The Battle for Bill de Blasio’s Soul

billdeblasio gettyimages The Battle for Bill de Blasio’s Soul

On the afternoon of June 1, the newly installed public advocate, Bill de Blasio, did what public advocates of New York city do, or should at least appear to do-he listened to The People. In a uniform of pinstriped pants, red tie and white shirt, Mr de Blasio stood at the corner of Flatbush Avenue and Hanson Place, before an easel bearing the words “How can we help you,” and asked passersby how he could help them.

A woman named Tina, whose head barely reached above Mr. de Blasio’s belt, complained about charter schools. A retired English teacher named Zelphia Phillips complained about the new owners of Tivoli Towers. More constituents crowded in. Why couldn’t the M.T.A. ever figure out its budget? How can my cell phone company bilk me as it does? Mr. de Blasio slouched the slouch of the commiserating tall man-a posture arching from his inclined head through his rounded shoulders to his bent knees. WFUV taped. Brooklyn 12 filmed.

It was a well-coordinated act of political theater by one of New York’s most astute political minds. It also came off as kind of sincere.

Mr. de Blasio has surely made the following calculation, even if he won’t own up to it: Should he do a credible job as public advocate, he will end up among the top contenders to succeed Mayor Bloomberg in 2013.

Mr. de Blasio, 49, is something of a paradox. He’s an earnest-seeming son of a labor leader who in his youth marched against nuclear power and flew to Nicaragua to protest Reagan’s cold war Central American policies; a Brooklynite with a dad-from-Family Ties beard who got married in Prospect Park under a tree to an African-American woman he met in the Dinkins administration, in a ceremony that was officiated by a biracial gay Protestant couple. He is also one of New York’s shrewdest, most ambitious political operators, having honed his skills behind the scenes in the service of, among others, Andrew Cuomo and Hillary Clinton.

“One of the things that I’ve noticed about Bill from the morning after his election was that he seemed to take very seriously the responsibility of holding a citywide office,” said Ken Fisher, a former councilman. “But he’s also an operative.”

Or, as consultant Hank Sheinkopf put it, “He has ambition. And he’s smart. And when you have ambition and smarts and desire for power together, it’s a pretty potent combination.”

Given that background, Mr. de Blasio has surely made the following calculation, even if he won’t own up to it: Should he do a credible job as public advocate, one of only three citywide elected positions; should he carve out a starring role for himself in the theater of New York City politics; should he broaden his appeal beyond his union sponsors to encompass the city’s aristocratic business and real estate firmament, he will end up among the top contenders to succeed Mayor Bloomberg in 2013.

 

BILL DE BLASIO’S liberal roots run deep. His mother worked in the Time magazine research department under Whittaker Chambers, and was the organizing chair of her union local. Both she and her husband, a veteran of the Battle of Okinawa, were forced to defend themselves against accusations of communist loyalties during the McCarthy era.

“It was a very searing moment in their lives, and they were entirely patriotic people,” recalled Mr. de Blasio, sitting at a conference table in his blue-carpeted office on the 15th floor of One Centre Street on Monday, June 7.

Mr. de Blasio majored in urban affairs at N.Y.U.. He marched on Three Mile Island. He got a masters in international affairs at Columbia, focusing on what he thought would be the preeminent issue for decades to come.