A blog by the magazine's editors and contributors


De Blasio: Exploring a mayoral candidate's past

I don't know if the name of Bill de Blasio, the odd-on favorite to be the next mayor of New York City, is much known outside the New York area yet. But if the Democratic nominee succeeds, he surely will be a national figure.

Yesterday and today, the papers carried two articles that delve into his background in interesting ways. The Times's Javier C. Hernandez details de Blasio's ardent support for the Sandinistas, his interest in liberation theology and his work for the Maryland-based Quixote Center.

And the Daily News's Greg B. Smith has offered new details on the complexities of how de Blasio's name changed from Warren Willhelm, Jr.,  to Bill de Blasio.

Both articles give some avenues for insight into the man who would lead the nation's largest city. Before making too much of The Times's reporting on de Blasio's youthful left-wing activity, I would recall that Mayor Rudy Giuliani had been a supporter of George McGovern in his earlier years, and that Mayor Edward Koch was a Greenwich Village reformer. Still, de Blasio's commitment to this movement was deep; it would have to be an important influence on him.

De Blasio's decision to embrace the Italian ancestry on his mother's side of the family may well be the purely personal matter he says it is, but ethnicity is such a big part of New York politics that it deserves the full review the News gives to de Blasio's name changes.

At least in the past, New York politicians with dual ancestry identified with the single ancestry  suggested by their last names. Al Smith was part Italian, but never told anyone, even though Italians made up a large constituency. Fiorello La Guardia was half-Jewish, but did not make much of that despite the importance of the Jewish vote. (In any case, his progressive politics and his opposition to the Nazis appealed greatly to Jewish voters.)

The current mayoral campaign seems to mark a change in New York's tribal politics. In the primary, Democratic voters in the heavily Italian-American sections of Staten Island favored a black candidate, Bill Thompson, whose roots are in the Caribbean, rather than de Blasio, who took a more liberal tack. Black voters across the city split evenly between the Italian-American de Blasio and Thompson. De Blasio's campaign emphasized his marriage to a black woman, and showcased the couple's son Dante in very effective ads opposing the police stop-and-frisk tactic.


About the Author

Paul Moses, a professor of journalism at Brooklyn College/CUNY, is the author of The Saint and the Sultan: The Crusades, Islam and Francis of Assisi's Mission of Peace (Doubleday, 2009) and An Unlikely Union: The Love-Hate Story of New York's Irish and Italians (NYU Press, 2015).



Commenting Guidelines

  • All

The Sandinistas?  Liberation theology?  The Quixote Center?  Seems to me that Bill de Blasio is in good company.  Perhaps, "our day has come" even in New York City!

What's the big deal about de Blasio embracing his Italian heritage?  For especially a politician, embracing Italian culture and traditions of practicality, with their live and let live philosophy of life, is certainly a helpful aspect of de Blasio's candidacy, especially in the ethnic soup of NYC politics.  

I have a Welch surname; my middle name though is from my maternal Calabrian grandfather.  The major formative influences that enrich my life to this day come from these poor, uneducated immigrants, not my father's family.  My mother grew up in a place and time when being a daughter of Italian immigrants was something you let go of because the social imperative to be assimilated.  [In fact, my nanu/grandfather was thrilled that at least one of his five daughters, his youngest daughter, found an American husband!]  I have many relatives who anglicizied their surnames - to be more accurate, the nuns at the local parish school changed the spelling of their names to be more "American."

Face it, de Blasio's family is what America - even NYC - increasingly looks like.  Being a clever politician, de Blasio is only exploiting his personal strengths.  [Just like Barrack Obama emphasizing being raised by his WW2, white maternal grandparents.]  

Here in California, whites are no longer in the majority.  I fully expect our politicians in the future will increasingly reflect that reality.  One of the most prominently mentioned possible successors to Gov. Jerry Brown is our Oakland-born, African-American, Howard Univ. and Berkeley law grad, decidedly very liberal, Attorney General Kamala Harris.  

California's, New York City's, indeed all of America's future is De Colores - Made of Colors!

I firmly believe that at least among the young ethnicity is no longer relevant.  New Orleans now has a white major -- elected largely by a very large African-American majority.  And -- wonder of wonders -- the State of Louisiana elected an Indian-American (Bobby Jindal) who is as dark-skinned as  most African Americans!  On the tribal front things are looking up :-)

I wonder how the waning of traditional tribal politics in NYC tracks with gentrification of large sections of city, the shrinking working class, and the weakening influence (and fracturing coalitions) of labor--and the consquent shifts in the content and subtext of political debate at the neighborhood level. De Blasio as candidate built initial support in what may have once been called brownstone Brooklyn but which now describes more a class, or even an aspirational lifestyle, than a geographically defined precinct. Anyway, for poignant counterpoint to de Blasio piece, there's this Clyde Haberman interview with old-school former mayoral candidate Sal Albanese. 

That deBlasio was against Ronald Reagan invading Nicaragua to get rid of the Sandinistas has got to be a major plus in any campaign....... out side the Tea party areas.

Alex Pareene at Salon has a very good response to/analysis of the NYT DeBlasio piece. He suggests, correctly I think, that the article seems to have been meant to "cause trouble," but in fact ends up making DeBlasio more sympathetic, at least to people who don't find a background in progressive activism inherently frightening.

de Blasio's Republican opponent is really over the top in trying to make hay of this:

“Bill de Blasio needs to explain himself -- and explain himself now -- to the hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers who escaped Marxist tyranny in Asia, Central America, and from behind the Iron Curtain in Eastern Europe.

“Mr. de Blasio’s involvement with the Sandinistas didn’t happen in 1917; it happened 70 years later when the cruelty and intrinsic failure of communism had become crystal clear to anyone with a modicum of reason,” Lhota said. “Mr. de Blasio’s class warfare strategy in New York City is directly out of the Marxist playbook. Now we know why.”

The Central American solidarity movement, including opposition to the US-funded Contra war against the Sandinistas, was fairly popular in NYC in the 1980s.  There were sister city programs.  Plenty of declarations of solidarity in City Council votes.  Churches were sanctuaries for  refugees.  Sandinista leaders were feted by church and political leaders when they came to NYC.  Ortega packed Riverside Church several times.  Even the lone Republican US Representative, Bill Green voted against aid to the Contras.  I can't imagine this helping Lhota at all in NYC.  Anyone with a modicum of knowledge of the history of Nicaragua in the 1980s knows that the main cruelties of that era came from the US funded Contras.  de Blasio was on the right side of history period. 

Lhota is proving to be an unthoughtful, brash, loudmouth bully.  Anyone who paid attention to his reign at the MTA would know that.


Jack Marth: Good points -- though you can't blame the guy for using whatever he's got! Also from Alex Pareene's piece:

In New York City in 2013, I think Republican Joe Lhota is going to have a tough time making de Blasio’s support for the Sandinistas into a successful attack line or wedge issue.

(NB: America has a lot of still-respected public figures and statesmen in this country who loudly supported the Contras, and apartheid, and Pinochet, and worse, and none of that is ever dredged up as controversy-bait except by cranky lefties.)

Some good letters in the NY Times today on the topic:

Add new comment

You may login with your assigned e-mail address.
The password field is case sensitive.

Or log in with...

Add new comment