Black voters are expected to comprise nearly 30 percent of the primary electorate in the race for New York City mayor.
It’s a large bloc and one experts credit with the ascent of New York City Public Advocate Bill de Blasio to the leader position in the race to be the Democratic candidate.
De Blasio is leading the five-candidate race with the support of 43 percent of likely primary voters, according to the most recent poll by Quinnipiac University.
And with the support of 47 percent of black voters and 44 percent of women voters, he is well positioned to pass the 40 percent threshold needed to avoid a runoff with either City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, a woman, or former Comptroller Bill Thompson, who is black.
“For the first time I can remember in city politics, the black vote is not being taken for granted,” says political consultant Basil Smikle. “You have a lot of community-based and grassroots organizations and individuals who feel they’ve been marginalized. I think de Blasio has honed in on that with his campaign,” he says.
Smikle speculates that much of de Blasio’s support in the black community comes from his work as Public Advocate, standing with union members and nurses to fight against hospital closings in Brooklyn. He also credits de Blasio’s steadfast denouncement of racial profiling through the city’s stop-and-frisk policing program, which has stood in contrast to mayor Bloomberg’s support of it and promise to appeal a federal decision that found it unconstitutional.
These positions, Smikle says, paint de Blasio as a champion for the disenfranchised – an attractive image to black voters.
It’s also been argued, however, that de Blasio has been aided in the polls by the appearance of his wife, who is black, and their children in campaign ads and along the trail.
Perhaps the candidate’s best-known commercial features his 15-year old son Dante. Sporting a large afro, Dante describes his father as a candidate that’ll break from the Bloomberg years, raise taxes on the rich and is “the only one that will end a stop-and-frisk era that unfairly targets people of color.”
“Dante’s big Afro is the campaign image everyone remembers,” says Maurice Carroll, director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute. “Whether it’s Dante or the issues, or a mixture of both, de Blasio leads Speaker Christine Quinn among women and former Comptroller Bill Thompson among black voters.”
Nicole Jones was born and raised in New York City. The 32-year-old health care administrator currently resides in the Bronx and has been leaning toward de Blasio since Anthony Weiner’s campaign became embroiled in scandal.
“I like Thompson but he’s been around for a while,” she says. “People want new blood, especially after three terms with Bloomberg.”
Jones admits it was de Blasio’s ads that first piqued her interest in the candidate.
“His ads are everywhere, they’re the ones I’ve seen the most,” Jones says. “It struck a cord with me to see his family, an interracial family, because it suggests to me that he sees people for who they are. It speaks to his character.”
Jones says ultimately, however, it’s not the racial composition of the De Blasio family but the candidate’s position on the issues that matter. As a new homeowner, she cares about taxes and the cost of living but, with three brothers, is also concerned about the NYPD’s stop-and-frisk policy.
“My brothers are good guys that could easily be stopped just because they’re black. Some of the police are not so nice and I worry about them getting stopped coming from work or school,” says Jones. “[de Blasio] has a son who looks black, who could be stopped and frisked too. He can relate to the experience.”
And while critics may judge the use of his son in a campaign ad as strategic appeal to black voters, Rebecca Katz, communications director for the de Blasio campaign, says it’s the message that’s resonating most with the electorate.
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“He took a stand early against the racial profiling in New York. He said we need a new Police Commissioner and Inspector General. He was the first to say those things, even when [Commissioner] Ray Kelly was high in popularity,” says Katz. “Across racial lines, New Yorkers are connecting with his message around economic inequity, his plan regarding universal pre-k and afterschool programs. If Bill were elected mayor, he’d be the first to have a child in public school. He’s not some billionaire mayor. People know he’s one of them.”
Leslie Thom, 30, is a technician living in the Bronx. The Guyanese immigrant moved to New York when he was just 10 and has lived in the city since. For Thom, stop-and-frisk is also an issue on which he’s deciding his vote and one on which he feels de Blasio has been consistent from the very beginning of his campaign.
Quinn, he says, is weak on the issue due to her support for Ray Kelly as police commission and he believes Thompson hasn’t been forceful enough in condemning the policy. Thom says he voted for Thompson against Bloomberg in 2009 but in this race he’s voting for de Blasio.
“Most of the candidates are similar on the issues,” says Thom. “When it comes to their promises to make the city more affordable, there isn’t much difference – except on stop-and-frisk. I have a lot of friends that have been stopped by the police. It’s a very emotional thing to be put up against a wall and have someone put their hands all over you when you’re innocent. To have someone speak to the emotional part of it is very important.”
It’s a sentiment echoed by Basil Smikle, who believes de Blasio has been able to convey the right message to voters in a way that’s personal and powerful. “If you’re not passionate on the campaign trail voters have a hard time believing you,” he says. “Voters, particularly voters of color, want someone that’s going to challenge institutions and fight back on their behalf.”
Follow Donovan X. Ramsey at @iDXR