Bill de Blasio has waged his campaign to be the next mayor of New York City by casting himself as a progressive antithesis to incumbent Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
But with the Democratic hopeful on the cusp of what appears to be a win by a historically large margin next Tuesday, the focus is turning to what kind of mayor de Blasio will be and how he plans to deliver the sweeping changes he’s promised.
De Blasio, a former City Council member who is now the public advocate, has repeatedly described himself as a “Democrat with a capital D” who will bring liberal values to a mayor’s office that has been effectively under Republican rule for more than two decades.
It’s a tricky balance. Polls show voters are ready to turn the page on Bloomberg — a data-driven billionaire criticized for cosseting the wealthy while turning a tin ear to the needs of New York’s poorer neighborhoods. But his three terms in office, following Republican Rudy Giuliani's eight years as mayor from 1993 to 2001, have left the nation’s largest city arguably as safe, clean and orderly as it has ever been.
De Blasio's Republican opponent, Joe Lhota, and others have warned that de Blasio’s myriad progressive promises could take New York back to a darker time where crime was rampant and the city seemed all but ungovernable.
De Blasio has made the undoing of the city’s "stop and frisk" police tactic — a controversial practice directed overwhelmingly at black and Hispanic men — a centerpiece of his campaign. But his strategy took a major blow when a federal appeals court halted planned changes in the "stop and frisk" program and removed the judge that had been overseeing the case.
De Blasio had frequently cited Manhattan federal Judge Shira Scheindlin's ruling that "stop and frisk" amounted to racial profiling. But the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on Thursday booted Scheindlin from the case, saying she had violated the Code of Conduct for United States Judges by speaking out on the issue in the press.
Scheindlin's ruling had given de Blasio a strong legal basis for his promise to change the "stop and frisk" program as mayor. In a statement, de Blasio said he was "extremely disappointed" in the decision but that he still planned to "end the overuse" of the practice.
"Any delay only means a continued and unnecessary rift between our police and the people they protect,” de Blasio said.
Lhota said Friday in a video released by his campaign that "the entire premise of the de Blasio campaign collapsed on Thursday" and trashed his opponent for a "nonexistent" policy for public safety.
While "stop and frisk" has been a major focus of de Blasio's campaign, it's not his only issue. He has also promised to boost taxes on New Yorkers earning more than $500,000 a year to pay for early childhood and after-school programs.
And he has campaigned on inequality — vowing to enact policies to help poor and middle-class New Yorkers that he says have been "left behind” by Bloomberg and turned New York into a “tale of two cities: one for the rich and one for the poor.” He’s also backed an increase in the minimum wage and pledged to deliver more affordable housing.
“It’s no less urgent and requires no less commitment on the part of our city's leadership,” de Blasio said in a speech before the Association of a Better New York, a prominent civic group.
His push for “progressive” change propelled him from the back of a crowded Democratic primary and into the front-runner position for City Hall. Polls show de Blasio with a roughly 40 point lead over Lhota heading into next week’s election, in spite of criticism that de Blasio lacks the management experience he needs to run a sprawling city of more than 8 million residents.
“His biggest accomplishment has been running a political campaign,” Lhota has said of his opponent, referring to de Blasio’s stint as a campaign manager for Hillary Clinton’s 2000 Senate bid.
It is a charge that was echoed by de Blasio’s Democratic primary rivals, including City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, who campaigned repeatedly on de Blasio’s thin record. As public advocate, de Blasio's highest-profile endeavor — a bid to stop the closing of a Brooklyn hospital last summer — occurred at the height of his mayoral campaign.
But de Blasio has downplayed his lack of executive experience, arguing that the fresh ideas and leadership experience he’ll bring to the mayor’s office are equally important.
“It's not just which job titles you've held. It's what your values are," de Blasio said at his final debate with Lhota on Wednesday.
Despite his commanding lead in the polls, there are signs that voters aren't entirely confident in de Blasio's leadership abilities. A Quinnipiac University poll found 43 percent of likely New York voters don't believe de Blasio will be able to deliver on his campaign promises; 42 percent said he would.
His allies have sought to play up his history as a political strategist and experience in government as big assets for the mayor’s office — pointing, in part, to his successful come-from-behind primary campaign as proof of an ability to govern.
“It really is the best mechanism to determine how someone will deal in the job,” says Chris Lehane, a Democratic strategist and longtime friend of de Blasio who has been loosely advising his mayoral campaign.
“The fact that Bill has worked in and around government and politics — as a principal, campaign worker and staffer at the local, state and federal levels — gives him a great deal of expertise and perspective in understanding how government works best, who to hire and where are the potential challenges,” Lehane added. “He is like the general who started off as an enlisted man and worked his way up the ranks. He knows how the system works, which will be invaluable to how he governs.”
Lhota has seized on de Blasio’s unabashedly liberal past — including a stint in the 1980s working for a social justice organization that delivered food and medicine to rebel forces in Nicaragua during the war there — as proof that he would take the city on a questionable trajectory. He recently ran a television ad featuring archival photos of a graffiti-ridden New York City suggesting de Blasio’s policies would result in a dramatic increase in crime and streets that are “unsafe” — a charge that de Blasio has strongly rejected.
But de Blasio's allies say he’s more pragmatic than his critics suggest.
While de Blasio’s political fortunes have risen as he’s campaigned as the anti-Bloomberg, he supported the outgoing mayor on several major policies.
De Blasio backed virtually all of Bloomberg’s controversial health initiatives, including a ban on smoking in restaurants and parks. And he was the only Democratic mayoral hopeful to firmly support Bloomberg’s proposed ban on the sale of large sugary drinks.
Other evidence of his pragmatism, allies say, is the uneasiness felt by even some of the city's most powerful liberal interest groups who still aren’t quite sure what to expect from him.
“I think he’s been careful to make clear to some people that he may be sympathetic to your cause but that won’t stop him from being tough,” said a Democratic consultant friendly with de Blasio, who declined to be named out of fear of inflaming the candidate. “He knows that to be successful he has to deliver results, and that trumps everything, even close friendships."
While he’s earned the backing of many of the city’s unions — including the powerful SEIU 1199, one of the largest unions on the East Coast — de Blasio has made unions nervous by insisting he’ll take a tough line when renegotiating the expired labor contracts for thousands of city workers, one of the biggest issues facing the incoming mayor.
In July, de Blasio irked some in the labor movement by suggesting he’d adopt Gov. Andrew Cuomo's approach to dealing with unionized workers.
“I think the governor's approach can be fairly summarized as 'Walk softly, carry a big stick,'” de Blasio said in July.
De Blasio worked under Cuomo when Cuomo was secretary of Housing and Urban Development during the Clinton administration, and the two men remain allies.
De Blasio has also drawn criticism from the city's powerful teachers union, the United Federation of Teachers, when he said the UFT’s decision to back another Democratic primary contender, former Comptroller Bill Thompson, “unburdened” him and would make him a tougher negotiator on labor talks.
UFT head Michael Mulgrew accused de Blasio of sour grapes at the time but eventually backed him after he won the primary. The union is working on de Blasio’s behalf ahead of Election Day, but a spokesman declined to comment when asked what they expected from him if he wins next Tuesday.
“We’re basically not talking about this, particularly before the election,” the spokesman said.
Several other union groups also declined to comment. “He’s been a friend to the labor movement, but I think people are waiting to see what he will do,” one labor official, who declined to be named, said.
De Blasio’s biggest battle could be his push to fund expand early childhood education through a tax increase on the wealthy, which he hopes to persuade the state Legislature to adopt next year.
Cuomo, while supportive of pre-kindergarten programs, has repeatedly voiced his opposition to de Blasio’s proposed tax hike, suggesting it could drive millionaires away. But he did add that he'd be willing to hear de Blasio’s pitch.
“If (de Blasio’s) elected and if he comes to Albany, he can make his case and we will hear him out and let’s have a fulsome discussion, but this is a conversation we just had,” Cuomo told the New York Daily News.
But de Blasio is hoping that a huge margin of victory will give him a mandate and expand his influence not just with the City Council but with the state Legislature as well. That’s why, in spite of the fact he’s held a massive lead over Lhota for weeks, he’s still hammering his rival with television ads and mailers, in hopes of expanding his winning lead on Tuesday.
De Blasio has already started to look past Election Day. He has quietly started to assemble the makings of a transition committee to help him staff up his administration. One Democrat who has consulted with him said he expects de Blasio to make a series of quick appointments, including a new police commissioner, in the weeks after Election Day.
A major clue about how de Blasio plans to operate the mayor’s office could be whom he picks to actually run his transition, according to William Eimicke, a Columbia University professor who helped run transition committees for Cuomo and former Mayor Rudy Giuliani.
“If you want to judge de Blasio as a manager, the first thing is, Who are the first people he recruits after next Tuesday?” Eimicke said. “Who are the people he’ll look to for advice and to help him set up his administration? Is it someone who knows the city? Is it someone who is a friend? What will be their backgrounds?”
George Arzt, a veteran Democratic consultant friendly with de Blasio, confirmed the candidate was already considering his transition but is “intent on keeping things under wraps until after the election.”
De Blasio has also started to reach out to critics. He’s met privately with Wall Street executives wary of his tax proposals, and many have followed up by donating to his campaign.
He’s also sought audiences with skeptical New Yorkers, including a visit last weekend to Breezy Point, a community hard hit by Superstorm Sandy.
Residents there have been critical of de Blasio, in part because he’s proposed diverting some Sandy relief funds to build affordable housing. They have also accused him of ignoring the community. A local newspaper, The Wave, recently ran a mock photo of de Blasio on the side of a milk carton to trash him for not visiting coastal areas hard hit by Sandy.
On the eve of the storm’s anniversary last Sunday, de Blasio met with a half dozen residents to hear their concerns. He sat at a table and chewed on a bagel while fielding questions about why he had waited so long to visit and how his mayoral transition would affect the neighborhood’s rebuilding efforts.
De Blasio insisted he had an open mind about rebuilding projects and said he had “immense respect” for local residents who had “taken control of their own destiny” by looking for ways to move forward and rebuild even with insurance and city, state and federal funds in limbo.
“We can’t upset momentum. And we don’t want to mess up something that’s already working,” de Blasio told the group.
But after de Blasio left, bound for another community meeting, local residents were still skeptical.
“I guess he showed up,” one resident said. “But he’s going to have to do a lot more than that when he’s mayor.”
Liz Goodwin contributed to this report.