Michael Blake Brings It All Back Home to the Bronx

Bronx Assembly hopeful Michael Blake (Photo: Gerri Hernandez).

Bronx Assembly hopeful Michael Blake (Photo: Gerri Hernandez).

Bronx Assembly candidate Michael Blake knew him when he was just Senator Barack Obama.

It was January 2006, and the future president was making an appearance at the Hilton Garden Inn on Capitol Hill. Mr. Blake recalled how hotel staff and guests alike lined the halls hoping to glimpse the man whose speech at the 2004 Democratic convention had caught the nation’s attention.

“They just wanted to see him,” Mr. Blake, a front-runner for disgraced Eric Stevenson’s old seat, told the Observer. “As a senator it was impossible not to recognize his energy and the aura of what could be possible. We were all there through the beginning of that momentum, to see someone special.”

Mr. Blake was 23 years old then, a Bronx native, a second-generation Jamaican-American, a Methodist lay minister and the son of an emergency room cleaner–and member of 1199 SEIU–at Saint Barnabas Hospital. His family had at times struggled to hold onto their apartment, and he went to impoverished P.S. 79–a school spotlighted in Jonathan Kozol’s famous study “Savage Inequalities of Public Education in New York”–but still he graduated from Northwestern University with a degree in journalism.

Taking his first name from Jamaican Prime Minister Michael Manley and his middle name from union organizer Alexander Bustamante, Mr. Blake decided to pursue a career in politics, and in 2005 had interned for Illinois State Senator Jeff Schoenberg. He applied for a job at the union UNITE HERE, but the organization’s president recommended he instead look into a new program for ambitious minority youth called “Yes We Can,” founded by Mr. Obama.

When the star-struck young man asked the then-senator for his autograph, Mr. Obama jotted a quick message that Mr. Blake still repeats.

“Michael, dream big dreams,” Mr. Obama wrote.

Mr. Obama taught Mr. Blake and his peers the organizing skills the politician had learned in inner-city Chicago–knocking on doors, coordinating events, writing fund-raising appeals. In February 2007, Mr. Blake applied to work on the senator’s presidential campaign.

Three weeks later, he moved to Iowa.

As outreach director for the campaign, Mr. Blake used his new organizing abilities in the candidate’s groundbreaking ground operation, arranging Mr. Obama’s early victory in the state’s caucuses. From there, he helped run the campaign in seven different states, culminating in Mr. Obama’s primary triumph over front-runner Hillary Clinton.

After Mr. Obama took office in 2009, Mr. Blake served in the White House as Associate Director of Public Engagement and Deputy Associate Director of the Office of Intergovernmental Affairs, where he oversaw outreach to minority business owners. He stepped down from the job last January to manage Reshma Saujani’s unsuccessful campaign for Public Advocate.

One year later, a jury found Mr. Stevenson guilty of taking some $22,000 in bribes from senior center developers. The conviction echoed one just 11 years earlier, when Assemblywoman Gloria Davis–representing the same seat–pleaded guilty to taking $24,000 from a contractor seeking to secure a job.

Mr. Blake said he saw the open seat as an opportunity to import the president’s Illinois political style to the Bronx–and restore his neighborhood’s faith in its elected leaders. He has spent the last several months going door-to-door–Obama ’08 style–and talking with residents about their concerns.

“For me, this candidacy is about bringing the skills I’ve learned in my service to my country and bringing it to my home town,” Mr. Blake said. “The key is constantly remembering and reminding yourself that people are skeptical of politics here. It’s talking to people about your vision. People just need to see that transparency, and they see that when a candidate knocks on their door.”

Much like Mr. Obama, Mr. Blake has based his campaign appeal more on the inspirational aspects of his personal narrative than on any specific policy proposals. He has some familiar and vague promises and catchphrases about improving education, public safety, and employment–in his words, turning the Bronx into “the Silicon Valley of the East”–but he said he sells himself to the voters as a populist hero and role model.

“Someone’s going to look at me, look at my story, look at my background and ask ‘is Michael Blake going to help me more than anyone else can?'” the candidate said. “I’m able to go into the community and say, ‘I grew up there, I’m just like you, if I can go and do these things, anything is possible.'”

So far, his hope-and-change approach seems to be working. His campaign reported collecting 3,087 signatures to get him on the ballot, and he has received more than $179,700 in campaign contributions–and the coveted endorsement of his dad’s old union, 1199.

Two of his rivals, parent coordinator Raul Rodriguez and local activist George Alvarez, have respectively raised roughly $2,000 and $41,000 each. Attorney Marsha Michael–who has the endorsement of Bronx Democratic Party chairman Carl Heastie and Public Advocate Tish James–has raised just shy of $33,000

Mr. Blake’s front-runner status has made him a target for criticism, however. Former assemblyman Michael Benjamin, who represented the 79th District before Mr. Stevenson, attacked Mr. Blake in the New York Post this week for taking donations from allies of ambassador to South Africa (and Mayor Bill de Blasio confidant) Patrick Gaspard and for unceremoniously dropping several district leader candidates from his petitions in order to allegedly win support from the party establishment.

Mr. Blake brushed off the criticism, and said his campaign’s actions are completely normal.

“Candidates all the time have multiple levels of petitions,” the candidate said.

There are other signs Mr. Blake may not be as much of a reformer as he purports to be. He told the Observer that he had every intention of supporting scandal-scarred Sheldon Silver for another term as speaker–meaning that he supports the Assembly continuing to function the same way it has since Mr. Silver ascended to the ruling role 20 years ago.

Mr. Blake maintains, however, that he will oppose the Assembly’s power structure when it is morally correct to do so–again, saying he takes his cue from Mr. Obama.

“I’m going to be someone who will be a leader and stand up and challenge what is wrong. It’s just like with the president and healthcare reform. People told him, ‘you can’t do this,’ but he said ‘it’s the right thing to do’ and he got it done,” said Mr. Blake. “People are seeing this campaign is going to be different, this is going to be special.”

Updated to make it clear that Mr. Blake received funds not from Mr. Gaspard, but from people connected to him. Also, the original published version indicated Mr. Blake left the White House in January of this year, not in January 2013.