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Not Like Mike

Bill de Blasio's surge is all about inequality

Spencer Platt/Getty Images News

“We are convinced—we’ve been convinced for awhile—that we’re on a pathway to victory.” New York City Public Advocate Bill de Blasio was speaking to a few dozen supporters on a warm late-July evening at a pizzeria in the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn. At the time, the most complete polls had him in third or fourth place in the Democratic mayoral race ahead of the September 10 primary. City Council Speaker Christine Quinn had commanding leads in them all. “And we have numbers,” he continued. “I feel sometimes like I’m in a spy movie—like, we have the numbers no one else has.” De Blasio’s pollster, Anna Greenberg, looked up bashfully and then stared straight ahead, as though suppressing a smile.

Turns out, maybe they did know something the rest of us didn’t. According to a Quinnipiac poll released Wednesday, de Blasio now commands 36 percent of the vote, compared to Quinn’s 21 percent and former Comptroller Bill Thompson’s 20 percent. Two weeks ago he had been at 30 percent, up only six on Quinn (though outside the margin of error). In the most recent NBC New York/Wall Street Journal/Marist poll, now two weeks old, de Blasio and Quinn were tied for the lead. At the very least, de Blasio looks to be in extremely good shape to qualify for an October 1 run-off—which these polls also show de Blasio winning, either narrowly (according to the ones from two weeks ago) or handily (according to Wednesday’s). Finally, he is in striking distance of the 40 percent threshold that would launch him directly into November’s general election.

It’s been widely assumed that this year’s mayoral race will install the first Democrat in Gracie Mansion in two decades. The big news is what kind of Democrat it may be. De Blasio has actively branded himself “The Progressive Choice for Mayor,” relentlessly focusing on what he calls “the inequality crisis” and giving a stump speech about a “tale of two cities.” He has staked leftmost positions on the police tactic known as “stop-and-frisk,” housing, and even taxes—he would raise them on the wealthy to pay for universal pre-K and after-school programs.

A close look at public polls as well as conversations with de Blasio staffers with access to those spy-movie numbers reveal that an outsize share of de Blasio’s support, and particularly his recent gains, come from what pollsters call “white liberals.” These voters really started to tune in to the race several weeks ago thanks to things like de Blasio’s high-profile arrest while protesting the closing of Long Island College Hospital, the increased prominence of stop-and-frisk thanks to a court decision, and a buzzy TV spot featuring his son Dante.

De Blasio’s success among white liberals is evidence that a bigger shift is afoot. Just eight years ago, upwardly mobile, middle- to upper-middle-class voters supported Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s reelection in droves. In 2005, Bloomberg did not lose a single income category, beating Democrat Fernando Ferrer by 15 points even among those with annual income between $30,000 and $49,000 and between $50,000 and $74,000. The Bloomberg pitch—laissez-faire stewardship of the money-making tax base, technocratic management, and liberal social programs—made sense for its era. In fact, it was not all that different, once you adjust for the particular prism of New York City politics, from the pitch of the president who declared in his first inaugural address, “The question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works.”

But, as you may have noticed, we’re not in 2005 anymore. During the recovery from the 2008-9 recession, the benefits have overwhelmingly accrued to the wealthiest both nationwide and, especially, in the city that is the country’s financial center. In a recent New York Times poll, solid majorities in all income groups (including those making more than $100,000 a year) said it is harder to make ends meet financially in New York City than elsewhere, and massive majorities across all groups—85 percent overall—agreed that “New York City is becoming too expensive for people like you to live in.”

Chapman University Professor of Urban Development Joel Kotkin summed the situation up well. “New York has made this Faustian bargain,” he said. “We’ll do well, but we’ll have this strong police presence and we’re going to genuflect to the upper classes because we depend on them.” Kotkin, whose several decades in California have not erased a thick Gotham accent, added, “But I think people are tired of that. I can see why people say, ‘Look, we’ve had this regime in power a long time, and the inequality has gotten greater and greater.’”

De Blasio’s rise is a response to the unraveling of the city’s Faustian deal. In the latest Quinnipiac poll, he wins overwhelmingly among those who say they want a “new direction,” while losing decisively among those who say they want the “same direction” to Quinn.

The liberals who have flocked to his campaign find themselves driven to a more progressive coalition by conscience and ideology, but also, perhaps, by an even more powerful motivator: self-interest. “It was clear from our research,” said Greenberg, de Blasio’s pollster, “that high income voters are as uncomfortable as low income voters about the stark inequality that has emerged in New York City in the Bloomberg years.” She told me: “Even New Yorkers who are doing quite well, and approve of the mayor's agenda on things like bike lanes and sustainability, want to see a new direction centered around economic fairness and equality.” In 2013, the pocketbook is something that unites, instead of divides, the creative class and the working class.

Of course, whoever secures the Democratic nomination will require support from several races and classes. They will need the votes both of the white young people who came to the pizzeria in July because their friend works on the campaign and the black woman at the pizzeria with a tote bag that read, “P.S. 167: Pride and Joy of Crown Heights.” “My number one support base is 1199, the health and hospital workers, which is largely lower-paid women of color,” de Blasio said that day, referring to the biggest union that has endorsed him. “That’s my single strongest support base.”

That’s not quite true, though. Yes, according to Quinnipiac, de Blasio has made his largest gains in the past two weeks among black voters, many of whom are drawn to his multiracial family and stop-and-frisk policy, and needed someplace to go after Anthony Weiner’s campaign imploded. But de Blasio picked up ground primarily among black voters only because he had already made substantial gains among white voters in the previous weeks.

A wonkish type who lives in the totemically brownstone-Brooklyn Park Slope, de Blasio is a white liberal, and white liberals are undeniably his most vital constituency. In the past two Quinnipiac polls, de Blasio has shown 38 and 39 percent of the white vote, the most of all candidates, while five weeks ago that figure was just 18 percent. According to Marist, de Blasio was 11 points ahead of both Quinn and Thompson among Jewish voters, who tend to describe educated white liberals. The latest Quinnipiac poll has de Blasio at a whopping 50 percent among the “very liberal” vote and 42 percent among “somewhat liberal,” while in the prior one, those figures were 40 percent and 33 percent—all are comfortable first-place finishes, and additionally notable because blacks tend not to self-identify as “liberal.”

So there is a racial lens and an ideological lens. But combine them and it becomes clear that the most fruitful perspective is economic. It shows that what really happened is that a distinct group of voters who always understood they were living, to borrow de Blasio’s language, a tale of two cities woke up during the post-recession recovery to suddenly find themselves living in the poorer one. De Blasio’s message of “respect and dignity”—a recent TV spot was called “Dignity”—has “taken on special meaning in the years since the recession,” said John Del Cecato, de Blasio’s admaker and a partner of top Barack Obama strategist David Axelrod’s, “because on so many different levels the very wealthy have seen a return to prosperity very quickly, while the ranks of the poor have grown and the middle class has been squeezed more and more.”1

Last year, the Times reported that New York’s median incomes among the lower quintiles declined, while the richest 20 percent saw theirs grow; Manhattan’s income gap, it said, “rivaled disparities in sub-Saharan Africa.” According to The New Yorker, the top one percent in New York earns 39 percent of all income, while nationally, that figure is 20 percent. A report released last month from New York University’s Furman Center found rent rising between 2007 and 2011 even as housing prices fell, with the vast majority of the city either moderately or severely rent burdened. New York’s income Gini coefficient—a widely accepted measurement of inequality—is the worst of any big city in the United States. In 2012, New York County (essentially, Manhattan) was the third-most economically unequal county in America. (It is the best of times, it is the worst of times.)

So why does this matter beyond the five boroughs? Well, if you can’t make it here, soon you may not be able to make it anywhere. “New York, by its very nature, sets the tone for a class that exists nationwide,” Kotkin explained. Its economics and politics, like its culture, are a potent distillation of trends present throughout the country. Across the land, this recovery has been unequal. Earlier this year, for instance, Pew Research examined U.S. Census data to 2011 and found that the top seven percent saw their net worth rise 28 percent since the recession while the bottom 93 percent (including households worth over $800,000) saw theirs decline. Not only in New York are the rich getting richer while everyone else goes in the other direction.

As Democrats look ahead, they should pay attention to what is happening in New York, where the flattening of the bottom 80 percent—or bottom 99 percent—makes the livelihoods of a more affluent class of voters more precarious, and therefore makes those voters more liable to see things the working class’s way. “If you’re living in a very poor neighborhood with bad schools and lots of poverty and difficulty accessing jobs and low levels of educational attainment, you want to see a path to a steady, well-paying job,” said John Mollenkopf, who directs the City University of New York’s Center for Urban Research and first met de Blasio during the 1989 David Dinkins campaign. He continued: “If you're an author for The New Republic, and you’re in a two-working-person couple—or aspiring to this status—you want, instead of having to pay a million for a house in Bed-Stuy, to get it for six hundred thousand.” He laughed. Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant, the setting of Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing, is rapidly gentrifying. “I know people who’ve done it. I was lucky enough to buy a house in 1983.”

  1. This trend was percolating four years ago, in 2009, when Thompson, despite being a lackluster candidate who did not really run as a full-throated liberal and despite Bloomberg’s spending more than $100 million on his own campaign, lost by fewer than five points.

This stated that the Democratic primary is September 13 when it should have said September 10.