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The 99% Mayor

Dante, Chiara, Chirlane, and Bill.  

Enter the candidate, sweating and laughing. “Hey!” De Blasio says, bounding through the front door of his Brooklyn house and spotting me sitting at the kitchen table with his wife and son and noticing that I’m wearing a dress shirt and tie. “Chris Smith thinks he’s on East 79th Street, in a townhouse!”

Which is funny and self-deprecating, because this sure isn’t the $30 million Bloomberg manse. The De Blasio homestead in Park Slope is a humble three-story rectangle covered in faded green-painted wood paneling. Inside, the first floor is a combined living room and kitchen, all of it well worn. On one wall is a small, framed drawing of the “Sodium Avenger,” a superhero created by daughter Chiara to lovingly tease Mom for banning salt from the dinner table. On the opposite wall is a vivid yellow-and-red floor-to-­ceiling poster commemorating the mid-eighties Artists Against Apartheid movement; his wife, Chirlane McCray, did poetry readings and is listed among the performers. If I needed any further indication that the city is on the verge of a radical change in mayoral style from Bloomberg, who seems as if he were born in a pin-striped suit, there’s the 52-year-old De Blasio himself: He’s just back from his daily workout at the 9th Street Y and wearing a frayed, sweat-soaked blue T-shirt and baggy gray sweatpants.

Chirlane, 58, hasn’t given up completely on getting her kids to eat healthy, but there’s only so much a mom can do with a strong-minded teenager. Dante is gobbling a second greasy slice of takeout pizza before tackling a mountain of Brooklyn Tech math homework. He has inherited his father’s heavy-lidded eyes, his mother’s bright smile. All his own, though, is the famous Afro, which Dante tugs at nervously with his left hand. “This one guy at school keeps saying ‘Go with the ’fro!’ when he sees me,” Dante says. “It’s pretty funny. It’s funny to him. I don’t mind it much, though, as long as it’s my friends who are doing it.”

Otherwise, the celebrity inflicted by starring in a charming, campaign-changing commercial doesn’t seem to have made much difference in his sixteen-year-old life. He’s more anxious about an upcoming debate-team tournament at Bronx Science than any added pressure from being the next mayor’s son. “I get my grades for myself,” he says, “and generally do not engage in behaviors that are going to incriminate my father in any way.”

Chirlane laughs, hard, but she knows he’s being honest. “Dante’s tough on himself,” she says. “He’s got standards for himself that are probably higher than the ones we have for him.”

Topping both, though, are Chirlane and Bill’s standards for themselves as parents, an outgrowth of their own difficult childhoods. Chirlane grew up in a small, predominantly white western-Massachusetts town, where her family was the target of ugly racism. Bill’s father, Warren Wilhelm, was a Yale-educated war hero who was gravely wounded in Okinawa, losing most of one leg to a Japanese grenade. Wilhelm returned and got a graduate degree from Harvard, then went to work in the Commerce Department. Bill’s mother, Maria, the daughter of Italian immigrants, graduated from Smith College and was hired by the Office of War Information. Both became ensnared in a McCarthy-era Red Scare investigation and eventually left Washington for jobs in New York and a house in Connecticut. Warren Wilhelm Jr. was born in Manhattan in 1961—he was always known as Bill, though no one in the family seems to remember why—and has brothers who are thirteen and sixteen years older. In the mid-sixties, the family moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts. Warren Wilhelm was increasingly trying to drown his physical and emotional pain in whiskey; when Bill was 7, Warren left the family. “Bill’s experience in those years was pretty bleak,” says Steve Wilhelm, one of his brothers. “Dad just kind of vanished, basically.”

Steve was living on a commune when he got a phone call that his father had been found dead of a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the chest. “He’d had lung cancer, and it was coming back, metastasizing. He wrote a beautiful letter: ‘I don’t want to die in a hospital with tubes stuck in me,’ ” Steve says. “Bill and I emerged out of all that with some clear ideas of what we would do and not want to do if we were ever parents.”

De Blasio understands all the recent fascination with his father’s story but says the attention is misplaced, at least when it comes to understanding what shaped him. “My mother was the greatest influence on my life by far,” he says. “She was often very, very sad about things that had happened to her, but she had a fierce resilience—a very sharp, purposeful resilience. She was very practical. She always talked to me about a kind of Italian understanding of the world—she would juxtapose somewhat my father’s upbringing and what she saw as sort of an American affectation for a certain romanticism, a certain idealism, with her own Southern Italian sense of practicality. She was nobody’s fool, and when the whole McCarthy thing happened, it bothered her intellectually and it troubled her personally, but she was not surprised one bit. She came out of that experience further armored. My father came out of that experience further troubled.” When Bill changed his last name from Wilhelm to De Blasio, his brothers weren’t surprised. “The Wilhelm side didn’t mean that much to him,” Steve Wilhelm says, “and like everyone, he was looking for a family.”