Celebrations of Public Advocate Bill de Blasio’s defeat of the establishment candidates in the Democratic mayoral primary indicate that paradise is around the corner. If he can just edge by in the run off and achieve victory in November, then this time next year New York City will look like Sweden, where the radical redistribution of wealth eradicates homelessness while sparkling new trams alleviate subway crowding. Rent ceilings, imposed by decree, will allow artists and the middle class to return to Manhattan. Cops will no longer carry guns. The bankers who caused the 2008 financial crash will be executed in front of the Stock Exchange.
Judging by the chorus of commentators and the Twitter denizens that amplify their messages, these are the not-too exaggerated hopes that New York City progressives, or the ones who care about electoral politics anyway, have for de Blasio, who seems likely to face Republican Joe Lhota in November. Part of the branding is the result of talented stagecraft from the likes of the progressive PR outfit BerlinRosen and an army of campaign experts. And the candidate himself has a distinct knack for campaigning. But plenty of other folks helped write the script.
Eager to find an alternative to the center-right Democratic candidates or worse, Anthony Weiner, editors and producers in left-wing media in the weeks leading up to the primary shouted out the public advocate’s name in ecstasy. The Nation, the most well-known magazine on the American left, trumpeted its endorsement and ran three other pieces on de Blasio, including an Eric Alterman column all but crowning him the second coming of FDR. De Blasio’s minions have used the fodder wisely, as the campaign even posted an image of the candidate with a superhero’s cape and mask off to rescue a Brooklyn hospital at risk of closing.
To invoke Yogi Berra: It’s déjà vu all over again. It seems like yesterday that the same progressives heralding de Blasio were reminding the public of Christine Quinn’s fall from a rabble-rousing queer activist to surrogate for Mayor Michael Bloomberg and the real estate lobby, a transition that coincided with her ascent to City Council Speaker. And as one radical journalist said through social media, “The left coalescence around de Blasio reminds me of Obama in 2008, almost certainly with similar results.”
It’s a stretch to say that de Blasio is some sort of Trojan horse, pretending to be an activist for a primary only to unleash the 1%’s agenda once elected. But de Blasio has never been in a position of real power with real accountability, and has been effective in maneuvering between positions like stop-and-frisk and rent control to both win activist support but appear moderate in the eyes of rich donors. Such a loosely principled and mostly untested candidate can be manipulated once he finally gets close to real power.
Eighteenth-century British statesman William Pitt the Elder perceived that “there is something behind the throne greater than the King himself.” That is certainly true in New York, which has its own form of permanent government steered by real estate titans and financiers, like the coal magnates who run Appalachia. Are people so naïve to think that developers like Bruce Ratner or mega-corporations like Toll Brothers, both supporters of de Blasio’s campaign, won’t call in their favors if he moves into City Hall? Does anyone really think that a man whose resume includes gigs for both Clintons, the clan responsible for moving the Democratic Party away from labor and toward Wall Street, has been a fellow traveler this whole time?
Yes, apparently, and over the last few months many on the left simply ignored John Liu, a far more progressive candidate but whose campaign faced an uphill climb. A federal probe and FBI sting produced convictions of two Liu campaign fundraisers for creating straw donors, thus sullying his name; and the Campaign Finance Board effectively nullified his chances by denying him matching funds, a move even the Daily News editorial board believed was unfair. Most liberals believe in publicly funded campaigns, yet—like de Blasio—they said nothing when Liu was deprived of the chance to compete on a level playing field.
Bloomberg’s hatred of Liu, a product of his probes of the CityTime fiasco and halting of wasteful outside contracts, should have given the comptroller some currency as a soldier for clean governance and a taxpayer’s advocate. Instead, most of the city’s left simply abandoned the populist after he was singled out for scrutiny. Many in the left-wing media treated Liu and his ideas like cable news treated Ron Paul in 2012—as if he weren’t there. As just one example, Joan Walsh’s Salon piece on de Blasio failed to even mention Liu by name, wrongly stating that de Blasio was a lone candidate proposing tax increases for the rich. And one more thing: Liu got more votes than Weiner, yet the latter got all the attention, showing that our collective unconscious is as sophisticated as a horny teenager.
“It was a calculation early on by a lot of people that the fundraising problems that Liu had made him unelectable. I don't think it was a particular judgment of his positions,” says Josh Freeman, author of Working-Class New York and a CUNY Graduate Center historian. “Once people do drift toward a particular candidate they tend to blind themselves to what he actually says.”
As Liu supporter David Michaelson of Park Slope said of de Blasio during Liu’s primary night party in Chinatown, “He puts out an excellent image. People just buy into what he says but they don’t look at his record.”
But there’s a racial component here that no one wants to talk about. Liu’s poll numbers, as the Brooklyn Rail has previously reported, were always artificially low, in large part because Asian voters are undercounted. De Blasio—who as a white man running against a lesbian, a black man and a Taiwanese immigrant—always had fears about his image, which is why his biracial children are centerpieces of his campaign. But it’s been his star support from the likes of Cynthia Nixon, Steve Buscemi and Vampire Weekend that make well-to-do liberals swoon. Liu’s campaigns for immigrant workers just don’t have the same kind of celebrity spokespeople.
On top of that is the insinuation that Liu himself is culpable in the straw donor scandal even though he was never personally the target of the inquest. But the whispering continues: He must be hiding something, lining his own pockets while masquerading as a disciplined fiduciary. Fear of Chinese-Americans as cunning thieves is a pernicious lingering stereotype.
Liu, standing with his family on the night of his loss, maintained that we haven’t seen the last of him. His fourth-place finish “doesn’t mean that we’re going away,” he said. “There are no losers here.” Liu’s next move remains to be seen. But if and when he does resurface on the political scene, progressives need to give him a fair shot.