How Bill de Blasio became the mayor for the 99 per cent

“Bill de Blasio will be a mayor for every New Yorker – and I would say that even if he weren’t my dad.”

A newly elected Mayor de Blasio hugs his son Dante and his daughter Chiara. Image: Getty

In the evening of 5 November, in the Brooklyn suburb of Park Slope, Bill de Blasio arrived at his victory party to an unusual tune. Political playlists are usually anodyne but de Blasio strode in to the thumping strains of a new pop song, “Royals”, by a singersongwriter from New Zealand called Lorde. The crowd, young, left-wing and delirious with success, went wild.

De Blasio is seen in Brooklyn – and in Queens and the Bronx – as an antidote to Manhattan’s politics-as-usual. He ran a Robin Hood campaign, promising to be the mayor for “the 99 per cent”, to raise taxes on the super-rich to pay for education and to build plenty of affordable housing.

“Royals” is about the excesses of the music industry rather than New York but it fits the zeitgeist well. “In a torn-up town,” Lorde sings, her soulful voice draped over a thick bass beat, “we’ll never be royals . . .” It was a neat choice. The song is an anthem of anti-consumerist counterculture that encapsulates de Blasio’s campaign narrative: a surge of progressive energy, the revolt of the outer boroughs against the glittering millionaires of Manhattan.

It is partly a quirk of circumstance that de Blasio is following two Republican mayors in liberal New York. Both were elected in times of crisis: Rudolph Giuliani in 1993 at the height of an epidemic of violent crime and Michael Bloomberg at the end of 2001 while the dust from the World Trade Center was still settling. In both cases, stability, safety and security were temporarily the most important issues.

As with Boris Johnson in London, personality is also a factor. Bloomberg is not your ordinary Republican. He infuriates the right and he governs in a European style, a centraliser and a paternalist. He brought in a smoking ban, cracked down on giant servings of unhealthy fizzy drinks, brought in regulation to reduce air pollution and brought the ailing public school system under mayoral control.

Boris would love to be able to copy Bloomberg’s style but his position is much weaker. New York and London are roughly the same size, with populations of around eight million people, but the mayor of New York has wide executive powers over the city’s education, sanitation, police and emergency services and a budget of $70bn, as well as the ability to levy some taxes. By comparison, the mayor of London controls only the transport and parts of the police authority.

Bloomberg’s philosophy was to make the city more attractive for the wealthy in order to fund philanthropic policies. It worked but while New York prospered, many chafed at the widening gap between rich and poor. They felt Manhattan had become a playground for the elite; that they were being priced out of their own city.

Enter Bill de Blasio. Born in Manhattan but raised in Massachusetts, he worked for the Clinton administration before running successfully for city council in 2001, then became the New York public advocate in 2009. That is a highly visible position, a sort of city ombudsman, but has no executive responsibilities, which makes it an excellent place to build a progressive platform without having to deal with realpolitik.

Yet in the mayoral campaign, it wasn’t de Blasio’s ideology that attracted people’s attention: it was his family. At the beginning of August, de Blasio was still lagging 10 points behind the city council speaker, Christine Quinn, and even half a point behind the scandalmired Anthony Weiner, in the race to be the Democratic candidate.

Then on 9 August, de Blasio’s campaign ran an ad featuring his photogenic – and biracial – teenage son Dante. It ends, touchingly: “Bill de Blasio will be a mayor for every New Yorker – and I would say that even if he weren’t my dad.” Its effect was sensational. In the next day’s polls, de Blasio leaped ahead.

After he won the primary, the campaign turned quiet – dull, even. His Republican opponent, a thoughtful but unexciting transport executive called Joe Lhota, failed to capture the public imagination. Just 40 minutes after the polls closed, Lhota called to concede. De Blasio had won by more than 50 percentage points.

Yet the new mayor-elect already faces a battle. The city’s nearly 300,000 municipal workers have been in deadlock with city hall over pay. Their contracts urgently need renegotiating and there is already a $2bn budget deficit. Finding a settlement will be the first test of de Blasio’s administrative mettle.

Meanwhile, “Royals” is still at number one in the Billboard charts. “Let me be your ruler,” Lorde sings from a thousand cab radios, melody climactic, beat pulsing. “And I’ll rule, rule, rule, rule.”

Nicky Woolf writes for the New Statesman website from the US