Bill de Blasio says a defining moment in his campaign to become New York’s next mayor was when he told a roomful of corporate leaders they should pay higher taxes to fund preschool programs for all city children.
Their response ranged from silence to outright protest.
The Oct. 4 speech to the Association for a Better New York, a group of business executives, was akin to “going into the lion’s den,” said de Blasio, the city’s elected public advocate. He said increasing the marginal tax rate to 4.3 percent from 3.9 percent on income above $500,000 would cost an average $2,000 for those taxpayers while raising $532 million to pay for the program as well as after-school activities.
“I always reference that moment because I want to show I say the same thing in front of wealthy, powerful folks as I’ll tell parents in the South Bronx,” he said in an interview. “I wanted to show decency and courage to go before a group who wouldn’t like it and tell them, ‘This is what I think we need for the good of the city.’”
It’s also a political calculation. De Blasio, 51, a veteran strategist who managed Hillary Clinton’s victorious 2000 U.S. Senate campaign, is trying to stand out in a five-way Democratic primary to succeed Mayor Michael Bloomberg, a race in which each candidate is a self-described “progressive.” At stake is leadership of the most-populous U.S. city and the nation’s biggest school system, with 1.1 million students.
Just how de Blasio will position himself won’t be revealed until the campaign gets closer to the Sept. 10 primary, said his media adviser, John Del Cecato, a partner in AKPD Message and Media, which was founded by political strategist David Axelrod, a top adviser to President Barack Obama.
De Blasio, whose $165,000-a-year position as the city watchdog makes him first in line to succeed the mayor, is “the true progressive in the race,” Del Cecato said. He will tap into “populist feelings emerging around the country focusing on schools, assuring a living wage, protecting small businesses -- issues appealing to people who feel City Hall isn’t listening to them,” Del Cecato said.
De Blasio has shown he can win votes citywide. In the 2009 race for public advocate, he won a primary runoff against former mayoral candidate and consumer advocate Mark Green with more than 62 percent of the vote. In the general election, he defeated Republican Alex Zablocki with 77 percent of the vote. De Blasio’s vote total of 672,383 outpolled Bloomberg’s by more than 115,000.
Yet this year, he finished third in a Feb. 14 Marist College poll of the mayor’s race, receiving 12 percent support among registered Democrats, with 32 percent saying they didn’t know enough about him to form an opinion. City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, who has led in all the polls so far, had 37 percent. She needs 40 percent of the vote to avoid a runoff with the second-place finisher.
Born Warren Wilhelm Jr., de Blasio took his mother’s maiden name later in life. His parents separated when he was 6. His father, a management consultant who lost a leg in combat on Okinawa in World War II, descended into alcoholism and died when de Blasio was 18.
“I have some early memories of an intact family that sadly deteriorated,” de Blasio said. “It’s very tough to say that in my older years he was only drunk when I saw him at family gatherings.”
De Blasio came to the city from Cambridge, Massachusetts, to attend New York University, and later Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs. He’s been a New Yorker ever since.
His early family life is “fundamental to who I am,” he said. “Brought up in a single-parent family, maybe there’s an understanding you get for the underdog, for those who aren’t so privileged.”
His childhood experiences contrast with the life he describes himself living now, in an interracial marriage with his wife Chirlane, their teenage son, Dante, and daughter, Chiara. The entire family participated in de Blasio’s Jan. 27 campaign announcement in front of the row house in Park Slope, Brooklyn, where they live.
The announcement came about a month after the political website politicker.com unearthed a 1979 article de Blasio’s wife had written for Essence Magazine before she met de Blasio, titled “I am a Lesbian.” She wrote: “I’m glad I discovered my preference for women early, before getting locked into a traditional marriage and having children.”
In a race that includes a candidate, Quinn, who celebrated a nationally publicized marriage to another woman last year; the first Asian elected to citywide office; and a candidate with Caribbean roots seeking to become New York’s second black mayor, de Blasio’s unconventional family history will probably help him, said William Cunningham, a senior adviser to former U.S. Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Governor Hugh Carey and Mayor Bloomberg.
“Anyone who tries to make it an issue will look like a jerk because it has nothing to do with the job of mayor,” Cunningham said. “His family, how he grew up, he won’t be typed as some throwback to a chauvinistic white guy.”
To win the primary, “he’s going to have to work hard to separate himself from the pack and tie Quinn to the mayor, whose policies may not be so popular among Democratic voters,” said Lee Miringoff, director of the Marist Poll.
De Blasio has pursued that strategy, attacking Quinn for not supporting a bill that would guarantee workers at least a few days of paid sick leave. Quinn has blocked the measure from coming to a vote, saying it would harm the city’s economic recovery.
He also reminds voters that Quinn backed the mayor, a Republican-turned-independent, and enabled him to win a City Council vote in 2009 permitting Bloomberg and all term-limited council members to run for a third term. The mayor is founder and majority owner of Bloomberg News parent Bloomberg LP.
“I think he lost his moral authority when he proposed the term-limit change to benefit himself,” de Blasio said. “My central thesis is she had made her alliance with Bloomberg and it was a requirement of that alliance to let this happen for him.”
Although opinion polls showed voters overwhelmingly opposed to the law change, Bloomberg won the 2009 election by more than 4 percentage points over Comptroller William Thompson, the Democratic candidate.
De Blasio describes Bloomberg’s third term in office as “ill-gotten gains,” yet he’s the only Democratic candidate who backs the mayor’s proposed 16-ounce serving size limit on restaurant sales of sugared drinks, which was struck down in court. The city is appealing the decision.
He has also praised the mayor for attracting Cornell University and the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology into a partnership to build a $2 billion applied sciences graduate school on Roosevelt Island. The project may create hundreds of businesses, thousands of jobs and more than $1 billion in tax revenue over the next 20 years, the mayor has said.
Cunningham says it’s all part of a political equation in which Quinn, who’s been so closely allied with Bloomberg, must try to demonstrate her independence from the incumbent mayor, while de Blasio would benefit by showing he’s not against everything Bloomberg has done.
“The challenge for Quinn is to show how she’s not the mayor, and de Blasio is the opposite,” Cunningham said. “Everyone knows he’s not like the mayor, so he has to step up and say something good about him.”