It’s a diner, not a metaphor. De Blasio has chosen this place because it’s two blocks from his Park Slope house, he’s hungry, and the waitress knows him so well she assumes De Blasio wants his regular oatmeal. The name of the diner does indeed seem apt, however, for a conversation about politics and principles: Little Purity.
De Blasio squeezes his six-foot-five-inch frame into a booth in the back, turning sideways to angle his legs across the seat; behind his head is a mirror decorated for Halloween with stickers of goblins and pumpkins and BOO! in black and orange letters. It’s the morning of De Blasio’s first debate with Joe Lhota, the Republican nominee, and he’s fortifying himself with an egg-white Greek omelette and some nimble sparring. In 1990, he called himself a “democratic socialist.” At ABNY, he tried on “fiscal conservative.” Does he think, in an ideal world, socialism would be a better economic system than capitalism? “I have described my philosophy,” he says, a bit testily. “My worldview is one part Franklin Roosevelt—the New Deal—one part European social democracy, and one part liberation theology. That’s how I see the world.”
He is not now, nor has he ever been, a Marxist. But De Blasio is a sincere and loyal product of the late-twentieth-century American left wing who is only half-jokingly called “comrade” by friends. “If you look at the whole body of my work, it’s not hard at all to figure out who I am and what I believe in,” he tells me. “My grounding in progressive movements is pretty solid, and it continues to be a way I think about the world, and so I don’t think there’s any question about where I come from ideologically and how consistent my views are today.”
The question is how those ideals will translate into actual governing. De Blasio says that if elected mayor, he will push to expand the “targeting” of city contracts and jobs to minority- and women-owned businesses—not quotas—and to use zoning to increase the supply of subsidized housing. “I think we have some real methods for doing that that have been underutilized by the current administration,” he says. “Local hiring—recognizing that there are legal challenges but also recognizing that a number of developers have agreed voluntarily, as part of a broader negotiation process, to some kind of requirement. That is a model I think we can do a lot more with—using the power of the city government to maximize the amount of affordable housing and to maximize the amount of job creation, but also to make sure that the jobs created reach people from the five boroughs and in particular people who have been less economically advantaged.”
As a council member, De Blasio did follow through on his principles even when there was minimal political gain: In the wake of the murders of Nixzmary Brown and Marchella Pierce, he staged hearings but also spent months collaborating on ground-level improvements to the city’s child-welfare system. Bertha Lewis, the fiery housing advocate and a close friend of De Blasio’s, lauds him for holding bad landlords accountable. But De Blasio can also be elastic and opportunistic. He’s talked about the outer boroughs’ deserving the same quality of services as Manhattan, but this summer he landed large donations from the entrenched taxi-medallion owners—and sided with them against an outer-borough taxi-expansion plan. He’s been exceedingly patient on the delayed construction of subsidized housing at Atlantic Yards, a project that got key backing from his friend Lewis and whose developer, Bruce Ratner, co-hosted a birthday-party fund-raiser for De Blasio.
“On things that are not moral issues, you see what a tactician Bill is,” a former City Council colleague says. “Like horse carriages.” De Blasio declared he’d banish the Central Park ponies as one of his first mayoral acts; coincidentally, an animal-rights group bashed Christine Quinn for months, with some of its money coming from a major De Blasio donor. After winning the primary and being endorsed by the union that represents hansom-cab drivers, De Blasio has been a bit wobbly, first saying he’d “start the process” to institute a ban, then insisting the move is still a high priority. He trumpets transparency but last week shut the press out of a $1 million fund-raiser starring Hillary. None of those moves were corrupt, or even hypocritical, necessarily. But they were the footwork of a political pro. “I think he’ll be able to manage the conflicting pressures and stay true to his values,” says Bob Master, political director of the communications-workers union and a co-chair of the Working Families Party. “But look, do I think this is a guy who will never compromise? No. And we don’t want somebody like that. We want somebody who understands how to push things as far as you can go and make the best possible deal when it’s available.”