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Sometimes smart reporters write dumb pieces. Vanity Fair regular turned Politico writer Todd Purdum penned one of the worst takes on New York’s fascinating mayor’s race I’ve seen yet, “The Big Apple goes small.” In it, we learn that Democratic primary winner Bill de Blasio is on his way to becoming mayor (though he may still face a runoff) largely because “The smart, high-achieving Democrats in New York — Jack Lew, Sonia Sotomayor — are in Washington,” as explained by New York University’s Mitchell Moss.
Poor New York, left with the people too dumb not to go to Washington. Maybe somewhere Sinatra is singing different lyrics to his famous song, “If I can make it there, I’ll go to Washington, it’s up to you, D.C. — D.C.!”
That’s not even the worst of it. We learn that while de Blasio is tall like patrician Mayor John V. Lindsay, he’s closer in political stature to schlubby little Abe Beame, who presided over the city’s near-bankruptcy in the mid-1970s.
“De Blasio’s strategy of basing his campaign on ideological and class appeals marks a sharp break with the successful mayoralties in the 40 years since the city’s fiscal crisis of the 1970s, when the Big Apple nearly went bust under the bland, diminutive Beame, a clubhouse Democratic regular who was, like de Blasio, from Brooklyn.”
Oh no, not Brooklyn!
There’s so much wrong with that sentence it’s hard to parse, but let’s start with the fact that it was Lindsay, a visionary mayor Purdum seems to admire, who bankrupted the city; Beame, who succeeded him, was left holding Lindsay’s IOUs. As the New York Daily News put it in a 2001 Beame obit: he “spent nearly 30 years climbing the slippery ladder of New York City politics and government, only to find, when he finally got to the top, that he was on the bridge of a fiscal Titanic,” as Lindsay handed him the rudder and headed for a lifeboat.
Now along comes de Blasio, “a conventional, labor-loving urban liberal of the old school made new … who had the hospital workers’ union while Thompson had the teachers.” In fact, Thompson also had the police and firefighters union; generally the city’s unions were split among Christine Quinn and John Liu as well as Thompson and de Blasio (and the labor-backed Working Families Party notably sat the primary out). So he was by no means simply “the labor candidate.”
Purdum lets former Bloomberg adviser and nominal Democratic consultant Hank Sheinkopf, who’ll work for almost anyone if they have enough money, slur a future de Blasio administration as “the new Tammany Hall. The nationalities have changed. The racial and ethnic identities have changed. We’re back to control, not by the clubhouse but by unions and people who call themselves ‘progressive’ and use that as a cueing device to generate turnout. It’s the new church of progressive pluralism.”
Gee, that sounds a lot like Mitt Romney saying Barack Obama cued “turnout” by giving “gifts” to his African-American, Latino and female voters.
Worst of all, nowhere does Purdum seem to reflect, or even understand, the powerful cross-racial appeal of de Blasio’s candidacy or the meaning of the multiracial de Blasio coalition. In late July, the New York Times wrote him off as “the most intelligent and informed candidate in the field — shrewd, capable, but unlikely to win. One reason offered is that he is a white, non-Jewish male in a city where the predominant voting blocs are blacks, Jews and women.”
Ahem. As we now know, de Blasio narrowly defeated the black candidate, Thompson, among African-Americans; the LGBT candidate, Quinn, among LGBT voters, as well as the woman, Quinn again, among female voters; and the Jewish candidate, Anthony Weiner, among Jews. Amazingly, Purdum doesn’t even mention the star of de Blasio’s campaign, his biracial family, particularly 16-year-old Dante, whose ad touting his dad is widely cited as helping tilt the race de Blasio’s way. Jonathan Capehart, a D.C. writer who happens to know a little about New York (having himself worked on Bloomberg’s 2001 campaign as well as the New York Daily News editorial board), described African-American New Yorkers as split between Thompson and de Blasio, “one of their own and, well, one of their own.”
De Blasio holds the promise of healing a devastating racial rift in New York that goes back a long time, obviously, but that widened under John Lindsay, when white outer-borough New Yorkers began to feel the mayor was tilting too far away from their concerns as he tried to address the poverty and racism faced by black city residents. After that, mayors from Ed Koch to Rudy Giuliani have, either deliberately or carelessly, polarized the city racially, proving their toughness by standing up to the most vulnerable New Yorkers, low-income African-Americans. And while Bloomberg didn’t govern that way for most of his three terms, his pique over the rejection of his stop-and-risk policies has led him to ever more over-the-top and borderline racist assertions blaming rampant black crime, not racial profiling, for the number of young black men stopped and frisked.
The fact that the white de Blasio has a teenage son in that very demographic clearly helped him win. But even more important was the fact that de Blasio spoke passionately about overhauling stop-and-frisk policing, while the African-American Thompson tried to have it both ways.
Finally, I question Purdum’s lazy framing of de Blasio as the “tall” candidate who happens to be “small” – small as in having no national stature but also, I think he means, having no big ideas. In fact de Blasio wants to make New York, once the laboratory of the New Deal and the capital of liberalism, a leader in a new urban policy that addresses the corrosive effects of income inequality. That’s “big,” Todd. He may not do it, but he’s thinking big.
If Purdum were Mitt Romney, he might have tagged the de Blasio coalition “the 47 percent,” so much does he seem to see it as an assembly of public workers and minorities and people who want something for nothing who’ll drive a great city back into bankruptcy. He displays a weakness for “visionary” plutocrats like Lindsay and Bloomberg, as well as bullies like Giuliani — and his linking of de Blasio to the 1989 David Dinkins coalition relies on assumptions about New York’s Democratic electorate that are approaching 25 years old. This is a city with shifting demographics, and a coalition, that if anything, more closely resembled that of President Obama. There was a big story there for Purdum to write; he just missed it.
Joan Walsh is Salon's editor at large and the author of "What's the Matter With White People: Finding Our Way in the Next America."More Joan Walsh.
A photo contest winner
A photo contest winner
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