Bill de Blasio’s Towering Problem

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.

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.


Bill de Blasio’s Towering Problem