De Blasio's Long, and Lucky, Campaign

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Bill de Blasio and his wife Chirlane McCray on election night Nov. 5, 2013.

Bill de Blasio will be the next mayor of New York, the Associated Press has called.

He wins with a mandate and praise for his skills as a political operator. He was right that voters were hungry for something different from Bloomberg, and he gave them a consistent message of change. But after a rough start to his campaign, de Blasio also benefitted from five lucky breaks.

After the lop-sided general election polls, it’s easy to forget that only twelve weeks ago, de Blasio looked like an unlikely winner.

“Look, this has been a really long road,” de Blasio said a week before Election Day. “I started out as the underdog for sure. I was the underdog for a long time, but once the momentum built, it’s never stopped.”

For many months, before de Blasio leapt to the front of the polls in mid-August, it looked like he couldn’t catch a break. De Blasio faced three major setbacks during the primary season.

Setback number one: One of his chief attacks against Chris Quinn got neutralized.

“People in this city know why we need paid sick days,” de Blasio declared at a press conference in January, days before he officially launched his campaign. He was joined by activists and frustrated council members who hammered Speaker Christine Quinn on bottling up the bill. “It’s astounding that after a thousand days we are still having to have these press conferences,” de Blasio said.

Then, city council made a deal on paid sick leave in March, and Quinn was the hero.

“If I miss anyone because there’s a big crowd, just holler,” Quinn said in front of cameras at City Hall, where she was surrounded as she announced the compromise plan. Tellingly, she was also joined by some labor leaders. 

That was setback number two: Big Labor wasn’t convinced de Blasio was their guy.

Despite his long ties to union, de Blasio got just one major endorsement in the primary, from health care workers. Christine Quinn got building and hotel workers. The coveted teacher’s union bet on Bill Thompson.

This was big trouble for Bill de Blasio, the conventional wisdom went. Unlike other candidates, labor was supposed to be his base. Christine Quinn had carved her ground as the establishment choice, with an appeal to history as the first woman and openly gay candidate. Bill Thompson, the only black candidate, was counting on a demographic advantage in a majority minority primary electorate.

Or maybe, without labor consensus, de Blasio could create a path to victory through the outer boroughs.  

But then, setback number three: Anthony Weiner.

When Weiner joined the race in May, his chutzpah and message – about those in the middle class and struggling to make it – crowded out de Blasio’s tale of two cities.

It was temporary.

“Umm, I have said that other texts and photos were likely to come out, and today they have,” Weiner told the world in July.  

Weiner's downfall was lucky break number one for de Blasio

But the impact of Weiner’s fall wasn’t immediately clear.“If you had asked me before the scandal yesterday who was in the runoff, I would’ve told you Quinn and Thompson, and if you asked me after the scandal today, the answer is Quinn and Thompson,” Bradley Tusk, Bloomberg’s 2009 campaign manager, said at the time.

That was before Dante.

“I want to tell you a little bit about Bill de Blasio,” de Blasio’s teenage son said in the now-famous television ad that started running the second week of August.  The ad, and Dante’s prominent afro, introduced New Yorkers to de Blasio as the candidate whose family looked like New York.

The decision to run the ad was strategically masterful.

And the timing was helped by lucky break number two: the leading Democrats had started to flounder.

Quinn couldn’t escape a trail of protesters or the lingering discontent about her support of Bloomberg’s third term.

“I would’ve been for Christine Quinn four years ago, but I can’t forgive her for the third term. I just can’t,” Yvonna Balfour, a 50-ish Chelsea resident who should have been a core Quinn supporter, said in August. She’d decided to go for de Blasio.  

And for Bill Thompson, next to de Blasio’s multi-racial family that was new on the scene, he looked stale.

“Bill Thompson, already had a try and he lost, so let me give somebody else a chance,” Deyon Roman, a Carribbean American voter in Crown Heights, said along the West Indian Day parade route over Labor Day weekend, where the entire de Blasio family was greeted as celebrities.

De Blasio’s momentum crested at just the right moment.

“The NYC Board of Elections says that with all precincts reporting, Bill de Blasio has 40.12 percent, a whisker above the forty-percent threshold needed to avoid a runoff,” WNYC’s Amy Eddings reported the day after the primary election.

Lucky break number three: No run-off, by a hair.

Thompson, Quinn, John Liu and the rest of the Democrats split just so – and De Blasio won the Democratic primary outright. Bill Thompson came in second, and after waiting a few days to watch decimal points and late vote counts, he conceded.

“There is nothing more beautiful than Democratic unity. And thank you for it,” de Blasio declared after Thompson dropped out.

De Blasio could avoid another bruising few weeks of campaigning within his party, and focus on his Republican opponent.

Lucky break number four: The billionaire in the mayoral debate. 

Not Michael Bloomberg, but John Catsimatidis.

The deep-pocketed businessman self-financed a series of attack ads against Lhota in the primary. One declared, “As MTA chairman, Joe Lhota raised subway fares and bridge tolls. John Catsimatidis will never do that.”

Lhota won the GOP primary, but lost the Republican stronghold of Staten Island to Catsimatidis.

After all those ads, in the first general election poll, more likely voters had an unfavorable view of Joe Lhota than favorable. More than a quarter of Republicans didn’t like him.

Joe Lhota tried to run as a manager who could be trusted, who was a different sort of Republican.

“Bill de Blasio is pro-choice. Joe Lhota is pro-choice,” said his first television ad. “Joe Lhota supports gay marriage. Bill de Blasio supports gay marriage.”

Lucky break number five: Lhota's bad timing. 

Their first debate coincided with the government shutdown and debt ceiling standoff in Washington. National opinions about the Republican Party were hitting historic lows, and de Blasio repeatedly linked his opponent to the federal impasse.

“The Republican Party has brought us right up to the brink of disaster, especially the Tea Party faction,” de Blasio said after the debate, in which he repeatedly mentioned Lhota’s primary visit with Tea Party supporters. “You’ll never see me in a room with Tea Party leaders”

There were still more fortuitous developments for de Blasio, including the Lhota campaign’s inconsistent attacks on de Blasio or the timing of federal court rulings on stop and frisk and campaign finance.

And in the end, the guy who at first looked pretty unlucky found a sweeping mandate for his sweeping message.  

Bill de Blasio correctly read the city’s latent Bloomberg fatigue. With his tale of two cities and call to tax the rich to pay for pre-K, he tapped New Yorkers’ longing to find a candidate who got their individual struggles.

But in the primary and the general, Bill de Blasio’s electoral fortunes were also lifted in ways that even the smartest tactician of New York politics couldn’t predict.