Howard Beach smelled of diesel exhaust and seawater. It was a sunny Sunday morning nearly two weeks after Sandy hit the neighborhood and generators were chugging loudly while utility crews struggled to restore traffic lights. A dozen volunteers assembled by Public Advocate Bill de Blasio went door to door, distributing a thick sheaf of instructions on how to apply for aid. “I can’t believe how many folks have no clue they can get compensation for lost wages,” De Blasio said later. “Not even the beginning of a hint of a clue! I can’t believe how many places I’ve been in the last two weeks where the refrain was, ‘No one has been here from the government.’ No one has explained what FEMA can do for you, to how to apply for unemployment, to where you can get your medications. It’s been a vacuum.”
He exaggerated some: City Hall had indeed been distributing much of that information, but in the middle of a vast emergency there were bound to be gaps. Fortunately for these Queens residents, De Blasio was helping fill the void. Fortunately for De Blasio, the storm may have handed him a political opening.
Six months from now, Sandy will be a political side issue. But the storm and the recovery illuminate what’s sure to be one of the central cleavages in the campaign for City Hall: Between De Blasio and Christine Quinn, between the outer-boroughs and Manhattan, and between those who think Mike Bloomberg’s been an excellent mayor and those who don’t.
De Blasio can’t make a traditional outer-borough white-ethnic-resentment play: He lives in Park Slope, worked for David Dinkins and Hillary Clinton, and, despite his last name, is more Upper West Side than Bensonhurst in his political beliefs. Plus he’s too tall and too coolly calculating. Then again, the outer-boroughs nowadays are more similar to Manhattan, politically, than they used to be, and not simply because of Bloomberg-era gentrification. The old fault lines were crime and race, and while they haven’t disappeared completely as political issues—stop-and-frisk will be a hot topic next year—they’re no longer paramount. The new demographics of the outer-boroughs offer the chance to form coalitions around economic concerns. “The outer-borough seniors on fixed incomes and the emerging immigrant and younger minority groups have things in common—affordable housing, education, transportation,” says Bruce Gyory, who was one of the very few political consultants to correctly predict how tight the 2009 mayoral race would be. “Everyone’s fixated on Manhattan and the Upper West Side. The real action is going to be in the outer-boroughs.”
The candidate who can grasp that new dynamic will have a significant advantage. There aren’t many Democratic primary votes where the storm was most damaging, but Sandy’s tonal aftermath—the grousing that once again Manhattan got more attention than the blue-collar sections of the city—is part of the puzzle. It gives De Blasio (as well as Bill Thompson, who will also be a significant factor in 2013) an opportunity to strengthen his argument that a Quinn mayoralty will essentially be a Bloomberg fourth term. The exit of Scott Stringer makes it easier for De Blasio to run as the true progressive Democrat. By taking to the streets in Howard Beach, bashing NYCHA’s sluggishness in restoring power and heat in Red Hook, and pushing for lefty favorites like the paid-sick-leave bill, De Blasio is trying to draw a contrast with Quinn as out of touch with real working New Yorkers, beholden to big business, and too close to Bloomberg. That argument has natural appeal to liberals on the Upper West Side. De Blasio is also trying to bring in voters in ethnically disparate middle-class neighborhoods like Rego Park and Jackson Heights and the north shore of Staten Island. “De Blasio has an instinct for that kind of coalition-building,” says a strategist not affiliated with any of the candidates. “And Quinn, not that she can’t learn, but she’s a creature of Manhattan.”
Some history is instructive here also. In 2005, De Blasio and Quinn battled to become City Council speaker. De Blasio mustered votes from his fellow Council members. Quinn focused on assembling support from the county leaders who held sway over Council members. It was bottom up versus top down, and Quinn won. This time Quinn will make her own grassroots appeal. After the storm she was highly visible in the Rockaways and on Staten Island, and she’s talking more about her family’s immigrant history. She’s no elitist, and her classically Irish surname, augmented by red hair and a squawky voice, gives her an authentically ethnic New York aura. Quinn’s camp says she polls very well with Koch-Giuliani Democrats. But her greatest political strength and vulnerability is her closeness to Bloomberg, the biggest boss in town. Quinn’s cooperation with the mayor has given her a high profile and an image as an almost co-mayor, but it’s also saddled her with responsibility for Bloomberg’s evasion of term limits and raised questions about her independence.
De Blasio seems to have replaced Anthony Weiner and John Liu as the Democratic contender who gets under Bloomberg’s skin the most; when De Blasio floated the idea of raising taxes on the city’s wealthy, the mayor called it “about as dumb a policy as I can think of.” If De Blasio, in third place in early polls, gets traction against Quinn, it will lead to a fateful strategic crossroads next year. Bloomberg’s new super-pac spent $9 million in a largely successful debut this fall, and the city’s political class assumes the mayor will be unable to resist pouring money into the race to follow him to City Hall. Whether it would work—as a way to extend Bloomberg’s legacy by helping elect Quinn—is hotly debated. “I think he’s a very bad messenger in a Democratic primary,” a De Blasio ally says. “It’s hard to see a Bloomberg-financed pac doing anything but hurting the candidate he’s trying to help.” Another Democrat, unaligned with any of the current candidates, scoffs. “It’s $10 million against $2 million or $3 million,” he says. “Would the Times editorial page be apoplectic? Perhaps. But who cares? The ads are out there doing damage. If that happens, nothing you’re writing now amounts to anything.”
Gee, thanks. Big money, smart tactics, and cold demographics may well determine the winner. Yet this city has an uncanny way of matching new mayors to the moment. In 2001, Bloomberg’s millions wouldn’t have mattered without 9/11, after which a business résumé suddenly seemed the exact right credential to lead a city with a reeling economy. In 1986, a gang of white Howard Beach thugs chased three black men whose car had stalled; one of the men, Michael Griffith, fled onto Shore Parkway and was killed by a car. That tragedy helped form the context for the emergence of David Dinkins.
Today, De Blasio is around the corner from New Park Pizza, the place where the Howard Beach episode escalated. New Park still sells great pies, but 26 years later its customers are the unremarkably amazing New York multiracial mix. The mood that will elect the next mayor has yet to cohere, and key blocs of votes—especially Latinos—are up for grabs. But part of the game will be whether Bill de Blasio can paint Chris Quinn as too Manhattan, and too much like Mike Bloomberg, to be a mayor for all the city.