Bill de Blasio racial appeals in NYC mayor’s race: Will they pay off?

Opinion

We’ve seen candidates in the past bring their African-American wives with them to events at black churches, highlight their black children in campaign ads and criticize the police and other government entities for unfairly treating people of color.

But usually those candidates are black. In seeking to become New York’s mayor, Bill de Blasio is running a very unconventional campaign with the kind of direct racial appeals that are traditionally the domain of only minority candidates, from the prominent role of his wife Chirlane to the most memorable ad of the campaign, featuring de Blasio’s Afro-wearing 15-year-old son Dante walking side-by-side his father.

And de Blasio has been the most vocal of the leading candidates in calling for changes to New York’s “stop-and-frisk” police tactics.

There’s an obvious political rationale for this approach. De Blasio doesn’t have an obvious constituency in the race otherwise, so trying to dominate the white liberal vote along with getting a sizable chunk of African-Americans is his clearest path to victory.

De Blasio’s success or failure will offer an interesting look at politics in a post-Obama era. As the veteran New York reporter Errol Louis wrote in a piece earlier this year, Bill Thompson, the African-American candidate in this race, won’t be breaking any kind of racial barrier if he wins: New Yorkers have already had a black mayor (David Dinkins), a black governor (David Paterson) and a black president.

And Thompson is not trying to court black voters by staking out the positions closest to their perceived policy preferences. He has intentionally taken a more conciliatory approach in suggesting how he would change New York’s police tactics than de Blasio and accepted endorsements from many of the city’s law enforcement unions.

In theory, this leaves a big opening for de Blasio to run to court black voters based on both identity (his wife and children are black) and on policy grounds. And among New York’s black elites, this approach appears to be working. De Blasio has stopped Thompson from unifying the city’s black leadership. And he has won the endorsements of one of the city’s black congresswomen, Rep. Yvette Clarke, as well as activist Harry Belafonte.

Some of the Rev. Al Sharpton’s close allies are also behind de Blasio, and the civil rights leader himself has criticized Thompson on “stop and frisk,” leaving open the possibility that Sharpton, who backed Thompson in 2009, might also opt for de Blasio.

But the challenge for de Blasio is that New York’s black voters may still want to back a traditional African-American candidate, or are just more comfortable with Thompson. Even in a recent poll showing de Blasio ahead overall, Thompson is easily winning among African-American voters. Thompson, according to a Quinnipiac University poll, is getting around 40 percent of the black vote, compared to about 20 percent for de Blasio and Christine Quinn, the other leading candidate in the race.

And veterans of New York politics say that polls may understate the advantage among blacks for Thompson, who finished with much stronger results than polls suggested during his 2009 mayoral run.

Even if he loses, De Blasio is giving us an interesting look at what a campaign would look like in a “post-racial era,” or at least one in which traditional ethic politics (blacks vote for blacks, Jews for the Jewish candidate) were not so dominant. It might be a preview of a future presidential campaign. (Imagine in 2016, if Hillary Clinton did not run, and Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley faced Cory Booker, and O’Malley cast himself as the more liberal candidate and one who views best reflected those of blacks.)