Tales of One City

Bill de Blasio rallied the five boroughs with his message of two New Yorks. He wasn’t the first Columbian to bring the city together.

by Paul Hond Published Winter 2013-14
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Bill de Blasio and his wife, Chirlane McCray, on the campaign trail in August. / Photograph by Ramin Talale / CorbisAs people wait for the mayor-elect, some reflect on what motivated their support for de Blasio.

“Definitely stop-and-frisk,” says Lennox, sixty-four, a transit worker from the Bronx. “That’s number one. Two: housing. Don’t turn hospitals into luxury apartments. Three: homelessness has reached record numbers. It’s covered up, but it’s very bad.” Herbert Block ’87CC, the assistant executive vice president of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, says, “I knew Bill at SIPA, and he’s just the same smart, compassionate guy he was in his student days. He’ll be a mayor who is interested in the whole city.” “This is a unique opportunity to push Dems to the left,” says Aisha Keller, twenty-six, an organizer at the American Federation of Teachers. “Dems are bullied in New York and feel they have to move to the center. We need someone to push the Dems to the left.” “I don’t trust politicians,” says Sofia, who is every inch a journalist from France. “If he does 10 percent of what he promises, then it would be nice.” Democratic congressman Jerrold Nadler ’69CC says, “It’s going to be a major change — a progressive mayor. I’m looking for a change in stop-and-frisk and in fiscal priorities. He wants to fund universal pre-K, and I think he’s got a good shot of getting it through Albany.”

“De Blasio has run a brilliant campaign,” said Ester Fuchs, a professor of public affairs and political science at SIPA, a week before the election. “He is the only candidate who has a vision and a very clear message, which is about income inequality and affordability. His messages are clean and simple, and they’ve resonated with the public.”

“That feeling of a few doing very well, while so many slip further behind — that is the defining challenge of our time.”

While even a detractor might have expected that de Blasio, the erstwhile political operative who managed Hillary Clinton’s successful Senate run in 2000, should himself have a well-ordered campaign, Fuchs believes that “smart Bill de Blasio, who is not just substantively smart but politically and strategically smart, understands that campaigns and governing are very different activities.” Nor does Fuchs, who served as a special adviser on governance and strategic planning for Mayor Michael Bloomberg, worry that the candidate who ran as the anti-Bloomberg will undo any positive legacies. “I don’t expect that at all,” she said. “Bill understands what’s working, and in the general-election campaign, you saw him inching toward a more centrist position. On stop-and-frisk, he’s saying, ‘I’m not eliminating it, I just want to fix it.’ When he talks about charter schools, he now says that only the charters that have a lot of money should pay for co-location, not that every charter should pay rent in a public-school building. What he would say is that he further refined his position. Which I think is correct: that’s what he did. But he’s refining it, in my view, in the right direction for when he has to govern.”

The de Blasio–McCray quartet, so recognizable that a supporter’s T-shirt portrays the family in silhouette crossing Abbey Road (capturing the distinctive variations in height and hairstyles), enters at 10:03 p.m., waving and smiling. McCray, in a matador-red dress, steps to the lectern, looking overjoyed. Someone yells, “First Lady!” Big cheers. It’s McCray’s night, too.

She says, “When I first met Bill I could tell he was smart. And I like smart.” That was in 1991, when they were both aides to Mayor Dinkins, and McCray was identifying as a lesbian. They discovered they were soul-mates and decided to see where it went. Far, it turned out. “Bill is strong enough to fight for what’s right,” McCray tells the crowd, and then she introduces the next mayor of New York.

De Blasio, with his wife, son, and rose-crowned college-sophomore daughter, Chiara, standing with him, thanks his troops, points out that the real work is just beginning, speaks a little Spanish, declares his pride in his children, gives a grazie a tutti to his ancestral hometowns of Grassano and Sant’Agata de’ Goti, mentions taking a phone call earlier from Joe Lhota, vows to work to earn the trust of those who didn’t vote for him, and arrives, right on schedule, at his central theme.

“I’ve spoken often about a tale of two cities,” he says. “That inequality — that feeling of a few doing very well, while so many slip further behind — that is the defining challenge of our time.” It is a speech, and a setting, with geography at its heart. “The best and the brightest are born in every neighborhood,” de Blasio says. “We all have a shared responsibility and a shared stake in making sure their destiny is defined by how hard they work and how big they dream, and not by their ZIP Code.”

It was the biggest crowd ever convened in the two cities.

On May 24, 1883, tens of thousands of people lined the streets and packed the rooftops on both shores to watch the procession of dignitaries and military regiments make the historic crossing. The river was clogged with bunting-draped vessels, whose sails passed whispering under the miraculous span strung high between the two granite towers by a necklace of cables. On the other side, the Brooklyn side, in the railway depot, Mayor Seth Low stood before an assembly that included President Chester A. Arthur, Governor Grover Cleveland, New York mayor Franklin Edson, and industrialist Abram Hewitt. “At either end of the bridge lies a great city — cities full of vigorous life,”

Low said. “The activities and the energies of each flow over into the other.” The speaker, known as “the boy mayor,” was thirty-three years old. “Fourteen years ago,” he said, “a city of four hundred thousand people on this side of the river heard of a projected suspension bridge with incredulity. The span was so long, the height so great, and the enterprise likely to be so costly, that few thought of it as something begun in earnest.” Low was mayor of Brooklyn then. And for one November night in 2013, inside the castle-like outer walls of the Park Slope Armory, with his own great enterprise at hand, so was Bill de Blasio.

Nonetheless, the new mayor, like Low before him, was in a consolidating state of mind.

“Make no mistake,” de Blasio told New Yorkers on election night. “The people of this city have chosen a progressive path, and tonight we set forth on it, together, as one city.”

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