A Tale of Two Cities: Racial Divide Over Bill de Blasio’s Support Widens

Mayor Bill de Blasio outside Rev. Al Sharpton's National Action Network headquarters. (Photo: NYC Mayor's Office)

Mayor Bill de Blasio outside Rev. Al Sharpton’s National Action Network headquarters. (Photo: NYC Mayor’s Office)

When Mayor Bill de Blasio dominated last year’s mayoral primary and general election, returns appeared to show that the Democrat had transcended the racial and ethnic factions that had divided the city’s electorate for so many decades. 

But polling data this year is telling a different story, and revealing that black voters are remaining loyal to Mr. de Blasio while white voters are disavowing the new mayor.

The latest poll from Quinnipiac University found that 60 percent of black voters approve of the job Mr. de Blasio is doing and just 22 percent disapprove. That’s compared to 45 percent of white voters disapproving of the job he is doing, with only 39 percent of white voters approving. 

“There’s no question that the most liberal voters in New York City are people of color,” said Ken Sherrill, an emeritus professor at Hunter College, reflecting on the numbers. “Christine Quinn [a top Democratic rival] carried the east side of Manhattan in the primary, Joe Lhota [Mr. de Blasio's Republican rival in the general election] did unusually well in the Trump Towers part of the West Side, for example, so I think the racial divide has been there all along and that may now mirror the partisan divide in New York City.”

There is little doubt that, when it comes to minority opinion of the mayor of New York City, the pendulum has dramatically swung in a new direction.

Former Mayor Michael Bloomberg enjoyed strong support among white voters and diminished backing from minorities, particularly African-American voters, as he toughened his defense of stop-and-frisk and Ray Kelly, his polarizing police commissioner. When Mr. Bloomberg ran for a third term in 2009 against Bill Thompson, who is black, his performance in minority communities was staggeringly low: just 22 and 23 percent of black male and female voters supported Mr. Bloomberg, exit polls showed. 

Mr. de Blasio, meanwhile, has forged tight bonds with the city’s African-American power brokers and opinion-makers. Mr. Bloomberg, for instance, feuded with Rev. Al Sharpton, who is now a member of Mr. de Blasio’s inner circle. Mr. Sharpton and Mr. de Blasio frequently appear together and Mr. Sharpton’s longtime aide now serves as chief of staff to the mayor’s wife, Chirlane McCray, who is African-American.

That, some say, has helped nudge the numbers.

“It’s as much about de Blasio as it is about Chirlane. They both have very deep ties to the African-American community, but Chirlane has been increasingly visible and vocal in recent weeks on [the fight for universal pre-K] and the work of the de Blasio administration,” said Dan Morris, a Democratic operative who runs the Progressive Cities consulting firm. “She gives him a political boost.”

In the few pockets where Mr. de Blasio struggled in the low turnout general election last year, white, outer borough ethnic voters–traditionally the most politically conservative–dominated.

Joe Lhota, Mr. de Blasio’s Republican opponent, won middle and working class areas of southern Brooklyn and the whole borough of Staten Island, where Mr. de Blasio’s brand of populism is still viewed warily. Whiter and more affluent neighborhoods like Riverdale, the Upper East Side, Forest Hills and eastern Queens also favored centrist rivals like Ms. Quinn in the Democratic primary. 

“White ethnics, middle class voters, independents–the real heart of the Bloomberg and Giuliani days–either didn’t vote for him or did because de Blasio’s rivals were so uninspiring or they were tired of Bloomberg,” said Dan Gerstein, a political consultant and analyst. “Very little of de Blasio’s actual agenda was known to them or resonated with them. There was no sense he was on their side.”

Mr. de Blasio’s most visible outreach so far, observers argue, has also been to minority communities. Mr. de Blasio regularly attends church services with his wife at African-American and protestant churches, which political observers privately argue has done little to boost his brand in white, Catholic enclaves– where, according to at least one report, residents feel neglected by the mayor. 

“Bill de Blasio’s been very supportive of abolishing stop-and-frisk, which was a hot issue in the African-American community more so than the white community, as were his efforts in that area in terms of policing,” said Sal Albanese, a former south Brooklyn councilman and mayoral candidate who has been critical of Mr. de Blasio. (Mr. de Blasio has said he wants to reform, not abolish stop-and-frisk.)

“Some of his positions like the pre-K program also resonate more in the African-American community than they do in white communities … It’s important, though, for the mayor to have a broad base of support across all communities,” he added. “It demonstrates a real failure on his part.”