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Bill de Blasio’s Towering Problem

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De Blasio’s campaign is a test of just how liberal New York Democrats really are. The key question isn’t about the big cultural political issues—abortion, gay rights, gun control. The city is solidly in favor of all of them, and so are its Democratic mayoral candidates. The new, unsettled battleground is economic liberalism. His campaign is easily the most intellectually coherent and focused when it comes to inequality. Everything from his proposal for beefing up bus service to his plan for restructuring development subsidies extends from his central premise: that New York has become dangerously split between rich and poor, and the ­disparities in government priorities and services need to be closed. De Blasio sound-bites his view of the problem—­predictably—as “a tale of two cities,” but his platform offers the most thorough liberal critique of what’s happened to New York in the Bloomberg years. “After twelve years, we can all ­identify things that went well,” he says, citing public-health initiatives, the applied-­sciences campus, and bike lanes. “But what happened in recent years—a combination of the economic ­crisis, gentrification, and some mistaken policies by the administration—all came together to start a reshaping of this city that unfortunately is digging in inequality. This is corrosive to our social fabric, it is undermining our ability to have a city that can function well in a more competitive future, and it really deviates from our values as New Yorkers. New York City is also an idea. It’s a culture and a history. We are the keepers of the flame of inclusion and tolerance and diversity. That is threatened now in a way it has never been in our history. I see people suffering and feeling like they’re losing their grip on the place, and my job is to help New Yorkers live in New York. It’s not to clear the place out and see it fully gentrified.” So De Blasio, as mayor, wouldn’t just tax the rich more stiffly; he’d cut down on the use of stop-and-frisk and require real-estate developers to build below-­market-rate apartments. And in the Democratic primary, he’ll get a hearing: By the end of the fund-raiser, the crowd was pushing him to be even tougher on the rich.

De Blasio is hardly Hugo Chávez; at 52, with his interracial family and Brooklyn rowhouse, he’s an embodiment of several of the city’s social trends, not a radical departure from them. But De Blasio has honed a clear populist message, and his campaign is aiming it at two targets it believes will dominate the primary electorate: white ­liberals disturbed by the social costs of the two-tiered luxury-product city, and aggrieved minority voters who feel they haven’t shared in the gains of the Bloomberg years. Reaching those blocs, however, may prove difficult. He has the backing of SEIU 1199, the health-care-workers union, but he lost out on the other three big union endorsements. And Anthony Weiner has gobbled up media coverage at a time when De ­Blasio needs to become better known. Yet private polling shows that De Blasio is the only candidate to gain ground since Weiner entered the race, drawing white, Manhattan voters from Christine Quinn and black and Latino ­voters, particularly in Brooklyn and the Bronx, from Bill Thompson. The public poll numbers, however, show De Blasio hovering in the low double digits, so he’s trying to draw sharper distinctions between himself and the others, with one eye on the crucial New York Times endorsement. “[Quinn] won’t tax the wealthy,” he says, “and she wants to go farther than Bloomberg in providing tax breaks to real estate. Thompson didn’t agree with living wage, he was very late to paid sick days, doesn’t agree with the anti-racial-profiling bill, doesn’t agree with an inspector general for the NYPD. If someone wants a less-­progressive vision, Billy Thompson offers them that.”

Breslin thought Lindsay too elitist; De Blasio might be too populist. But what do writers know? John Vliet Lindsay, after losing in the Republican primary, won re­election as the nominee of the Independent and Liberal parties. This time around, 44 years later, the field and the political dynamics are nearly as scrambled, providing Bill de Blasio an opening—and not just because he’s an inch taller than his lankiest predecessor.

E-mail: chris_smith@nymag.com.


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