The Wind Beneath de Blasio’s Wings
New York’s new mayor began Election Day with the happiest of surprises in the person of his 19-year-old daughter.
Bill de Blasio thought Chiara was thousands of miles away at college, and he had been told that schoolwork precluded her from flying in. But when he opened the door to the family’s Brooklyn home on Tuesday morning she suddenly appeared from behind some trash cans.
He was still aglow as he stood with her, his son Dante, and his wife outside the public library that serves as his neighborhood polling place.
“I’m already floating on air because my daughter’s here with us,” de Blasio said.
He turned to 15-year-old Dante, whose afro became the most famous in America after he starred in a campaign commercial that upended the mayoral race in his father’s favor.
“He’s pretty good, too,” de Blasio said.
De Blasio rhapsodized for a moment about his wife, Chirlane McCray, whom he has long described as his partner in everything, most importantly in making this family that now delighted in being made one with Chiara’s surprise arrival.
“It’s all I could ask for,” de Blasio said.
The actual polling place was in the library’s basement. Dante stood waiting in the same BROOKLYN hoodie he had worn in the commercial in which he had such an impact on an election in which he was too young to vote. His father, mother, and sister signed in at the table for the 77th electoral district of the 44th assembly district. Each then stepped up to a voting station. De Blasio looked over at Chiara and smiled at the simple sight of her.
“As long as you vote one vote per office…” he said.
Afterward, the family stood together on the library’s front steps and smiled for the news cameras. A reporter asked de Blasio if he had voted the Democratic Party line or the ultra-liberal Working Families Party line on the ballot. De Blasio cited the sanctity of the vote and said he did not have to answer. He then went ahead and answered.
“Democratic,” he said.
But that was just semantics. Family is at the heart of not just his politics, but his life. The proof was manifest in his kids, and it was the happy glow of being loved more than the afro that made Dante so effective in the commercial. His voice in the ad purred with affection and respect as he spoke two particular words.
De Blasio’s own dad and mom—the dad with degrees from Yale and Harvard, the mom with a degree from Smith—were living in Norwalk, Connecticut, with his two older brothers in 1951 when his mother became pregnant with him. She was then 43, and the worry of complications prompted the couple to have this third child delivered by the specialists at Doctor’s Hospital in Manhattan—coincidentally across from the mayor’s official residence, Gracie Mansion.
The father was Warren Wilhelm and the son was named Warren Wilhelm, Jr. but called Bill. His earliest years in Connecticut and then in Cambridge, Massachusetts, are said to have been happy enough. But his father had suffered psychic scars along with the loss of a leg while fighting in the Pacific in World War II and he now fell into alcoholism. The tumble continued with a divorce from Bill’s mother, Maria de Blasio Wilhelm. It ended in suicide in a car parked outside a motel.
That could have resulted in Bill taking a lifelong tumble of his own, but his mother steadied him and his brothers, working as a writer and editor as she raised the three boys in a daily demonstration of love’s power over adversity. She continued to go by the surname Wilhelm, but Bill took her maiden name as a tribute to her.
His ultimate tribute came after he moved to New York and began a family of his own, demonstrating that she had fostered in him what he needed to make a happy home. He married Chirlane in a ceremony in Prospect Park in Brooklyn. They had Chiara and then Dante.
Had de Blasio settled in Manhattan, he would have remained just another guy who had come to the city to make good. He almost certainly would not have been able to make his birthplace across from the mayor’s mansion prove a mark of destiny.
He instead settled in Park Slope in Brooklyn, which became a kind of stage set where the stoops and storefronts remain but the cast changes, the working class residents slowly supplanted by college-educated liberal types from out of town. The setting enabled Beantown de Blasio to become a neighborhood guy as he successfully ran for city council, then public advocate.
He made his bid for mayor as the city was ending 12 years of Mike Bloomberg, who had reduced crime to record lows and increased life expectancy to a record high and made even the air cleaner than it had been in half a century.
But many of Bloomberg’s accomplishments had come to be taken for granted. And he was also liable to show a billionaire’s insensitivity, never more so than when he at first declared that the New York Marathon would go ahead in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, before all of the dead were buried and while hundreds of thousands of people had no heat or electricity.
The voters wanted change, and the initial leader in the polls was the candidate who seemed most likely to bring it: Anthony Weiner. The pundits were amazed that Weiner was leading even among black voters against the one black candidate, Bill Thompson. Weiner then fell victim to a revived sexting scandal.
With the de Blasio commercial featuring Dante, the voters saw not just a promise of change, but the very opposite of scandal. The guy Dante so lovingly called “my dad” surged to the lead among voters white and black, young and old, straight and gay. He spoke of a tale of two cities and of taxing the rich to finance early childhood education and of the need to keep community hospitals open.
But his biggest appeal was not what he said but who he was—a true family guy. And that was on resplendent display on Tuesday morning as he set out from his Brooklyn home with a family made so ebulliently complete with Chiara’s surprise arrival.
“That’s made my day wonderful!” he said.
He was lucky even in the weather, which was sunny and mild as they walked together. Two blocks to the left was the route of the marathon, which had been resumed the previous Sunday. The race was back, but one thing that had not recovered in the year since the hurricane was Bloomberg’s standing.
Three bocks straight on, the de Blasios come to the library.
“Our polling place in our neighborhood,” de Blasio said as he has at other times spoken of “our pizzeria” up the street.
The collection of the Brooklyn Public Library includes The Other Italy, The Italian Resistance in World War II by Maria de Blasio Wilhelm, the mother who made this day possible. She dedicates the book to her parents, Anna and John de Blasio and thanks “my son, Bill…for his constant interest and editorial support in this project, without which it might never have been undertaken, much less completed.”
“A labor of love,“ Bill de Blasio now said of the book.
The family seemed so passionately of the neighborhood that they might have been expected to just stroll back home after they had voted and he had spoken briefly to the press. They instead climbed into a waiting black SUV, such as will be part of their new life.
One question is whether de Blasio will move into the mayoral mansion across from where he was born. Bloomberg opted not to live there because he preferred his mansion. De Blasio has said more than once that the decision whether to remain in Brooklyn or move to Gracie Mansion will be made collectively by his family.
If the de Blasios do move to the mansion, the new mayor will need only look across the street to his birthplace to see a monument to what he believes needs changing. The hospital where de Blasio was born has since been torn down and replaced by a 19-floor luxury tower whose residents receive a tax break extending to 2020 even though apartments sell for an average of $4.5 million.
But change is on the way, or so says the family guy who was elected because after 12 years of a billionaire the city was ready for someone who seems to know the true riches in life.