New York City mayoral candidate Bill de Blasio threw a raucous victory party Tuesday night as the numbers from the day came in and he appeared extremely close to winning 40 percent of the Democratic primary. If it turns out de Blasio broke 40, it will immediately set up a November 5 contest against newly crowned Republican nominee Joe Lhota. (The Board of Elections will do a recount.)
At worst, de Blasio defeated second-place Bill Thompson, the former comptroller, by a significant 14 points in a crowded field, and will face him in an October 1 run-off that earlier polls, exit polls, and common sense all suggest de Blasio would win. At best, he won the right to bear the Democratic standard. But his speech, which began shortly before midnight, made no reference to the other candidates or indeed to the question of whether there would be a run-off; he referred only to the campaign’s “next stage.” (As of early Wednesday morning, de Blasio had won 40.20 percent to Thompson’s 26.03 percent with 98 percent of precincts counted. City Council Speaker Christine Quinn—considered the frontrunner until a month ago, if not more recently—conceded, having pulled in a relatively paltry 15.52 percent. Former Rep. Anthony Weiner also conceded and also gave a reporter the middle finger. Right back ‘atcha, guy.)
De Blasio accurately credited his “unapologetically progressive alternative” for his success. Left unsaid is to whom de Blasio represents an unapologetically progressive alternative: three-term Mayor Michael Bloomberg. (A new, must-read New York Times article lays out how deeply thought-out the plan for such an alternative to Bloomberg was.) He reiterated his battle-tested “Tale of Two Cities” message of inequality. And anticipating attacks he is likely to face in the general election, he added a dose of something that felt almost presidential: In response to criticisms that some of his plans are a bit too far-reaching or too difficult to enact, he retorted that nothing is too far-reaching or too difficult for the five boroughs. Call it Bill de Blasio’s New York exceptionalism.
The party was held at an unconventional location as far as these things go: Not a lower Manhattan ballroom or bar, but Bell House, a hip event space in the Gowanus section of Brooklyn, a neighborhood where not all the warehouses have yet been converted (and the ones that have host things like Brooklyn Art Space, which sits across 7th Street from Bell House). It is not far from the de Blasios’ Park Slope home and just outside de Blasio’s old City Council district. Outside was a promised block party, complete with food trucks—popular options including lobster rolls and pizza made in a wood-burning stove on wheels—and an outdoor viewing option. A play for the hipster vote? Let’s call it a play for the Brownstone Brooklyn vote. When the de Blasios arrived a little after 10, the candidate gave a brief peroration to the gathering outside, which surely numbered more than one hundred. “I heard there was a little block party,” he said, “and I had to come over.”
Aside from a VIP room, inside the venue for the first 45 minutes after 9 was mostly journalists—including a few bigger names, who provided good evidence that the de Blasio victory party, being the one most likely to celebrate an actual victory, was the place to be. We spent most of the time schmoozing or staring down at our phones as President Barack Obama’s Syria speech played on a projector above the stage. As the speech ended, Stevie Wonder’s “Signed, Sealed, Delivered I’m Yours” came on. I did a double-take: Was the administration really trotting out Obama’s upbeat campaign song immediately after an East Room address concerning grave matters of state? It took a few seconds to realize it was the de Blasio people who had overtaken the audio feed and started playing it.
Obama’s imprint can be found all over the de Blasio campaign. Campaign manager Bill Hyers is a veteran of both Obama campaigns. Admaker John Del Cecato is a partner of David Axelrod’s. Axelrod himself advised Fernando Ferrer’s unsuccessful 2001 mayoral campaign, in which the former Bronx borough president popularized the “tale of two cities” theme de Blasio has used so effectively. According to exit polls, de Blasio won among virtually all demographic categories (he even beat Quinn, a lesbian, among LGBT voters), a credit to his multiracial appeal that included tough opposition to the police tactic known as stop-and-frisk and the showcasing of his own multiracial family. (Chiara de Blasio, 18 and sporting an awesome flower headband, introduced her father, cheekily noting that she was the only de Blasio “who got to vote for her dad today” as her little brother Dante, arguably the campaign’s true star, looked on. Later, she tried to touch Dante’s trademark Afro.)
De Blasio began by thanking his family, including his wife, Chirlane, who has been an especially constant campaign-trail companion—“my partner,” as he said, “in all I do.” He drew cheers by shouting out his “home borough of Brooklyn.”
Then he moved on to an acknowledgment of those lost on 9/11, 12 years ago, “which,” he said, “we commemorate tomorrow at Ground Zero,” though by this point, it was already September 11. His slow move from recalling that “united city”—“New Yorkers left no one behind that day”—to his Tale of Two Cities stump speech was as inevitable as it was appropriate.
And it was connected, I think, to his remarkable close, in which he invoked that New York exceptionalism. “There are those who said our ambition for this city is too bold,” he said. That “we” are asking too much, and are “guilty—guilty, my friends, of thinking too big.” That might play well in Dubuque or Philadelphia, he seemed to be saying, but look around. This ain’t Dubuque. This isn’t even Philly. The room was packed with a few hundred people, predominately white, but containing not a few blacks as well as members of some other grab-bag ethnic groups, including several Hasidim (among whom, sect-by-sect, de Blasio largely split the vote with Thompson). “We are New Yorkers—proud citizens of the greatest city in the greatest country on Earth,” de Blasio said. “Thinking big isn’t new to us. It’s at the foundation of who we are.”
For five consecutive elections over 20 years, an overwhelmingly Democratic electorate has informed five Democratic candidates that it wanted someone else. On policing, on taxes, on education, and on development, it is not difficult to see how Joe Lhota, an acolyte of former mayor Rudolph Giuliani, could make a persuasive case, particularly to non-affluent, outer-borough whites, that though their partisan affiliations align with de Blasio, their minds align with him. 9/11 being the event that at once burnished Giuliani’s once-tarnished image with New Yorkers, handed Bloomberg the mayoralty (after Giuliani endorsed him fewer than two months after the attacks), and hardened New Yorkers’ sense of themselves as residents of the toughest city in the world, it seems likely we will have yet another election shadowed in part by that dreadful day.
Which makes it seem wise that de Blasio’s plan is to challenge New York voters with an appeal to their municipal patriotism. “We are the city that leads the nation, that leads the world,” he declared. “We are bigger, we are stronger, we are better as a city when we make sure everyone has a shot.”