Kathy Willens/AP
New York City Democratic mayoral hopeful Bill De Blasio celebrates on stage with his wife Chirlane (r.) after addressing supporters at his election headquarters after polls closed in the city's primary election Wednesday in New York.

Bill de Blasio: big win, big target for GOP in N.Y. mayor race

Bill de Blasio's 'tale of two cities' theme sets up a sharp contrast with Republican Joe Lhota – and could turn the November election into a mandate on the legacy of the Bloomberg-Giuliani years.

York City Public Advocate Bill de Blasio, who staked his candidacy on a fiercely anti-Bloomberg campaign based on the slogan “a tale of two cities,” won a stunning  victory last night, unofficially polling more than 40 percent of city Democrats, the threshold needed to become their nominee without a runoff.

In just a matter of weeks, Mr. de Blasio took a campaign languishing near the bottom of the polls and propelled it into the national spotlight, trumpeting an unapologetic liberal message of taxing the wealthy to fund education, helping struggling hospitals in poor neighborhoods, and most of all, reforming the city’s police tactic of stop and frisk.

“That day we said that New York had become the tale of two cities, one where the very wealthy had not only rebounded from the great recession, but where life couldn’t get much better for them,” de Blasio said during his victory speech, referring to his campaign launch in January.

“And we acknowledged that day that there was another New York, a New York where nearly half our citizens live at or near the poverty line, where luxury condos had replaced community hospitals, where proactive policing had somehow slipped into racial profiling, where too many mothers and fathers feared that their daughters and sons would never achieve the very thing we want most for our kids – that they get the education they need to pave the way to a better life.”

It was a message that resonated with a surprising coalition of Democrats that cut across ethnic, geographical, and socioeconomic lines – and devastated his opponents. According to exit polls, de Blasio won a plurality of nearly every demographic group: men and women; Catholics, Jews, and Protestants; those with high and low levels of education; as well as all income groups in all five boroughs. He also received half of those identifying as gay or lesbian – a blow to City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, who is openly gay.

The only groups not to join the de Blasio juggernaut were black men, who went for former Comptroller Bill Thompson, the lone black candidate, and “other races,” a group consisting primarily of Asian voters, who went for current city Comptroller John Liu.

By night’s end, de Blasio had 40.2 percent of the vote with 98 percent of precincts counted. Thousands of paper ballots remain to be counted, however, and these could take days to tally before the election is official. The threshold for avoiding a runoff in three weeks is 40 percent. Mr. Thompson has not conceded, either.

“It’s extraordinarily impressive – it’s a very powerful win,” says Kenneth Sherrill, professor emeritus of political science at Hunter College in New York. “He won across the board, and that’s quite a feat.”

“It’s very interesting to me, and I think it’s unexpected that identity politics appears to have disappeared from this election,” Mr. Sherrill adds. “The traditional explanations ... just aren’t holding. This is a broad victory that seems to me to be not only about issues, but also to be about the style of his leadership.”

The de Blasio win sets up a (likely) November showdown with Joe Lhota, the former head of the city’s transportation authority, who easily won the much smaller Republican primary in a city in which registered Democrats outnumber Republicans 6 to 1. Even so, the GOP line has won the last five elections, and a Democrat hasn’t won the mayor’s office since 1989.

The Republican nominee, who was also a deputy mayor in the administration of former Mayor Rudolph Giuliani (R), hit back at de Blasio in his victory speech Tuesday night.

“I hear an awful lot coming from the other side about the ‘tale of two cities’ and how they want to tear down the progress that’s happened over the last 20 years,” he said. “This ‘tale’ is nothing more than class warfare, an attempt to divide the city. It is a feeble retreat to the same old playbook that promises a perfect world, but delivers only special interest-dominated politics. It’s this kind of thinking that has historically brought our city to the brink of bankruptcy and rampant civic decay.”

Political observers see de Blasio’s win, despite its magnitude, as a much better scenario for the Lhota campaign than a victory by any of his rivals, since the contrast between the candidates is so stark. Republicans had not been expected to be a factor against Democrats like Thompson or Ms. Quinn, each of whom had staked out careful, moderate positions – and failed to excite Democratic primary voters. 

Observers point out, however, that those who show up for Democratic primaries in New York tend to be from the more liberal wing of city Democrats – one reason the party hasn’t won the mayoral election the past five elections.

“He really understood who he was appealing to in the primary,” says Jeanne Zaino, professor of political campaign management at the New York University School of Continuing and Professional Studies. “You look at the numbers of who supported him – that’s impressive, you really have to give it to de Blasio. But Lhota, he does have an opportunity to make many of the same cases and claims against de Blasio that his Democratic opponents tried unsuccessfully in the primary. The difference this time is, de Blasio is fighting for the general election, and so the same anti-Bloomberg arguments he used might be a lot tougher to make now.”

Still, the strength and cross section of de Blasio's support – as well as a measurable "Bloomberg fatigue" – may propel him into the mayor's office, political observers say.

“The thing that's coming through, though, is that de Blasio’s got values and a vision, and I think that’s what is getting people excited,” says Bart Robbett, professor in the master’s program in elections and campaign management at Fordham University in New York. “That it’s not just about the mechanics of politics, it really is a vision for New York, and it seems to be pretty much aligned to what at least the Democratic Party is looking for in a candidate.”

And many point to a single moment that changed the fortunes of the current public advocate, a 6-foot 5-inch Italian from Boston who married Chirlane McCray, a black poet and former lesbian activist.

“That’s the Dante ad that everybody’s talking about,” says Mr. Robbett, referring to a spot featuring de Blasio’s son, a charismatic teen who sports a ’70s-style Afro. “It accomplished so much in 30 seconds, and it persuaded so many people to take a fresh look at him, that I don't think people can be saying in the future that you can’t persuade people or change people’s minds during the course of a campaign after an example like that.”

Outgoing Mayor Michael Bloomberg, perhaps bristling at de Blasio’s relentless attacks on his legacy, suggested that de Blasio’s focus on his interracial family in the campaign was “racist” – a comment that drew a chorus of criticism and may have only energized de Blasio’s followers.

But the anti-Bloomberg message is working, despite the fact that crime is near all-time lows, the city’s economy is humming along, and the mayor has a record of eco-friendly accomplishments to make any progressive proud.

“It’s always been curious to me, you look at the polls, and Bloomberg is not the most unpopular mayor we've ever had,” says Ms. Zaino. “In fact, he's not unpopular at all.”

“And yet, if you saw just the tenor and tone of this campaign against him, you'd think, 'My gosh, he’s hated,' " she adds. “But, obviously, this is because it’s the progressive liberal democratic primary.”

Indeed, exit polls show a measure of dissonance among Democratic voters. Nearly 75 percent said they want to depart from Bloomberg’s policies. But at the same time, nearly half of Democratic voters approve of the job he has done as mayor.

“He did great things ... but he was always just a little bit tone deaf when it came to hearing the needs of middle-class and working-class New Yorkers, and I think that’s really rising up now,” says Robbett.

“What de Blasio did, I think, was to put together a broad coalition of New Yorkers who felt that they hadn’t been paid attention to, that they hadn’t been respected as equal citizens,” says Sherrill. “And a lot of this election is not about the reallocation of wealth at all, but is rather about reallocation of respect.”

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