Bill de Blasio, the insurgent and defiantly progressive New York City mayoral candidate, did not hold his Tuesday night victory party in one of those faux-ornate midtown Manhattan hotel ballrooms, the usual power venue for such festivities.
Instead, he gathered his overjoyed supporters — fellow members of a “movement,” de Blasio insisted — in the hip but unswanky Bell House on Brooklyn’s Seventh Street to celebrate the victory of “an unapologetically progressive alternative to the Bloomberg Era.”
That would be Mayor Michael Bloomberg, whose name was not on the ballot in the primaries here this week but whose 12 years in office are now the political Rorschach Test of New York City politics.
More broadly, de Blasio — whose victory was so large that he may well avoid a runoff by tipping above 40 percent of the vote in a nine-candidate field — spoke to a deep discontent fueled by a battered economy whose recovery has not lifted all boats equally. It was a major triumph for progressives but also a warning to Democrats and President Obama: We are still a distance from the happy country where shared, long-term growth is assumed and where most people expect their lives to improve.
Yes, yes, drawing sweeping conclusions from a Democratic primary in which more than half the voters called themselves liberal (including about a quarter who said they were “very liberal”) is a questionable proposition. This fall, de Blasio will face a real contest against the Republican nominee, Joe Lhota, who will run proudly on Bloomberg’s record.
A respected former head of the transit authority and deputy mayor under Rudy Giuliani, Lhota came right out of the gate on primary night attacking de Blasio for “class warfare,” asserting that his opponent’s brand of liberalism could bring the city back “to the brink of bankruptcy” and a time of “rampant civic decay.” Watch this campaign for a genuine argument (we don’t have many of those) over the sources of urban prosperity and comity.
It’s easy enough to see de Blasio’s campaign as a feat of strategic and tactical acumen. He managed in a way his opponents did not — his main competitors were former Comptroller William Thompson, who ran second, and City Council Speaker Christine Quinn — to speak to the peculiar ambivalence among New Yorkers toward Bloomberg, especially among Democrats.
New York as a whole is better off for Bloomberg’s stewardship. But voters outside of Manhattan, the poor and even many in the middle class felt left aside and doubted that Bloomberg understood their struggles. In an interview at de Blasio’s Brooklyn bash, Harold Ickes, the national Democratic honcho and de Blasio backer, summarized the mood succinctly: “He was a pretty good mayor, but they were tired of him.”
An Edison Research/Marist exit poll ratified this view: About half of Democratic primary voters approved of Bloomberg’s tenure, but three-quarters now want the city to move in a different direction. Quinn, who has been a close ally of Bloomberg’s, couldn’t speak to this mood, and Thompson failed to.
By challenging the police practice of stop-and-frisk and advocating a tax increase on New Yorkers earning more than $500,000 a year to finance universal pre-K and new after-school programs, de Blasio gave substance to his critique of a glaringly unequal city. With an evocative political ad against stop-and-frisk featuring his biracial son Dante, de Blasio sent a powerful message not only to African-American voters but to many others, especially liberals, apprehensive about the status quo. The ad grabbed the public’s attention just as the candidacy of Anthony Weiner, famed for his Internet adventures, was imploding.
Remarkably, de Blasio ran roughly even with Thompson among African-American voters, building a constituency that crisscrossed nearly all demographic lines.
Above all, de Blasio is running a campaign rooted in the new politics of the new economy. In speaking to an unhappiness that transcends ideology, his pollster Anna Greenberg noted, de Blasio is responding to an economic recovery that’s unusually uneven because “structurally, something has changed for the middle class that undermines the very concept of the middle class.”
In his victory speech, de Blasio invoked Sept. 11, 2001, as day when “we all gave a little of ourselves to help those who were so badly in need of support … no matter who they were, where they lived or what their economic situation.” In offering this meaning to a terrible but heroic day, de Blasio drew the outlines of a new set of public commitments.
E.J. Dionne’s email address is email@example.com.