio has shown a gift for the crafty compromise.
Which is why, as De Blasio nears what is likely to be a general-election landslide victory, the central questions are about just what he believes and just who he’d be as mayor. The business leaders at the ABNY breakfast weren’t all that upset about the prospect of a tax increase on New Yorkers making more than $500,000. And most weren’t buying the notion, lately promoted in a hyperventilating TV ad by Joe Lhota, the Republican candidate, that blood will run in the streets and crime will soar if De Blasio wins. The nervousness flows from something more subtle: the prospect that De Blasio will be a mayor who responds to whoever “placates” him the most, bouncing from one interest group to the next—an unsettling contrast to Bloomberg, who, whether you agreed with him or not, was a predictable and stabilizing force in city life.
And this isn’t simply a concern of the city’s wealthy elites: What’s more surprising is that De Blasio’s friends on the left aren’t quite sure of his core political identity either. “We want him to be Elizabeth Warren and not Barack Obama or Andrew Cuomo,” a labor leader close to De Blasio says. “I think that’s who he really wants to be. But I really don’t know.” De Blasio campaigned as a crusading lefty: against corporate subsidies, in favor of expanding access to food stamps and paid sick leave and taxing the rich to help the poor. Yet his formative political training came from wily realists like Cuomo and Hillary Clinton. The risk of a Bill de Blasio mayoralty is that it sputters with politically correct incompetence. But the great promise is that he might turn out to be a complicated, highly unusual mix of ideologue and operative. The stakes are high—not just for the continued vitality of New York, but as a test of whether progressive values can deliver a more equitable city.