Bill de Blasio captured the Democratic nomination for New York City mayor by presenting himself as an unabashed progressive who would represent the cleanest break from the reign of three-term incumbent Michael Bloomberg.
But should de Blasio triumph in November, the change at City Hall may not be as dramatic as he contends.
He and Bloomberg, though in sharp opposition on political approaches and some economic policy, are nearly in lockstep on several crucial issues, including Bloomberg’s sweeping public health reforms and some pro-development plans. And de Blasio is far from a political outsider and is no stranger to the corridors of power, having worked for Bill and Hillary Clinton, Gov. Andrew Cuomo and former Mayor David Dinkins.
“He’s done very well painting himself as an outsider,” said William Eimecke, a professor of public management at Columbia University. “And there is no question that the city is ready for a change, and he has positioned himself as that figure for change.”
“But what really is an outsider?” Eimecke asked. “I’d argue that Mike Bloomberg, who never held office before, was more of an outsider (when he was first elected in 2001).”
De Blasio spent eight years in the City Council before becoming public advocate in 2009. The watchdog office has limited power but a loud pulpit: Although de Blasio did save a Brooklyn hospital from closing, he often used the job to bolster his resumé as a Bloomberg critic.
His mayoral campaign theme has remained consistent.
“I think this is a progressive city, and it’s a moment where it is looking for fundamental change,” de Blasio told The Associated Press. “I call it ‘the tale of two cities,’ and we have to do something about the growing income inequality.”
His signature proposal, to raise taxes on the wealthy to fund universal pre-kindergarten, is undeniably liberal, one that excites much of the city’s base. But it may be more rhetoric than reality as it needs approval from the state legislature to go into effect, a proposition most observers feel is unlikely.
He also sharply criticized the New York Police Department’s stop-and-frisk policy, saying it unfairly targets minorities. But he stopped short of calling for its abolition and has suggested that his own police commissioner could come from within NYPD ranks.
The high cost of housing has been a staple on the campaign trail, though de Blasio’s real estate policy may not differ wildly from Bloomberg’s. As a city councilman, he worked with developers to pave the way for large-scale projects while insisting on the inclusion of some below-market units.
Most notably, he supported the massive Atlantic Yards project, which created an arena for the Brooklyn Nets amid loud cries of protest from nearby brownstone owners. He has defended his policies by pointing to the creation of more affordable housing and union jobs at construction sites.
De Blasio was alone among Democratic candidates in supporting Bloomberg’s ban on large sugary drinks, a measure that was struck down in court. He also supports most of Bloomberg’s other health reforms, including the smoking ban, and has spoken favorably about the mayor’s anti-gun advocacy and hurricane preparedness plans.
His praise of Bloomberg, however, is dwarfed by his criticism. Political consultants believe that’s an effective strategy.
“It’s easier to just be a critic and not deliver such a nuanced message,” said Dan Gerstein, a Democratic political strategist not aligned in this campaign. “It’s like Obama’s 2008 campaign, which was, in essence, ‘He’s not Bush.’ But once he was president, he actually preserved certain Bush-era policies.”
Last week, de Blasio’s Republican opponent, Joe Lhota, seized on his rival’s time in Nicaragua in the 1980s, suggesting that de Blasio’s support for that country’s leftist Sandinistas foreshadowed a Marxist approach at City Hall. But while that stint honed his skills as a community organizer, his political education began in earnest in 1989 when he took a post in Dinkins’ administration.
He became a key community liaison and began filling his Rolodex with contacts he’d later draw upon. In 1997, he was appointed to be a regional director at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development under the administration of President Clinton. His boss there was Cuomo, now his state’s most powerful Democrat. Three years later, he was tapped to run Hillary Rodham Clinton’s successful run for Senate.
Both Clintons and Cuomo have endorsed de Blasio. He leads Lhota by more than 40 points in the polls.
“He’s been an insider for establishment figures,” Gerstein said. “But there’s been a progression in his career, from the Sandinistas to being an operative to being a leader in his own right. I don’t think he’s hypocritical or compromised as a progressive just because he worked for a few establishment candidates.”