The other night, at home, I got a call from Daniel, who identified himself as a Bill de Blasio volunteer. “Do you know who you will be voting for in the Democratic primary?” he asked. No, I said; I’m undecided. “Okay,” he replied. “Can I tell you more about Bill de Blasio?” No thanks, I said: I’m a political reporter, and I already know way too much about all the candidates—even Anthony Weiner has significant merits, at least on policy ideas. “Oh,” he said. “If you know so much, how can you be undecided?”
Good question, Volunteer Daniel. It’s because of the question I’m asked most often by friends and readers: Which candidate would make the best mayor? Many voters have already made up their minds, by looking backward and judging the lives and careers of the contenders. Yet projecting how good any of them would be as mayor is equal parts analysis and faith: Remember that Michael Bloomberg, for most of 2001, was written off by the conventional wisdom as a terrible candidate who’d make a lousy mayor. Then came September 11. The context of the mayoral election changed, tragically. But what the candidates did in the weeks after the terrorist attack mattered a great deal, too. Rudy Giuliani’s endorsement and Bloomberg’s millions were crucial, but so were Mark Green’s mistakes.
I’m not wishing for a repeat of the 2001 test, by any means. And running for office is not the same as running a government. But how the current candidates act and react in the next two weeks—when the pressure is most intense, and major pivots like the Times endorsement and a final debate on September 3 shift the dynamic—will be an excellent indicator of how they would react in the crucible of the mayoralty.
Last week’s De Blasio–Quinn family-values feud was a fascinating start to the endgame. De Blasio’s wife, Chirlane McCray, was quoted in the Times seeming to criticize Quinn’s capacity to empathize with parents. The Quinn campaign reacted with fury, accusing De Blasio and McCray of an “over the line” personal attack. The De Blasio campaign brandished an exculpatory audio recording of the interview in question: McCray had been misquoted. Quinn returned fire: The derogatory meaning was clear, she insisted, even if the quotes were mangled.
The deft staff work that produced the interview recording was a small demonstration of the fact that De Blasio has run the best tactical campaign. The candidate’s formative years in politics were spent as an operative. This year, De Blasio set a shrewd campaign course early on, exploiting an opening to the left of Quinn, then the front-runner. He stuck with his “true progressive” message when hardly anyone was listening, gradually pulling in guilty white liberals by talking about economic inequality and adroitly seizing opportunities as they surfaced.
The question about De Blasio is whether he’s more than just tactics. He’s helped keep Long Island College Hospital on life support, but getting arrested doesn’t deal with the financial forces that are crushing it. He’s selling himself as a clean break from Bloomberg, but agrees with the mayor on the substance of important issues. And while all the candidates have used their families as surrogates and props, De Blasio has gone the furthest, weaponizing his wife, daughter, and son. “This is who we are; it’s our lives,” he told me days before the spat with Quinn erupted, saying he had no qualms about his family’s prominence in the campaign: “Dante, by the time he was 2 and Chiara was 5, they’d slept over at the White House … They participate only how they feel comfortable participating. And so far, that’s worked great for our family.”
It’s also great politics—accentuating the cultural change De Blasio would be from Bloomberg—as long as it doesn’t become a condescending subtext: My family is better than the others. And the next mayor, lacking Bloomberg’s wealth, will need to be politically artful. In the next two weeks, De Blasio will try to fend off attacks while staying true to his game plan. “He’s going to continue to contrast his vision with Quinn’s, every day until primary day,” a De Blasio ally says. “That’s what got him where he is. It’s not even about tearing her down. It’s because she’s the de facto incumbent, the representative of the status quo. By going after her, De Blasio defines himself.”
Quinn, meanwhile, is looking feisty and desperate, competent and compromised. The council speaker has had trouble selling her pragmatism as principled. She allowed her views on public safety to become personalized as support for keeping Ray Kelly as police commissioner. Then she tried the untenable straddle that as mayor she’d reform not just stop-and-frisk but also Kelly, its primary architect. Lately Quinn has appeared more at ease, perhaps because she’s gotten off the defensive and has tried to aggressively punch holes in De Blasio’s record.