One of Bill de Blasio’s most prominent backers today equated the Koch brothers with the Ku Klux Klan while introducing the mayoral front-runner at a church in Harlem.
Harry Belafonte, who has appeared multiple times at Mr. de Blasio’s side during the race’s final stretch, was speaking to the enthusiastic crowd at the First Corinthian Baptist Church about the struggles facing the city and nation during when he came to a section about the influence of money on politics.
“Already, we have lost 14 states in this union to the most corrupt group of citizens I’ve ever known,” he said near the end of his speech. “They make up the heart and the thinking in the mind of those who would belong to the Ku Klux clan. They are white supremacists. They are men of evil. They have names. They are flooding our country with money. They’ve come into New York City … The Koch brothers, that’s their name,” he said, adding, “They must be stopped.”
As Mr. de Blasio took to the stage, he greeted Mr. Belafonte with a big hug, before heaping praise on the singer and civil rights activist, who remained seated by his side.
“When you listen to Harry, you’re listening to the voice of a wisdom that’s deeper than any wisdom we meet in our day-to-life,” he told the crowd, ignoring Mr. Belafonte’s remarks. “It’s deeper because of all the years lived and experienced. We can watch a documentary about the civil rights movement. We can watch a documentary about social change or activism or progressive movements, but we don’t need to watch a documentary today because the man who did that, who helped to create all that, is here.”
“At 87 years old, he hasn’t changed one bit,” he added. “He is a treasure to our nation. Thank him again.”
But speaking to reporters after the service in a scrum outside church, Mr. de Blasio distanced himself from his supporter’s comments.
“I disagree with that characterization. I have great respect for Harry Belanfonte, but I think that was the wrong way to talk about them and I don’t think that’s fair,” he said. Still, he critiqued the brothers–one of whom has been pouring money into his Republican rival, Joe Lhota’s campaign.
“I do think the Koch brothers have hurt the American Democratic process greatly. I think they have been amongst the most aggressive at trying to undermine campaign finance laws that keep money out of the political system,” he continued. “They obviously are very, very conservative and they’re trying to impose a conservative agenda our public discourse. So that’s my problem with them. But I think his characterization’s something I do not agree with.”
He dismissed a follow-up question about why he hadn’t mentioned his disapproval on stage.
“I’m here mentioning it with you guys,” he quipped. “Next.”
Later, outside of a bar in Bay Ridge, Mr. Lhota condemned Mr. Belafonte’s remarks.
“That kind of rhetoric is race-baiting and hateful,” he told Politicker when asked. “Mr. de Blasio has to address anytime anyone race-baits. Anytime anybody does any kind of hate language. There’s no room for it in the city of New York. And he needs to make sure he doesn’t stand … for those things that Belafonte said.”
Update (3:48 p.m.): With Mr. Lhota’s response. Additional reporting by Colin Campbell.