NEW YORK (AP) — The casting of ballots Tuesday signaled the beginning of New York City's farewell to Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who has helped shape the nation's biggest city for 12 years, largely setting aside partisan politics as he led with data-driven beliefs and his vast fortune.
Republican Joe Lhota, a onetime deputy mayor to Rudolph Giuliani, has vowed that he will largely continue Bloomberg's policies, which have helped make New York one of the nation's safest and most prosperous big cities, though they also may have contributed to the city's widening income equality gap.
But while polls show that New Yorkers largely approve of Bloomberg's record, those same surveys show a hunger for a change in style and tone, which is why Bill de Blasio is poised to become the first Democrat elected mayor in more than a generation.
De Blasio, who as the city's elected public advocate acts as an official watchdog, has positioned himself as a clean break with the Bloomberg years, promoting a sweeping liberal agenda that includes a tax increase on the wealthy to pay for universal pre-kindergarten and improved police-community relations.
"I'm calling for fundamental progressive change," de Blasio said Tuesday morning as he voted near his Brooklyn home.
For his part, Lhota said as he voted that he was "very optimistic" about the race.
De Blasio, 52, has been up nearly 40 percentage points in every survey conducted since the general election matchup was set nearly two months ago. His day had a valedictory feel. He was surprised early in the morning by his daughter Chiara, who returned home unannounced from her West Coast college to join her father.
And his final campaign rally at a Brooklyn subway stop was mobbed by reporters and onlookers as he posed for cellphone photos and touted Democratic candidates farther down the ballot.
That stop, in the Crown Heights neighborhood, may have had symbolic value for de Blasio — it was where a 1991 riot in that neighborhood helped doom the administration of the last Democratic mayor, David Dinkins. De Blasio was an aide to Dinkins.
Lhota, meanwhile, campaigned with Giuliani at a Manhattan subway stop before casting his ballot near his Brooklyn Heights home. Lhota had to vote by affidavit ballot in the September primary after a voting machine broke, but he successfully used the new optical scan machine on Tuesday.
There were scattered reports of problems with the $95 million machines forcing voters to use the back-up ballots. A Board of Elections spokeswoman said the problems were not widespread.
But some voters complained they missed the ballot propositions, which were printed on the back of the page, or had trouble reading the small type.
If de Blasio wins, he would be the first Democrat elected mayor since Dinkins in 1989. even though registered Democrats outnumber their Republican counterparts 6 to 1.
However, the GOP victories were tied to some extraordinary events. Giuliani defeated Dinkins in 1993 amid fears about the city's soaring crime rates, and Bloomberg won in 2001 largely thanks to his fortune and the fallout from the Sept. 11 attacks.
To his supporters, de Blasio symbolizes the city's progressive possibilities. He has pledged to reach out to New Yorkers who feel left behind by Bloomberg policies they say centered on Manhattan and ignored the city's less prosperous boroughs. De Blasio, who hails from Brooklyn, is married to an African-American woman and is father to two interracial teenagers, one of whom sports an Afro that became a sensation on the campaign trail.
But he is also a consummate pragmatist, having worked for both Bill and Hillary Clinton and Gov. Andrew Cuomo, and was known for closed-door wheeling-and-dealing while on the City Council. He was a distant fourth for much of the summer in the crowded Democratic primary, only to surge past former front-runners including Council Speaker Christine Quinn and ex-Congressman Anthony Weiner.
Lhota, 59, the former head of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, has pledged to continue many of Bloomberg's policies and suggested de Blasio would handcuff the NYPD by reforming stop-and-frisk, the tactic that allows police to stop anyone deemed suspicious. Its supporters believe it has driven down crime while critics, including de Blasio, think it unfairly targets minorities.
But few of Lhota's arguments have resonated, and he has struggled to raise money. He appeared to score points in the second of three debates by suggesting the city would return to its crime-ridden past if de Blasio won, but that did little to slow de Blasio.
At this point, a Lhota victory Tuesday would be regarded as one of most unlikely upsets in the city's political history.
Associated Press writer Jacob Pearson contributed reporting. Contact Jonathan Lemire on Twitter: @JonLemire