De Blasio's Challenge: Don't Screw Up

From nomination to Election Day, Democrat’s gaffe-free campaign was a classic “Rose Garden” strategy.

11/05/13
Assistant Managing Editor
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On Sept. 9, hours before he would leave the Democratic field in the dust with his decisive mayoral primary win, Bill de Blasio stopped on the Upper West Side to greet some neighborhood residents.

Quickly surrounded by a scrum of reporters so large it blocked pedestrian traffic around a Fairway supermarket, de Blasio took a few questions from reporters, then turned his attention to potential voters.

When a reporter tried to get an additional comment, de Blasio was firm: no more media questions.

The scene repeated itself on Election Day, when following an appearance on Eastern Parkway in Crown Heights (see video), he pushed through a throng of cameras to his waiting SUV, declining to answer even basic questions from reporters. 

It is that disciplined candidate in a carefully orchestrated campaign who is likely to win tonight in what might be the biggest landslide in recent memory. While his opponent, Republican Joseph Lhota, seems to have gratefully accepted every media opportunity and speaking engagement, de Blasio was far more guarded, knowing that he had little to gain and much to lose from overexposure.

His payoff was consistent poll numbers showing voters had, for all intents and purposes, elected the mayor in the primary.

“The whole issue was not to get into trouble,” said Democrat political consultant Hank Sheinkopf, who worked for de Blasio’s primary rival, William Thompson.

“You make a few appearances, and if you don’t say anything, you don’t get blamed for saying something you shouldn’t say."

De Blasio didn’t disappear after the primary, but he limited his media access, at times starkly. On Sept. 24, following a Manhattan press conference on Iran sanctions that coincided with a New York Times report about his travels to Nicaragua as a young leftist activist, de Blasio allowed reporters to chase him from the conference site several blocks to his car without stopping to answer a question, though he did hold an availability later that day in Queens.

While details of his younger life fell under consistent scrutiny during the general election, from his role in the Dinkins administration and during the 1991 Crown Heights riots to his apparent earlier socialist leanings, de Blasio and his campaign skillfully avoided the one thing that derails a speeding campaign: a gaffe.

Lhota, on the other hand, already had such a gaffe on record from his primary race, when he told a Staten Island group sympathetic to the Tea Party that “My philosophical issues are very close to yours in many, many ways,” according to the Staten Island Advance.

Never mind that Lhota had denounced the larger Tea Party movement. The remark was similar to Mitt Romney’s infamous “47 percent” remark, also made in a moment of candor, that ruined the 2012 Republican presidential nominee’s chances of gaining crossover support.

It became de Blasio’s signature line of attack against Lhota: linking him to the worst elements of the Republican party and its “playbook.” Lhota seemed to acknowledge it was working when he released an ad showing that his positions and de Blasio’s on key issues were largely similar.

But Sheinkopf says that given the overwhelming registration majority that Democrats enjoy and the lack of a crisis that helped Rudy Giuliani and Michael Bloomberg – first high crime, then 9/11 and later the fiscal collapse – the cards were stacked against almost any Republican this year.

Giuliani seemed to acknowledge this while campaigning with Lhota Monday night.

“I think Joe in some ways is the victim of the good job that Mike Bloomberg has done,” he told the Daily News. “Mike has left a city that is by all reasonable standards in darn good shape, so to build on that and to get people to feel what they were feeling back in '01 or what they were feeling back in '93 is very hard.”

But Sheinkopf said the two decades of Republican victory was an anomaly.

“The city is reverting back to form,” he said. “It has always been a liberal city. De Blasio was on message by finding out what people cared about at that particular time and creating an emotional response. In this case it was stop-and-frisk, the income gap and affordable housing.”

Another factor: resentment against the wealthy, as typified by the popular, though ultimately pointless Occupy Wall Street movement of late 2011. De Blasio put on a Robin Hood hat and vowed to take some money from the rich and pay for free kindergarten.

“There is no question there was an element of populism in this campaign,” Sheinkopf said. “People who are concerned about those three issues didn’t have to be poor to feel that way. People who are well-off also felt that way.”

Douglas Muzzio, a professor of political science at Baruch College, said de Blasio’s campaign showed a classic “risk-averse” strategy.

“When you are sitting on a big lead you don’t go out and make a mistake: you raise money, like you’ve been doing furiously and sit it out,” Muzzio said. “In the last few weeks he’s raised nearly four million dollars, so while he was sitting in the rose garden, he was planting a lot of seeds.

“Meanwhile, his campaign was like an iceberg. You only see the tip of it. They were busy with social media and getting out the vote. You never assume it’s over.”

As voters line up at the polls, the biggest concern in de Blasio’s camp, and greatest hope in Lhota’s, is that the lopsided poll numbers will convince large chunks of de Blasio’s supporters their vote isn’t needed, while anti-de Blasio voters could be more motivated to go on record against him.

“In a campaign, anything is possible,” Muzzio said. That means volunteers will be acting is if the polls are even.

“They want to bury,” Muzzio said. “They want history. They would love to break the Abe Beame record for a non-incumbent.”

Muzzio blames Lhota’s campaign for a poor line of attack, focusing on de Blasio’s past rather than attacking his relative lack of managerial experience, compared to Lhota’s. “It was weak, not fully engaged, a bad operation,” he said.

“They had two bumper stickers: class warfare and Dinkins. And they made [de Blasio] into a bomb-throwing bolshevik who helped the Sandinistas and took his honeymoon in Cuba. It was the communist-ification of Bill de Blasio. That was stupid and wasted their time. It was 30 years ago and it’s irrelevant. He’s a left-leaning, Democrat. He’s not going to nationalize Con Ed.”

But in the end, according to Cynthia Darrison, a consultant and fundraiser who was not involved with de Blasio’s campaign, it was the images the candidate put before the public that sealed his popularity, particularly the ads featuring his children, Dante and Chiara. Lhota’s family was rarely seen in the campaign.

“All the pieces fell in place,” said Darrison. “He presented the idea to voters that they could have a smiley, happy mayor who gets along with his family. That’s what people seemed to want.”

The allure of that family was evident following the Crown Heights appearance when de Blasio greeted neighborhood residents next to a subway station.

"I'm voting for Dante," shouted a passerby.

adam@jewishweek.org

Last Update:

05/12/2014 - 13:59

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