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.

 

Paul Moses, a contributing writer at Commonweal, 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). Follow him on Twitter @PaulBMoses. 

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