In a mayor’s race crammed with celebrity razzle-dazzle, historic candidacies and tabloid turns, a gangly liberal from Brooklyn is quietly surging into the top tier of the field by talking about decidedly unglamorous topics: neglected hospitals, a swelling poverty rate and a broken prekindergarten system.
Now that Anthony D. Weiner’s campaign has imploded, Bill de Blasio, the public advocate, is drawing new energy and voter interest to a candidacy that presents the most sweeping rejection of what New York City has become in the past 12 years — a city, he says, that is defined by its yawning inequities.
“We are not, by our nature, an elitist city,” he told a group of young Democrats a few nights ago at a cramped bar in Brooklyn. “We are not a city for the chosen few.”
It is the campaign season’s riskiest calculation: that New Yorkers, who have become comfortably accustomed to the smooth-running, highly efficient apparatus of government under Michael R. Bloomberg, are prepared to embrace a much different agenda for City Hall — taxing the rich, elevating the poor and rethinking a Manhattan-centric approach to city services.
In a city that is endlessly congratulating itself for its modern renaissance — record-low crime, unmatched crowds of tourists, streets refashioned in European style — a day on the campaign trail with Mr. de Blasio is a reminder of unaddressed grievances and glaring disparities.
Describing what he calls a “tale of two cities,” rife with inequalities in housing, early childhood education and police tactics, he promised those gathered at the Brooklyn bar that this year’s mayoral race was “going to be a reset moment. A major reset.”
By the time he was finished, well-dressed professionals, gripping glasses of Brooklyn Lager, began to line up to speak with him. Ignoring the next candidate at the microphone, they pledged their liberal loyalties to Mr. de Blasio, who climbed to No. 2 behind Christine C. Quinn, the City Council speaker, in the latest poll by Quinnipiac University of likely Democratic voters.
A young husband and wife, both employees of the city, told of their shock at being unable to afford a home in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn, an evaporating refuge for middle-income buyers. “Now even the gentrifiers are getting priced out by gentrifiers,” said the husband, Ryan Wanttaja.
Mr. de Blasio’s message, despite the excitement it has drawn from liberal luminaries like Alec Baldwin and Howard Dean, has alarmed many business leaders and Bloomberg aides, who see him as lacking a sophisticated understanding of the city’s economic success and displaying a naïveté about how quickly it can unravel.
“He has a very 1960s, 1970s vision for the city,” said Howard Wolfson, a deputy mayor in the Bloomberg administration, invoking a time when crime was rampant and the economy stalled. “If you prefer the version of the city that existed then, he’s your guy.”
Beyond that, Mr. de Blasio’s electoral path remains uncertain in a race against better-known Democrats. William C. Thompson Jr., a former comptroller, holds a natural appeal to the city’s fast-growing minority electorate, and Ms. Quinn is trying to capitalize on her history-making chance to become the city’s first lesbian mayor. In many ways, Mr. de Blasio, 52, is a man without a built-in voter base.
For much of the spring, he languished in the polls, eclipsed by a camera-hogging Mr. Weiner, whose image as a feisty, outer-borough, anti-establishment figure seemed to drown out his message. “Along came Anthony,” Mr. de Blasio recalls, dryly.
Now, Mr. Weiner’s scandal has become Mr. de Blasio’s salvation. During an interview, he acknowledged that disillusioned supporters of the former congressman were giving momentum to his candidacy.
At the heart of Mr. de Blasio’s appeal, according to interviews with his supporters and political team, is a willingness to deliver an unvarnished and unstinting critique of the Bloomberg era in spite of polls that show a majority of New Yorkers believe the city is heading in the right direction under the mayor’s leadership.
It is a strategy, he said, that hinges on a pervasive sense that, for all of New York City’s bike-path charms and pedestrian plaza allures, its denizens are deeply uneasy about inequalities that remain unchecked by City Hall.
Zoning changes have encouraged sky-piercing condominiums with multimillion-dollar price tags, but Mr. Bloomberg vetoed a bill requiring paid sick leave for working-class New Yorkers. By the city’s own measure, 46 percent of residents are poor or near poor, but the mayor scoffed at plans to compel companies that receive city subsidies to pay higher wages. (Mr. de Blasio backs both the wage and paid sick leave measures.)
As he travels the city, Mr. de Blasio can barely contain his fury over what he sees as the central contradiction of the Bloomberg years: a mayor who routinely unleashed the power of government to change New Yorkers’ personal behavior repeatedly balked at harnessing it to change their economic circumstances.
“You can see it; there is a bright line,” Mr. de Blasio said. “On health and the environment, he is Franklin Roosevelt. On economic justice, he’s Adam Smith. He turns into a free marketeer.”
Aides to Mr. Bloomberg point out that the mayor oversaw the construction of about 50,000 units of affordable housing, established a $130 million program to assist young black and Latino men, and built an office that dispenses financial counseling to thousands of low-income residents.
Still, wherever Mr. de Blasio travels these days, resentments toward Mr. Bloomberg’s New York tend to tumble out of voters’ mouths. A woman stopped to rail against wealthy foreigners who are buying luxury apartments, but rarely inhabiting them. “We don’t want to be like those European cities where rich people fly in once a year and nobody really lives there,” she told him.
A man who is H.I.V. positive complained to Mr. de Blasio about the absence of a rent cap on housing for AIDS patients, which he said left him homeless.
A student lamented the city’s class stratification, saying that the city “needs a mayor for the 99 percent, not the 1 percent.”
Inside Mr. de Blasio’s campaign, aides talk about the need to simultaneously recognize Mr. Bloomberg’s triumphs, on issues like the smoking ban, and tap into a widespread desire for a change. “The remedy versus replica theory,” as one adviser put it, speaking on the condition of anonymity because the adviser was not authorized to disclose strategy.
Mr. de Blasio’s campaign platform is unabashedly interventionist and progressive. His most eye-catching plan would raise the income tax rate to 4.3 percent from 3.87 percent on earnings of over $500,000, to pay for universal access to prekindergarten.
Now, an overcrowded system leaves tens of thousands of lower-income residents without access to full-day programs, setting back the early education of a generation, Mr. de Blasio argues. The campaign says the 11 percent increase in the marginal tax rate would amount to about $2,120 for a family earning $1 million.
In conversations with voters, Mr. de Blasio argues that Ms. Quinn and Mr. Thompson have been either unwilling or unable to sufficiently challenge the legacy of the mayor and the city’s corporations over the past decade.
Back at the bar in Brooklyn, Mr. de Blasio’s raw indignation won him a modest electoral victory. When a straw poll of those in the room was completed, around 10 p.m., he had soundly defeated his Democratic rivals.
But his determination to emerge as the unrivaled liberal in the race has entailed a moral showmanship that may repel as many voters as it endears. He was arrested a few weeks ago during a sit-in to protest the latest closing of a city hospital.
“That,” Mr. de Blasio said of his arrest, “is certainly not in the Michael Bloomberg playbook.”