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Bill de Blasio’s Towering Problem

He’s the highest-minded liberal in the race—but are his concerns too rarefied for most New Yorkers?

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Illustration by André Carrilho  

Bill de Blasio stoops to converse. He is six feet five inches tall, but he rarely stands completely straight up. De Blasio’s shoulders are always in a slight rounded hunch forward, his neck craned down. Partly this is protective—tonight, walking into a rooftop garden for a June fund-raiser, he reflexively ducks to avoid smacking into the crossbeam of a trellis—and partly it’s smart politics, learned early in his career. “You have to get close, you have to connect, get to eye level,” he tells me later. Never­theless, in this fortuitously symbolic ­loca­tion, atop a residential building ­diagonally across Broadway from City Hall, De Blasio is the only one with the elevation to see across the street and down to the mayoral office he wants to occupy.

De Blasio is an interesting combination of angular and doughy—his face fleshy and often split by a wide grin; his arms and legs long and mechanical, as if his joints were being controlled by the strings of an invisible puppeteer. He’s constantly using his body to draw people in: Talking one-on-one, De Blasio rests a large hand on a listener’s shoulder; speaking to a small group, he’s bending down, doing a quick shuffle, or jabbing his index fingers in a jokey game-show-host gesture. The 25 people, most of whom paid from $100 to $250 each to be here, are, with a couple of exceptions, of average height; to make connecting with the audience even more challenging, they’re all seated as De Blasio speaks. He rolls up his shirtsleeves and starts with charm, introducing his wife, Chirlane McCray, by telling the story of how they met when both were young aides in the Dinkins administration—and how she kept turning down his lunch offers. There’s a ripple of nervous laughter: Was it because McCray considered herself a lesbian at the time? De Blasio tries a different tack, mixing the personal with the political by describing how he’d be the first sitting mayor with a child in public school. This time there are approving nods, though it’s hard to tell how much parental empathy: The crowd is prosperous and all white. Then De Blasio moves on to the core of his plan to fix the city’s public-school system.

“I didn’t take an income survey of people here before talking to you, so I want you to know it’s equal opportunity—I say this in front of every kind of audience,” he says, drawing laughter. “I have called for a tax on those who make a half-million or more, New York City residents, for five years, to pay for full-day, universal pre-K and a guaranteed after-school seat for every middle-school student. That investment will make our school system work better for everyone. It will be an act of equalization in a city that is desperately falling into the habit of disparity.”

Eyebrows go up: Tax the rich? Who are already paying some of the steepest rates in the country? To make some kind of knee-jerk lefty statement about ­inequality? That’s when I wonder: Is Bill de Blasio too tall to be mayor?

My apologies to Norman Mailer and Jimmy Breslin. Back in 1969, when they ran as a semi-serious ticket in the Democratic primary—Mailer for mayor, Breslin for City Council president—the pair, when asked about the incumbent, would yell out, ­“Lindsay? Lindsay is too tall to be mayor of New York.” In July, after they’d lost, Breslin went back to being a journalist and wrote one of the all-time-great stories for this magazine, accompanied by an all-time-great cover photo of ­Lindsay from the neck down. You should immediately read Breslin’s story because it is brilliant and fun and because the summary I’m about to provide is like listing the colors in a Rothko. Lindsay was too tall, Breslin wrote, because his effete, ­patrician, Upper East Side bearing and do-gooder politics were ­desperately out of touch with angry, short, and sweaty middle-class New York. To continue to oversimplify: In that raucous and flammable late-­sixties moment, the liberal Lindsay seemed a terrible fit for the reactionary mood out in the neighborhoods.

De Blasio has a similar problem, metaphorically and politically, though his ­biography is wildly different from Lindsay’s. His father, an alcoholic World War II vet, left home when Bill was 6, and he was raised in Cambridge, ­Massachusetts, by his mother, an upbringing he says turned him into a champion of the underdog and the underprivileged. Nearly as influential, however, were his years working for Hillary Clinton and Andrew Cuomo. De Blasio is as much a shrewd political strategist as he is a Park Slope liberal. Positioning himself as “the real progressive” in the mayoral field flows from De Blasio’s genuine beliefs about how and for whom the city should work, but it’s also a calculation about how he thinks he can win. Lacking a natural geographic, racial, or gender constituency, he is trying to assemble an ideological coalition. That’s tough enough—but his wonky ideas are also in danger of getting lost in Weinermania.


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