The Battle for Bill de Blasio’s Soul

“The United States involvement in Central America in the 1980s was horrendous and anti-democratic,” said Mr. de Blasio, who distributed medical supplies in a rebel-torn Nicaragua as a member of Quest for Peace. He rejected Reagan’s support of the rebel Contras, who were attempting to overthrow the socialist Sandinista government. By 1990, the Sandinstas slipped from power and Central America fell out of the headlines. Around the same time, one of Mr. de Blasio’s friends got him a job on the Dinkins campaign, which, to progressives in New York City, was comparable in unvarnished idealism to Barack Obama’s presidential run.

“It became a crusade,” said Henry Berger, an election lawyer who’s worked with Mr. de Blasio.

“It totally opened my eyes to what was possible,” said Mr. de Blasio who stuck around as a senior aide.

Following Mr. Dinkins’ sobering reelection loss in 1993, Mr. de Blasio’s threw himself into the operative world, ultimately working for Andrew Cuomo as a political appointee in charge of HUD’s operations in the metropolitan area. He went on to run Hillary Clinton’s campaign for Senate seven years later. Then, in a quixotic move that surprised many observers, Mr. de Blasio ditched a seemingly limitless career in consulting, deciding instead to become a political principal himself: He ran for City Council in 2001 and won.

“I got married, started having kids, and my whole sense of life was changing around me,” Mr. de Blasio said. “I really wanted to have a community-based life. I wanted to have a family-based life and be very, very involved. And it all came together very nicely with the opportunity to run for Council.”

Mr. de Blasio says he intends to use his new position as public advocate-he beat Mark Green, Eric Gioia and Norman Siegel last year-to continue much of the work he began on the Council: provide a greater voice to public-school parents; reform police-community relations. He also wants to use the office to foment grass-roots activism by teaching community members how to organize; and to make government more transparent by publicly tracking both earmarks and Freedom of Information requests. He intends to do so despite the drastic budget cuts to his office-he can afford only 27 staffers, compared to Mark Green, who averaged 45.

 

GOING FROM RUTHLESS political operative to do-gooder elected official is not a transition that just anyone could make.

“Bluntly, some people should never try to make that leap, because you have to have a certain level of optimism, and you also have to have a lot of desire to give yourself over to people,” Mr. de Blasio said. “There are a lot of people who I would term operatives who just would never stomach that. They’re not bad people, but they’re way too cynical.”

Ironically, that’s just the sort of criticism that’s often leveled at Mr. de Blasio.

Critics point to his involvement with the Working Families Party, which is now under investigation by the U.S. attorney for violating campaign finance law, as an example of that cynical decision making at work. (In an undeniable demonstration of his willingness to engage, when push came to shove, in realpolitik, Mr. de Blasio won a crowded primary with help from the WFP with the full knowledge that their political arm was at least stretching the rules in helping him, and that the campaign finance authorities weren’t in a position to do anything but scold retroactively.)

They also point to his wishy-washy stance on Atlantic Yards- opposed by many members of his district, yet supported by his strongest political backers, ACORN and the unions-and his flip-flopping on term-limits reform. (When he was running for speaker of the Council in 2005, he was for it; by last year he was its most vociferous opponent.)

And, most recently, they have been able to point to his statements against further taxation of Wall Street, which the New York Post lauded in an editorial: “Basically, the public advocate office is a useless waste of taxpayers’ money. But if de Blasio chooses to put it to productive use, good for him.”

Mr. de Blasio, naturally, dismisses the idea that his actions are driven by cold political calculation.

“I find it unbelievable,” Mr. de Blasio said. “When you’ve already gotten a sense of the politics I’ve come from and the things I’ve done, with no self-congratulation intended, that’s not the profile of someone waiting to know which way the wind blew.”

drubinstein@observer.com