The Mike Bloomberg era ended decisively in New York City on Tuesday night, with Bill de Blasio cruising to victory in the Democratic primary against better-known rivals who did not promise the clean break with the last 12 years that de Blasio did.
According to early exit polls, de Blasio won across the board, equaling or besting his opponents among black voters, female voters, gay voters, voters who wanted a change, and even voters who approved of the way Bloomberg governed Gotham over the last 12 years.
“There are those who have said that our vision for this city is too big, that we are asking of wealthy New Yorkers too much,” de Blasio, the city’s public advocate, told a raucous crowd of supporters at the Bell House, a music venue in the Gowanus section of Brooklyn. “That we have set our sights for our children too high, that we are guilty—guilty, my friends—of thinking too big. But let me say this: We are New Yorkers. Proud citizens of the greatest city on earth. Thinking big isn’t new to us. It is the very foundation of who we are.”
Just after midnight, de Blasio was hovering near the 40 percent threshold necessary to avoid a runoff in three weeks. Bill Thompson, his closest rival, garnered just 26 percent of the vote but vowed to fight on. The winner of a runoff will face Joe Lhota, the former chief of the Metropolitan Transportation Agency and a former aide to Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who easily won the Republican nomination.
The de Blasio election night celebration illustrated just how different his candidacy was. Instead of gathering at a major Midtown hotel to watch the returns, as New York City mayoral campaigns traditionally do, hundreds of supporters turned Gowanus, an industrial neighborhood not far from the candidate’s home in Park Slope, into a political street party with outdoor grilling, music-making, free-flowing beer, and supporters glued to television screens. Inside the Bell House, where the indie pop duo Ted Leo and Aimee Mann were slated to play the next night, de Blasio supporters cheered as returns showed a victory looking ever more likely.
The results upended what had long been the conventional wisdom about New York City politics—that tribalism rules, and that endorsements from daily newspapers and fellow elected officials translate into votes. Instead, according to exit polls, it appeared that City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, who was vying to become the first woman and the first gay mayor of New York, lost to de Blasio among both groups. Former city comptroller Bill Thompson, who was vying to become only the second black mayor of New York, was bested by de Blasio among black voters.
De Blasio’s long and steady climb to the top spot was improbable. Even a month ago, he was mired in fourth place, as former Rep. Anthony Weiner used an outsider push to vault into first. The labor unions de Blasio had assiduously cultivated in his four years as public advocate and eight years on the City Council deserted him for rivals who demographics suggested had an easier path to victory. Then Weiner crumbled amid reports that his illicit sexting habits had continued after he resigned from Congress. His fall created a void perfectly filled by a populist who railed against City Hall, railed against the political class, and railed against a city that had become increasingly unequal.
That was de Blasio, who ran as an unapologetic liberal, promising to raise taxes on the wealthy and to curb the NYPD’s stop-and-frisk tactics.
In his victory speech, he kept up that theme, criticizing the ultra-wealthy whose lives have gotten even better as the poverty line in New York has approached 50 percent and vowing to stop a spate of community hospital closures.
“What we have achieved here tonight and what we will do in the next round of this campaign won’t just change the view of how things look inside City Hall but the policies that have left behind so many New Yorkers,” he said.
Campaign operatives from de Blasio’s rivals said he would not have won had it not been for “the ad.”
Just as de Blasio began to rise in the polls, his campaign released an TV spot featuring his son speaking directly to the camera. De Blasio’s wife is African-American, and 15-year-old Dante, with his outsize afro, signaled that the de Blasio administration would be inclusive in ways that previous administrations had not.
Whenever de Blasio campaigned in African-American parts of the city, his family was by his side, and Dante was often a more sought-after handshake than his father was.
Bloomberg, for his part, did his ally Quinn no favors. Over the course of the last year, he increased his calls for aggressive policing and slowed City Council efforts to pass progressive legislation. In the waning days of the campaign, he was quoted in a New York magazine interview describing the de Blasio campaign as “racist” for featuring his wife and children so prominently, a remark that brought widespread condemnation and cornered Quinn.
The City Council speaker, who had led in the polls for much of the past year, faced an onslaught, with a multimillion-dollar coalition of labor unions and animal rights activists called “Anybody but Quinn” rallying New Yorkers against her. There was no counter-effort among those who could have been Quinn’s allies—the same coalition of Manhattan elites and Brooklyn brownstone progressives who vaulted Mayor Bloomberg into office in 2005 and 2009.
The de Blasio campaign banked on the ultra-liberal electorate that decides New York City primary elections. And even as de Blasio looked up at the polls through much of the summer, he never wavered from his message.
Now that message will likely be tested in a general election against Lhota. Heading into November, de Blasio has many advantages, not least of which is running for mayor in a city in which Democrats outnumber Republicans 7-1.
In his victory speech, de Blasio seemed to prepare himself for the campaign to come, warning against “powerful interests who benefit from the status quo who will not stand still.”
But he also warned, “We have come too far to go back, my friends.”
Invoking 9/11, whose 12th anniversary is Wednesday, he promised to be vigilant against crime and terror, and pledged to keep the city safe.
But de Blasio struck an emotional tone that echoed his campaign: “New Yorkers,” he said, “left no one behind that day. No matter who they were, where they lived, or what their economic situation. That is the New York we know and love.”