Luck and a Shrewd Strategy Fueled de Blasio’s Ascension
By MICHAEL BARBARO
The commercial that changed the course of the mayor’s race almost never happened.
Bill de Blasio’s campaign team had mused about building an ad around his wife, Chirlane McCray, a telegenic African-American poet, then abandoned the concept.
They then turned to his 15-year-old son, but nothing seemed to go right. The de Blasio family kitchen in Brooklyn was not big enough for the camera crew, so they borrowed a bigger one from a neighbor.
The neighbor’s kitchen turned out to be too fancy, sending the wrong message for a populist candidate. So a long lens was used to blur out the expensive fixtures.
But when the commercial was finally shown to the candidate and his wife, they seemed overcome, instantly recognizing the power of its message: that the aggressive policing of the Bloomberg era was not an abstraction to Mr. de Blasio, it was an urgent personal worry within his biracial household.
“This,” predicted the campaign’s pollster, Anna Greenberg, “will be huge.”
The ad exploded, transforming the fortunes of a fourth-place campaign and confirming the convictions of a long-shot politician who had banked his candidacy on a series of big bets: that a relentless critique of the Police Department’s stop-and-frisk tactic would resonate with white New Yorkers, not scare them off; that in a city of tribal politics an Italian-American could win the hearts of black voters; that a tired-seeming message about a tale of two cities would stir those people still hurting after a traumatic economic recession; and, most of all, that there was far greater unhappiness with Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg than polls had registered or Mr. de Blasio’s rivals had realized.
On the outside, Mr. de Blasio’s improbable ascent in the Democratic mayor’s race, from afterthought to front-runner in just four weeks, looked meteoric and spontaneous.
Behind the scenes, though, it required shrewd maneuvers and hardball politics that seemed incongruous with the candidate’s high-minded image: sidelining the Rev. Al Sharpton, who could have ignited the passion of black voters for William. C. Thompson Jr., the sole African-American candidate in the race, and making the case to the city’s powerful health care workers’ union that their longtime ally, John C. Liu, was doomed to fail.
Underlying it all was a message of indignant liberalism, sketched out by Mr. de Blasio at a Manhattan restaurant in 2012, that was simple, sellable and penetrating enough to transcend class, gender and race.
This account of the campaign’s strategy is drawn from interviews with top aides, consultants and friends of Mr. de Blasio as well as his rivals, many of whom spoke on condition of anonymity so they could talk candidly without inflaming powerful public officials.
From the start, Mr. de Blasio understood the perils of running an anti-establishment campaign against a capable and generally well-regarded incumbent: In large numbers, Democrats in New York approved of the job that Mr. Bloomberg was doing, and thought the city was on the right track.
But over drinks at Friend of a Farmer cafe in Gramercy Park last summer, Mr. de Blasio told his chief media strategist and ad maker that he saw no alternative, given his history as an activist and record of assailing the mayor.
“It would be phony of me to be anything but a critic,” Mr. de Blasio told the strategist, John Del Cecato.
He assembled an inner circle with a history of electing insurgent-style Democrats. Mr. Del Cecato had worked on the Obama campaign in 2008. The de Blasio campaign manager, Bill Hyers, ran Michael A. Nutter’s come-from-behind bid for mayor of Philadelphia in 2007. And Jonathan Rosen, a communications strategist, shaped the victory of Eric T. Schneiderman in the 2010 race for New York State attorney general.
Together, they embraced a doctrine entirely distinct from those laid out by the candidates Mr. de Blasio was trailing in the polls, who seemed to be tinkering around the edges of Mr. Bloomberg’s approach, not wholly rejecting it. After 12 years of any mayor, they reasoned, the electorate craved something fundamentally different in substance and style. A survey conducted in the fall of 2012 by the de Blasio campaign’s pollster put hard numbers behind the theory: a slight majority of Democrats wanted a change in direction in the mayor’s office.
Even some who approved of Mr. Bloomberg, the pollster found, felt oddly disconnected with him, believing that he had emphasized his own pet issues — soda sizes, bike lanes, pedestrian plazas — rather than the real-life worries that filled their days.
“A vanity mayor,” the de Blasio campaign called him.
The problem was that few Democrats knew much of anything about Mr. de Blasio. His position as the city’s public advocate was low-wattage, his personality could seem professorial and his candidacy was being outshone by the flamboyance of former Representative Anthony D. Weiner.
Inside Mr. de Blasio’s campaign, tensions erupted over how to handle the threat of the former congressman from Queens, considered flawed but formidable. Mr. de Blasio, feeling overlooked and stalled, had concluded he had to attack Mr. Weiner, whom he openly disdained.
But his political team aggressively pushed back, counseling the candidate to remember who his real target was: Mr. Bloomberg.
“Keep your eye on the ball,” the campaign’s manager, Mr. Hyers, told Mr. de Blasio.
The campaign prided itself on its discipline: it did not indulge in any stray attacks and it zealously husbanded its resources.
Mr. Hyers, pudgy and brusque, was determined to plow every available cent into television commercials that could overcome the city’s fractured constituencies and build Mr. de Blasio’s citywide appeal. So he cut corners everywhere else, starting with the campaign’s ninth-floor headquarters in Downtown Brooklyn.
Furniture was not bought, it was salvaged from Craigslist, free. Broken ceiling tiles were not fixed, they were left crumbling on the floor. “Disgusting,” Ms. Greenberg said affectionately of the décor.
The austerity even extended to campaign literature. Traditionally, New York City candidates pour tens of thousands of dollars into glossy, micro-targeted brochures offering customized appeals to lure groups like Caribbeans, Chinese immigrants and observant Jews to the polls. In July, when the campaign staff met, its members rejected that idea, deciding against sending out a single piece of mail and pouring that money into television — a decision even Mr. de Blasio’s director of mail endorsed, at no small cost to his business.
The penny-pinching worked. Mr. de Blasio accomplished something almost unimaginable in a race in which every candidate abided by the same spending cap: he outspent his nearest competitor by about $200,000 on TV ads.
His biggest buy and most talked-about commercial, of course, was the tribute from his son, Dante, known for his towering Afro. It was downloaded 100,000 times before it was even advertised online and was watched well beyond the five boroughs, including by 2,000 people in Texas.
It marked a crucial moment for Mr. de Blasio: he had begun to assert ownership over the volatile issue of the stop-and-frisk tactic, which Mr. de Blasio’s aides knew from focus groups was roiling the city’s African-American neighborhoods.
They expected a fierce battle with Mr. Thompson, a former city comptroller, over who would be the most fervent opponent of the practice and became increasingly puzzled throughout the summer when the fight never materialized. Instead of calling for an end to the tactic, Mr. Thompson refused to support two City Council bills cracking down on the Police Department and scored the endorsement of unions representing law enforcement officers in the process.
“We were floored,” recalled a top adviser to Mr. de Blasio.
Suddenly, the black vote seemed to be up for grabs and the de Blasio campaign moved aggressively to exploit the opening. The political establishment took it for granted that Mr. Sharpton, a friend of Mr. Thompson’s since their youth and a cheerleader for his rise through the city’s black power structure, would endorse his Harlem neighbor.
But Mr. de Blasio, who had long courted Mr. Sharpton, attending his rallies and flattering him by soliciting his advice, now deployed his team to block Mr. Thompson’s path, seeking to snatch the endorsement for himself.
Mr. Sharpton, it turned out, needed little nudging to turn on Mr. Thompson. He was privately furious over Mr. Thompson’s opposition to the two Council bills, asking a friend, “What kind of a campaign is he running?”
Thompson aides reassured themselves that Mr. Sharpton would eventually come around.
Then, days after the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, Mr. Thompson got a call: Mr. Sharpton could not grant his blessing, and would stay out of the race entirely. Mr. Thompson was crestfallen. He asked Mr. Sharpton to reconsider.
“I can’t reconsider what I believe in,” Mr. Sharpton responded.
Mr. de Blasio also got lucky: One by one, his opponents stumbled. Mr. Liu, the city’s current comptroller, was handcuffed by a campaign financing scandal; Mr. Weiner, of course, saw his candidacy collapse amid bizarre new revelations about his online behavior. Christine C. Quinn pursued a message of upbeat continuity, not to end the Bloomberg era but to improve it, never grappling with the still raw feelings toward the mayor and the term limits extension she helped engineer for him.
Gifts came from unexpected sources, including the mayor.
In the final days of the campaign, New York Magazine published an interview with a clearly irritated Mr. Bloomberg, who denounced Mr. de Blasio’s campaign as “racist,” all-but-endorsed Ms. Quinn and wondered aloud how fabulous it would be if New York City attracted every last Russian billionaire.
As they scrolled through the article, Mr. de Blasio’s advisers privately rejoiced. The mayor had unwittingly made the entire case for their campaign in the most public and last-minute way possible.
E-mails buzzed around de Blasio headquarters. “Forty-seven percent,” read one of them, comparing Mr. Bloomberg’s remarks to the near-fatal moment when Mitt Romney suggested that he was not concerned about nearly half the nation’s voters.
As the polls opened on Tuesday morning, Mr. Del Cecato fired off a cheeky message on Twitter: “Annoy Bloomberg. Vote de Blasio today.”
By the end of the day, hundreds of thousands of voters did just that.
Thursday, September 12, 2013
fromThe New York TImes: