NYC mayoral race now has its ‘Willie Horton ad’

Opinion

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Joe Lhota, in another time, may have been easily classified as a “Rockefeller Republican.”

Today, the more hardened conservative Right might classify him unkindly as a RINO, a Republican In Name Only. But when considering he’s running for mayor of New York City, perhaps “New York Republican” is most apt.

As the November 5th election approaches, Lhota is operating within a very specific political reality.

In that sense, the five boroughs are a comic-book’s parallel universe to the one just a bit further south in Washington. New York City, by contrast, is a place where a Republican has to veer sharply to the left in order to have any chance to be taken seriously by a populace that gave President Obama 81 percent of its vote in 2012.

So it is no surprise to see a Republican like Lhota take some standard positions – such as a one-year delay in Obamacare – while openly espousing his support of women’s reproductive rights, or for marriage equality. A Republican who despite those ideological concessions, is still more than 40 points behind Democratic nominee Bill de Blasio in the polls. This is that kind of town.

The toxicity of the Republican brand is the best explanation for why Lhota spent so much of his lackluster Tuesday night debate performance distancing himself from everything GOP. He countered de Blasio’s many swipes with a protestation that he was being unfairly paired with his federal party-mates, the authors of the just-concluded government shutdown.

During the debate, Lhota said to de Blasio, “Do not lump me with the national Republicans,” pointing at his opponent as he did it. “It’s unbecoming.”

Lhota may be correct that “Republican” means something different in New York City than in Washington. But in light of his words and actions since that Tuesday debate, the word “unbecoming” must mean something entirely different to him.

Politicker reports a Lhota quote much harsher than anything the candidate was willing to say to de Blasio’s face, calling the Democrat “your typical, classic political hack, who doesn’t know what to do when he’s in a debate and talking about issues.” The Bronx-born Lhota also tried to paint de Blasio as insulated in the liberal Brooklyn enclave of Park Slope.

An interesting criticism only with respect to its hypocrisy, given that the very next morning, Lhota released a new ad that showed us all just how desperate – and how Republican – he really is.

The 30-second message, entitled “Can’t Go Back,” points to then-councilman de Blasio voting to “take 5,000 cops off our streets,” a contention that conveniently omits the fact that that vote was for a Mayor Bloomberg budget that led to that reduction. Lhota then tries to make de Blasio look soft for suggesting police “talk to bikers” to help prevent future incidents like the recent attack on a family whose SUV had just paralyzed another biker.

The ad then warns that de Blasio’s “recklessly dangerous agenda on crime” will essentially return voters to the crime-ridden New York City of recent decades past, complete with a scary montage of murder on the streets, riots, shootings in stairwells, and other assorted urban nightmares straight out of Taxi Driver, New Jack City, or the Bloomberg administration. (Some of the images, it seems, were used without permission.)

The kicker, though, is the image of what appears to be an elderly white woman of means, her face divided by the pole she’s clutching on a graffiti-covered subway car as she is eyeballed by the black man sitting behind her. Beware, moneyed Manhattanites and Brooklyners: this could happen to you! (Those of you in poor neighborhoods that still look like they did back then, never mind, I guess.)

Lhota pulled out the old term “wilding” in a speech last week, so the ad is hardly the first time he’s pulled out a racial dog-whistle. In fact, the tactic isn’t uncommon among Republican mayoral candidates in New York City. But de Blasio wasn’t hyperbolic when he went beyond simply calling the ad “divisive” and “inappropriate.”

“I’m looking around at my colleagues, a lot of us went through the 1980s, the 1990s. We saw the way politics developed, sadly for the worst,” said the Democrat. “This is just like the Willie Horton ad.”

That’s a reference to the infamous “Revolving Door” ad produced in for George H.W. Bush’s 1988 presidential campaign by now-Fox News chief Roger Ailes and Republican strategist Lee Atwater, and it’s an apt comparison. The ad’s known for Willie Horton, though, because he’s the Massachusetts felon serving life who was given a weekend furlough while Bush opponent Michael Dukakis was governor – and went on to commit rape, assault, and armed robbery while he was out.

The ad, frankly, scared the crap out of white America, which was precisely the point. It’s the point of the “Southern strategy” championed by Atwater, a Republican tactic that uses race as tool to frighten voters. Same as Lhota telling those comfortable New Yorkers that electing de Blasio could burst their privileged, Bloomberg-reinforced bubbles. The ad is just what Lhota himself complained about de Blasio after the debate: all attack, no substance.

And it goes deeper than a likeness to Atwater’s most infamous ad. Last weekend on Melissa Harris-Perry, the host alluded to a thesis first offered by Zack Beauchamp in ThinkProgress: that the manner in which Republicans have used race and racism to not just build their base but also narrow their ideological focus to a fault.

Lhota may be able to convince voters he’s not Ted Cruz or John Boehner, but this ad shows that not only can he not excise himself from the Republican identity entirely, he is comfortable leaning upon it when he’s facing odds this long. If by some miracle Lhota becomes mayor, will he again resort to race-baiting to work his way out of a tough spot?

I hope that someone asks him that question in next Tuesday’s debate.

The de Blasio campaign responded Thursday with a new ad of their own. See it here.