Old School

Bill De Blasio’s Retro Values Are Back in Fashion

New York’s Democratic mayoral nominee is as old school as the flip-phone he’s still using. Michael Daly discovers why he is back in fashion.

09.30.13 12:59 PM ET

The Democratic nominee to become the next mayor of New York strode up his block late Saturday morning talking into a phone that marked him distinct not just from his Republican opponent, but from nearly everyone.

Bill de Blasio was on a flip-phone.

To be exact, it was an old and battered Samsung from before the time of iPhones and apps, from when your kids talked and not texted, from almost as far back as the last Democratic mayor in this Democratic city.

De Blasio had worked for Mayor David Dinkins in the early 1990s, as had his wife, Chirlane McCray, who was now walking beside him up 11th St. in Brooklyn. They had stood on this block in Park Slope on a cold day back in January as he announced his candidacy. He had been widely considered to have lost even before he started, for he was a seemingly discredited political artifact, an actual avowed liberal.

Anybody who noticed his flip-phone back then might have seen it as the symbol of a candidate who was already history.

After all, the city had improved by almost every measure during the tenure of Rudy Giuliani and then Mike Bloomberg. And just the mention of de Blasio’s old boss, Dinkins, seemed sure to invoke the horrors of the bad old days.

The pundits failed to consider that what had not changed was a sense of fairness that is at the city’s core, that had gotten Dinkins elected in the first place more than two decades before.

As the high crime of those bad old days then drove people who had once supported Dinkins to vote for Giuliani, it was sometimes said that a conservative was a liberal who has been mugged.

In this present era when relatively low crime is widely taken for granted, it can be said that a liberal is a conservative who has forgotten he was ever afraid of being mugged, or maybe is too young or new to the city to have ever been in the first place.

For a true conservative, de Blasio is a nightmare figure sprung from the political equivalent of the Night of the Living Dead.

Only, on Saturday it was more the Morning of the Living Liberal, striding in glorious sunlight, his candidacy not just still vibrantly alive, but almost certain to triumph, with a 40 point lead in the polls over his Republican opponent, Joe Lhota.

A desire for change was in the air even though the very air itself was cleaner than it had been in more than half a century thanks to the efforts of Bloomberg, who had come to view himself as a kind of über app that the city could not do without.

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The candidate most likely to lead New York into the immediate future now finished a call that sounded to be campaign business. The phone made a sound seldom heard any more as he snapped it shut and returned it to his pocket, turning with his wife into Seventh Avenue.

De Blasio is an angular 6-foot-5 and has sometimes been compared to Big Bird, but there was also something of Mr. Rogers to him when he received and returned genial greetings with a passerby. His wife was no less amiable as they continued on through Mr. and Ms. de Blasio’s neighborhood, all the more appealing because of their unmistakable affection for each other.

De Blasio took another quick call and time seemed to wrap further as he said something aobut trickle-down economics.   The flip-phone seemed plenty smart enough for what he needed, that being to converse with somebody.

Two blocks down Seventh Avenue, he came to Smiling Pizza, where he was scheduled to kick off a neighborhood campaign canvass. The place was crowded with volunteers as he entered.

“Are we taking over Smiling?” somebody asked.

“Yes, we are,” he said. “We’re taking over.”

The group that seemed as manifestly happy as de Blasio and his wife.  No pizza shop ever seemed more aptly named as he began a kind of pep talk.

“For Chirlane and I, this is very personal, because this is our pizzeria!” he said.

He called out a greeting to the owner, Steve, then added, “If you think our children are wonderful, it's because they grew up eating Smiling pizza.”

He said he and his family had been eating there for 20 years and he harkened back to when he was starting out in politics, running for school board, then for city council. He said he had learned some dos and don’ts of campaigning as he went from door to door on street after street.

He had one day seen that the actor Steve Buscemi was on the list of voters. He went ahead and knocked. He and Buscemi exchanged ideas and hit it off so well they have been buddies ever since.

“The do of that is, do knock on the door of famous and interesting people and become lifelong friends with them,” he said.

He went on to recount campaigning on a rainy Friday night when he had to push himself to keep going. He went up a stoop only to find nobody was home. He was starting back down when he slipped.

“Do not break your ankle while canvassing,” he said.

He spoke of how well the present campaign had done in his home borough, particularly in a swath that he termed West Brooklyn.

“Dominant West Brooklyn!” he said to cheers.

A cop might have been momentarily confused, as the department and much the rest of city government has long divided the borough into Brooklyn North and Brooklyn South. But such a division would have separated the hipsters and yuppies of Williamsburg/Greenpoint in the north from those of Park Slope in the south.  The suggestion that this was a new New York was further affirmed by a field organizer’s hipster haircut and tattoos. 

To rouse a little of the old South Brooklyn spirit in the newly named West Brooklyn, de Blasio took out his old timer’s phone and pretended to get a phone call from the canvassers in Manhattan.

“They’re saying they're going to kick West Brooklyn's butt!” he said.

He reminded them of the “simple, straightforward ideas” that had helped him secure the nomination. End the NYPD's stop-and-frisk strategy. Tax the wealthy to better fund the schools. Build more affordable housing so people will not be driven out of their own neighborhoods.  

“We’re living a tale of two cities,” he said as he had many times before. “It’s not right, it’s not sustainable.”

After imparting a rousing reminder that the real test is not the primary but the general election, he stepped outside and took questions from reporters.  He had fled the press on one occasion a few days before, right after the New York Times ran an article reporting that he had once been a supporter of the Sandinistas and had honeymooned in Cuba. But he tackled it all directly on the next occasion, saying he had acted on principles of which he was only proud.

There were no commie queries on Saturday, only questions about the issues of the moment. He affirmed his support for a waste transfer station on the tony Upper East Side, as such facilities have traditionally been built in what he termed ”neighborhoods of color.”  H suggested many cops would in fact welcome the end of stop-and-frisk.

”What we’ve had is in effect a quota system,” he said.

A reporter asked about Lhota’s plan for tax cuts.

“Consistent with Republicans and trickle-down economics,” he said.

He had been prepared for that one and just using that word “Republican” was damaging enough given the antics of those who are shaming that label down in Congress.  He was also asked about Barilla pasta in light of anti-gay remarks made by the company’s CEO.

“We have brought Barilla pasta in our home,” he said. “We are not having Barilla any longer.”

A supporter in a Jets jacket announced that he wanted to take a picture.

“He may be on a troubled team, but he has a take-charge attitude,” de Blasio joked.

The supporter produced a smart phone, but dropped it.

“Just like the Jets,” the supporter allowed. “A butt fumble.”

De Blasio’s Samsung has built in protection and scars that show it has survived several falls. But that was not the reason he gave for having it when a reporter could not help but ask, “So what’s with the flip-phone?”

De Blasio held it up.

“As you know I’m very authentic and consistent,” he said.

He was making wry reference to allegations that he had changed positions on some issues out of political convenience. He was asked if perhaps he had another phone.

“One phone,” he said, “One city, one phone.”

He was serious when he explained that he preferred flip-phones in general because their primary function is not to text or email but to make and receive calls.

“They’re best for talking,” he said.

De Blasio proceeded to make a call, apparently to his son, Dante, the 15 year-old with the now famous afro that is more retro than a flip-phone. The haircut was a hit after a game-changing campaign commercial and has since been praised by President Obama.

De Blasio asked if Dante wanted him to pick up anything at a local pastry shop on the way home. Dante apparently made two requests.

“Done and done,” de Blasio said.

De Blasio and his wife stopped in the Colson Patisserie as promised. He was carrying a brown bag as they continued on home through their neighborhood to a son whose real appeal is not so much his afro as his aura, that of a teen who feels happy and loved, of a very nice kid from a very nice family.

And as much as any of the issues, as much as all the door knocking, it seems to be a projected sense of family in a city of families that has many voters ready to take a chance on an avowed liberal from the Dinkins days. That, even though his values had seemed more dated than his phone.

“Twenty-two years ago,” Bill and I met in City Hall,” McCray had said to somebody a few minutes earlier. “I feel it’s come full circle.”

At the prospect of four years of the Living Liberal is whether all of New York will come full circle back into the bad old days or progress into becoming not just the safest, but the fairest, big city in America.