It was dangerous stuff from Bill de Blasio on Wednesday night, as he debated his Republican rival one last time before New York City decides who it wants as its next mayor on Tuesday. There are times, he conceded, when he allows his two children, Chiara and Dante, aged 18 and 15, to drink wine at the dinner table.
There you are then, it’s just as the other man on stage, Republican Joe Lhota, and the conservative pundits are telling us. The man who would replace Michael Bloomberg – and barring an earthquake beneath his Brooklyn home he will – is a study in indiscipline and indulgence. Give him the keys to Gracie Mansion and all will go to pot in Gotham; the squeegee men will return to menace drivers with their rags, crime will shoot back up, riots will erupt.
It’s not so much that voters will be choosing a Democrat as their chief executive for the first time since 1989, when David Dinkins prevailed. Rudy Giuliani and Bloomberg both ran as Republicans (though Bloomberg later declared himself an independent) promising to curb crime and boost economic activity – the political pendulum was always bound to swing left again in 2013. What maddens the conservatives is that the Democrat in question is de Blasio.
Now serving as public advocate – the official ombudsman between the people and the government – Mr de Blasio was pretty faint on the radar when the race to run America’s largest city, with about 8.4 million people spread over more than 300 square miles, began last winter. All the money was on Christine Quinn, who leads the City Council. She had at least been mostly co-operative with Bloomberg, notably supporting him in changing the law to scrap term limits so he could serve a third four-year term. She would offer some degree of calming continuity.
It was back in August, just weeks before the early September primary that De Blasio, 52, suddenly rocketed up the polls. Possibly the pivot came with a single TV ad with young Dante speaking up for his father. It was touchingly done, and for some New Yorkers it was a first glimpse into the candidate’s multi-racial family. And they liked it. De Blasio is married to an African-American writer, poet and sometime executive, Chirlane McCray. Dante has an afro hairdo so large it was later to draw comment from Barack Obama. (Better than the one he used to have.) A slow trickle of celebrity endorsements helped, notably from Alec Baldwin, Sarah Jessica Parker and Susan Sarandon. Mr Lhota, a Giuliani alumnus who now runs the city’s transport system, probably thought de Blasio an easier target than Quinn. Things he could raise: Ms McCray once wrote in a magazine that she was a lesbian; when the pair were married in 1994, by two gay ministers, they honeymooned in Cuba (breaking American laws); and, best of all, as a young man fresh out of Columbia University, de Blasio had a longish spell championing the left-wing Sandinista government in Nicaragua, Ronald Reagan’s bete noire. He may have once uttered “democratic socialist” about himself.
No wonder the right is in a spin. “New Yorkers are about to elect a left-wing extremist” a blog headline on the Daily Telegraph website warns, a variation on this from the Wall Street Journal editorial pages this week: “New York voters are about to elect the Occupy movement to run America’s largest city.” The New York Post, like the Journal owned by Rupert Murdoch, distinguished itself with a cartoon showing Ms McCray in the marital bed next to de Blasio in woman’s lingerie. It has also taken to calling the candidate Che de Blasio.
All this makes de Blasio out to be more colourful than he perhaps deserves. Born in Manhattan as Warren Wilhelm Jr on 8 May 1961 to Maria (née de Blasio) and Warren Wilhelm, respectively of Italian and German extraction, he grew up in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He was seven when his father, who was severely injured as a US soldier fighting in Okinawa, left home. An alcoholic, Wilhelm Sr was to commit suicide in 1979. Not surprisingly, his mother was the greater influence on his life, the reason he was to later change his name.
Both parents were politically aware and it rubbed off on the son. As an undergraduate at New York University he organised sit-ins for student rights. It was after taking a postgraduate degree at Columbia that he began his Sandinista romance, first working for a Catholic charity in Maryland sending aid to Nicaragua and taking one trip to see the Sandinista government’s efforts to elevate the poor first-hand. “It was very affecting for me,” he recently said. “They were, in their own humble way, in this small country, trying to figure out what would work better.”
Bearded and hippyish, the young de Blasio was hardly alone in his idealism. To protest American policy in Central America was what any young liberal at the time would to do. Later in New York, he was to join a group called the Nicaragua Solidarity Network, speaking up for the Sandinistas even after they lost power in 1990. Yet, as these things go, he was gradually to transition out of protest and towards “professional” politics. He lost the beard, adopted a suit and took a job with Mayor Dinkins in New York City Hall.
He was not to lose his liberal leanings, however. In 1997, he was appointed regional director for the federal Housing and Urban Development agency, working directly for Andrew Cuomo, who now, usefully, is governor of the state. In 2000, de Blasio was hired by Hillary Clinton as manager of her first senate campaign in New York, where he cemented his reputation as a steady hand – striving whenever possible to build consensus between warring egos. Thereafter, he won a seat in the City Council, representing his home district in Brooklyn. His record included improving housing services for New Yorkers with HIV/AIDS and introducing equal benefits for same sex couples.
In a land full of Tea Party noise about small government, de Blasio takes the opposite stance: government is the tool with which to help people. “If you look at the whole body of my work, it’s not hard at all to figure out who I am and what I believe in,” he told New York magazine last week. “My grounding in progressive movements is pretty solid, and it continues to be a way I think about the world, and so I don’t think there’s any question about where I come from ideologically.”
His message to voters is distilled in his campaign catchphrase, that New York under Bloomberg has become a “tale of two cities”, in which the gulf between the moneyed elite and the struggling underclass has become wider than ever: where roughly 46 per cent of its residents still live near or below the poverty line and 50,000 are in homeless shelters. Among Mr de Blasio’s pledges are to create 200,000 new affordable housing units and raising taxes on those earning $500,000 a year or more to, for example, provide pre-kindergarten schooling for all the city’s children.
Seemingly he has also caught the public mood on one of this city’s most vexing issues: the strained relationship between its citizenry, particularly blacks and Hispanics, and the police. De Blasio has pledged to put an end to stopping and frisking people on the street, a practice that often takes place without any clear grounds for suspicion but has been fiercely defended by Bloomberg – despite concerns over whether or not it is constitutional. It is his commitment to rein in the NYPD that has spurred the alarmist warnings from his rival of New York returning to the dark days of rampant crime.
The greater concern, however, is de Blasio’s inexperience running anything really big. With its $70bn budget, 300,000 employees, querulous unions and raucous denizens, New York is no easy place to wrestle down. Mr de Blasio may be 6ft 5, but in debates he sometimes seems hurt by the attacks against him, and some wonder if he may be a bit too nice, too reasonable, too soft. Is there a spine to the man who lets his children share his wine?
Harold Ickes, Democrat power broker and ex-deputy chief of staff to Bill Clinton, tells the New York Times there is. “If people take Bill – the modesty, the collegiality, the interest in trying to develop a consensus – as somehow lacking in inner toughness, they are sorely misadvised.” Barring a very strange turn of events between now and Tuesday, the time will soon come when the rest of us will find out if he is right.
A life in brief
Born Warren Wilhelm Jr, 8 May 1961, Manhattan, New York.
Family Son of Warren Wilhelm and Maria de Blasio. His parents divorced when he was seven. Married to activist and poet Chirlane McCray with two children, Dante and Chiara.
Education Went to school in Cambridge, Mass, then New York and Columbia Universities
Career In 1989 joined Mayor David Dinkins’ campaign team and served as an aide in City Hall. In 1997 became a Regional Director for healthcare in the Clinton administration. From 2001 to 2009 served for NYC Council’s 39th district. Served as New York Public Advocate from 2009 until 2013 when he won the Democrat nomination for the mayoral election.
He says “My professional life has been about public service. My personal life I define very intently through my family.”
They say “He’s always been there for the community that I live in, he’s been there for Brooklyn, and as a public advocate he’s been there for this city.” (Actor Steve Buscemi)