When New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg accused Democratic front-runner Bill de Blasio of running a “racist” campaign because his campaign featured his black wife and biracial children prominently in ads, the mayor ultimately did more to help his least favorite liberal candidate than hurt him.
The ensuing backlash gave de Blasio’s telegenic family and his campaign more national press coverage in the closing days of the primary than would have been likely without the Bloomberg debacle. The controversy also put de Blasio’s opponents in the unenviable position of having to defend de Blasio and his family. But in the end, voters made their disagreement with Bloomberg’s assessment loud and clear.
While it is still not yet fully confirmed that de Blasio cleared the 40-percent hurdle necessary to avoid a runoff, what is clear is that he dominated among nearly every demographic group such as Jewish voters and women voters. But perhaps most noteworthy is that according to exit polls, he tied Bill Thompson, the lone African-American candidate in the race, with black voters.
It was not supposed to be this way. This was supposed to be Thompson’s year. Four years ago he stunned the political establishment by coming within four points of beating Bloomberg in a race for his final term, despite being outspent by the mayor’s campaign 10 to 1. Spending just under $10 million, Thompson had little national support. President Obama drew criticism for his belated endorsement of Thompson and for doing little to help his campaign.
This time around, Thompson was supposed to provide the perfect Bloomberg antidote to those voters so eager to oust Bloomberg four years ago. With Council speaker and Bloomberg ally Christine Quinn considered the other strongest contender, Thompson was supposed to easily lay claim to those voters most disenchanted by Bloomberg and the economic inequality that has defined his reign. When stop-and-frisk, a policy that disproportionately targets black men, emerged as the defining issue of the race, Thompson theoretically should have had a built-in advantage.
Instead, his campaign had its thunder stolen by yet another white male candidate. So how did that happen?
For one, despite being black, Thompson never claimed the issue of stop-and-frisk early in the race. With his eye toward the general election, he courted and received the endorsement of various police unions, in part by opposing efforts to have an independent monitor of the NYPD’s stop-and-frisk practices. He also opposed two Council bills intended not only to monitor stop-and-frisk more effectively but also to make it easier for those unfairly targeted by the measure to seek some form of restitution.
Though critical of misuse of the policy, Thompson exposed a seeming lack of passion on the civil-rights issue that left an opening on which de Blasio’s campaign capitalized. With one perfectly timed and perfectly executed ad, de Blasio emerged as the primary’s leading civil-rights candidate overnight. As one of the few campaign ads to feature a multiracial family, the spot — featuring de Blasio’s Afro-wearing teenage son, Dante, whose mother, Chirlane McCray, is black — put the de Blasio campaign in the national spotlight.
The ad began airing shortly before a federal judge ruled the practice as executed in New York unconstitutional. Voters of color who were previously unfamiliar with de Blasio’s family were introduced to them, and some decided that they’d found a viable alternative who effectively demonstrated his appreciation for the magnitude of the stop-and-frisk issue.
As New York magazine reported, “An increasingly multicultural America is hungry for public figures who reflect their ideals. The de Blasios understand that — which helps explain how de Blasio’s populist campaign ‘grabbed at least one-third of every major ethnic group’s vote.’ ”
The nearly universal support of President Obama by black voters in 2012 raised allegations that black voters were voting on race alone. Although this accusation carried a whiff of racism (after all, did white voters vote for Clinton, or Bush or Romney, because of their race? And why didn’t previous black contenders Alan Keyes and the Rev. Al Sharpton win black voters?), it has lingered.
With polls showing that de Blasio would handily defeat Thompson even if the two faced off in a runoff, the outcome of New York City’s Democratic primary puts this silly theory about black voter bias to rest once and for all. Black voters are, like other demographics, informed voters, and if you effectively speak to their issues, they will vote for you. If you don’t, they won’t — regardless of your skin color.
Keli Goff is The Root’s special correspondent.