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August 14, 2013 6:40 AM How a Straight White Man Can Win the NYC Race

Aside from solid progressive credentials, the secret is a remarkable family.

By Ben Florsheim

de blasio family
The de Blasio family

In a campaign where issues of race are front and center, in an era where campaign “optics” play a disproportionate role, and in a progressive electorate that is itching for a clean break from the past, it doesn’t necessarily play all that well to be a straight white man in the race for mayor of New York City. That’s the position that Public Advocate Bill de Blasio finds himself in—but his attractive multiracial family, and the story behind it, may be his ace in the hole.

At least, he seems to think so: the New York Times recently reported that de Blasio is making his family a centerpiece of his campaign. The article implies, but does not quite state outright, that the primary reason for this is good old fashioned identity politics. De Blasio lacks the “built-in voter base” enjoyed by his chief rivals for the Democratic nomination, City Council Speaker Christine Quinn (openly gay, female) and former Comptroller Bill Thompson (black). De Blasio’s family buffers this disadvantage. It does so both by appealing to the groups from which Quinn and Thompson hail, but also by offering the de Blasio family as a metaphor for the city’s eclectic racial and social makeup, and giving voters a chance to say that character and lifestyle can outweigh background when it comes to advancing the progressive cause.

Quinn, who would become New York’s first female and first openly gay mayor, has taken that fact and run with it—literally—in an electorate where gayness is probably more of an advantage than anything at this point. (The legacy of Ed Koch, whose foot-dragging during the AIDS crisis was widely assumed to be the consequence of closeted homosexuality, is present here, as is his 1989 primary loss to David Dinkins after seemingly betraying that community, among others.) In direct contrast to figures like Sen. Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin and Maryland gubernatorial candidate Heather Mizeur, who have adopted an anti-identity politics mantra—“I’m not running to make history, I’m running to make a difference!,”—Quinn is outright embracing the let’s-make-history campaign tactic. (She is pictured there at NYC Pride with her wife, Kim Catullo, in the pink shirt; anti-DOMA heroine Edith Windsor, as in “United States versus,” in the white shirt; and Tim Gunn, the Project Runway co-host and fashion advisor, in the pinstriped suit).

And while some LGBT groups have raised doubts about Quinn, she has the backing of moneyed national organizations, such as the Human Rights Campaign and the Victory Fund, which tend to prioritize history-making. And the name “Victory Fund” is apt: their cash helped push Houston mayor Annise Parker, who is gay, and Rep. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, who is bisexual, to victory in extremely competitive primaries and general elections. About 6% of 2009 mayoral voters identified as gay, lesbian, or bisexual according to exit polls; this means they were slightly overrepresented in the voting population relative to the overall population, a trend which likewise will probably be exaggerated in the Democratic primary.

Like other contemporary African-American politicians at the municipal level and beyond (Cory Booker, Barack Obama), de Blasio’s other Democratic rival, the low-key Bill Thompson, has not campaigned on his race. But the fact that he’s the only black candidate in a city where the electorate is projected to be 56%-58% nonwhite this year (up from 54% in 2009) can’t hurt. This is especially true among Democratic primary voters, where his advantage among blacks is already evident in polls, and in a campaign that is in many ways a referendum on the Bloomberg administration’s racially charged policies, notably stop-and-frisk and the incredibly disproportionate rate of incarceration for blacks and Latinos.

In other words, de Blasio may be the candidate most critical of Bloomberg, but he also certainly looks the most like him. So what’s a straight white guy to do? The solution is similar to the one deployed (for wholly different reasons) by formerly non-pretend candidate Anthony Weiner until it blew up in his face: bring out the wife.

De Blasio’s wife, Chirlane McCray, has been the subject of much attention of late, as her husband has first bounced into a neck-and-neck scrape with Thompson for the coveted 2nd-place finish and then surged into the lead in the most recent Quinnipiac poll, but has been visible in the mayoral campaign for months now. She was a gay activist long ago, famously writing a 1979 essay for Essence magazine titled simply “I Am a Lesbian” and telling the New Yorker, “There were no visible women of color in the movement then… ‘If no one else will speak up, I will.’” Of her marriage to de Blasio, she says simply: “We are a very conventional, unconventional couple.” De Blasio and McCray are the “image of a modern New York,” says Alec Baldwin, who is backing de Blasio after flirting with a bid himself, of their couplehood in the same New Yorker article. “And I’m not just talking about the interracial thing.”

And so it is on that image of modern New York that de Blasio is running his campaign. His first television ad is narrated by a black teenager with an awesome afro who is introduced as simply Dante from Brooklyn. He lists the candidate’s progressive credentials, making a point to mention the stop-and-frisk program “that unfairly targets colored people,” before dropping this: “Bill de Blasio will be a mayor for all New Yorkers… and I’d say that even if he weren’t my dad.” Dante, who is 15, and his 18-year-old sister Chiara are frequent attendees at campaign events; Chirlane “has become such a fixture on the campaign trail that voters seek her out,” according to the Times piece. “This is how we go on a date,” says de Blasio, with what I assume is his characteristic dry sense of humor. “We campaign together.”

De Blasio’s decision to put his family at the forefront might seem a bit cynical—as the Times article says, “Rivals have privately groaned that he is turning his personal life into political theater and have wondered whether it will turn off potential supporters.” Sure, there are plenty of progressive voters, in New York and elsewhere, who don’t give a damn what the mayor looks like or who he or she is married to as long as they’re in agreement on the issues, which ultimately is how it should be. But as New York continues to face severe issues of racial and social injustice—police tactics, incarceration rates, lack of affordable housing, failing schools—there are valid reasons (political and otherwise) to believe in the notion that there need to be more women and minorities in actual positions of power to ensure the good fight keeps being well-fought, and to vote based on it.

De Blasio’s nod towards “getting it”—and trotting out his wife and kids to prove it—is a worthwhile gesture in a city personified by the descriptor that Chirlane chose for her family: “conventional unconventional.” New Yorkers seem to think so, anyway: that surge into first place came in the days after Dante’s afro hit the small screen.

Image credit: Katie Orlinsky

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Ben Florsheim is an intern at the Washington Monthly.

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