From soft on crime to socialist, the attacks on de Blasio that didn’t stick

Liz Goodwin
·Senior National Affairs Reporter

Bill de Blasio has been called a Cuba-loving socialist, soft on crime, two-faced and even an irresponsible late sleeper over the past six months of his campaign to lead the nation’s largest city.

But nothing quite stuck.

On Tuesday, de Blasio is expected to sail to victory over Joe Lhota, his Republican rival and the former chairman of the city’s transit system, to become the next mayor of New York City. De Blasio, a former city councilman and current public advocate, emerged victorious in a crowded Democratic primary in September, brushing off accusations that his self described "progressive" views will return New York City to its graffiti-covered, crime-ridden past.

The lines of attack against de Blasio have fallen into two major camps: that his staunch opposition to the way the city police force has used “stop and frisk” means he is soft on crime, and that his liberal beliefs are too extreme for New York. De Blasio has said on the campaign trail that income inequality has divided New York into the haves and have nots, a “tale of two cities” he would try to correct as mayor.

The New York Post, the city’s right-leaning tabloid and one of the loudest voices among de Blasio's critics, took its best shot against him on its cover Monday, running a photo of de Blasio’s disembodied head next to a huge hammer and sickle. “Back in the USSR!” the cover said. “’Progressive’ Bill’s secret Cold War trip.” The story refers to de Blasio visiting the Soviet Union in 1983, when he was a college student at NYU. Earlier in the campaign, de Blasio’s opponents hammered him for honeymooning in communist Cuba and doing aid work in Nicaragua during the communist-funded Sandinista civil war.

But the latest Marist poll out Monday shows de Blasio leads among likely voters, 65 percent to Lhota's 24 percent. Only 8 percent of voters said they may still change their minds before Tuesday.

“They ran a very, very time-warped campaign,” Doug Muzzio, a professor at Baruch College’s school of public affairs, said of Lhota. “One reason it didn’t work is that de Blasio had a coherent, clear, consistent message and vision, and that was one of change, hopeful change.”

Even the “soft on crime” attacks that Lhota used in multiple ads, hoping New Yorkers would be afraid enough of the city’s crime-ridden history to reject de Blasio, harkened back to the '70s and '80s.

An October ad from Lhota’s campaign called de Blasio “recklessly dangerous” on crime, juxtaposing the charge with grainy black and white images of graffiti-covered subway cars and street crime from the 1970s. In another Lhota ad, the former Rudy Giuliani aide said New York City is “one bad mayor away” from going back to the crime and budget chaos of a few decades ago.

At one point, Mayor Mike Bloomberg waded in and told New York Magazine he thought it was “racist” of de Blasio to feature his own mixed-race family in campaign ads against “stop and frisk.” (De Blasio argued that the Bloomberg-approved NYPD policy of stopping and searching New Yorkers without a warrant was applied in a racially biased way.) Bloomberg’s remarks were widely panned.

These tactics may not have been the best route for Lhota to take.

For one thing, the median age in New York City is 35, two years younger than the national average, which means most New Yorkers weren’t even alive or were just babies in the 1970s. Secondly, the racial demographics of the city have changed quickly: In 1990, 43 percent of the city was white. By 2010, that had dropped to 33 percent, meaning de Blasio’s argument that "stop and frisk" unfairly targets minorities could resonate personally with a larger share of voters than ever before.

“A lot has changed since the 1970s,” said Costas Panagopoulos, an assistant professor of political science at Fordham University. “There’s a lot that the mayor can do to determine what life in the city is like, but so much of the overall social, economic and political environment is determined by forces that are much larger than what’s in the immediate control of any individual mayor.”

Voters might see these crime claims as “far-fetched,” he added.

“I think the most effective critique could have been de Blasio’s lack of managerial experience,” Muzzio said. “Can de Blasio actually govern?”

Panagopoulos agreed. “I’m surprised there wasn’t more of an effort to take advantage of the private sector experience that Lhota has and contrast that with de Blasio’s lack of private sector experience,” he said.

But Panagopoulos added that the nature of the race made attacking de Blasio difficult in such a heavily Democratic city, where many voters check out after the primary. “The main problem for candidates in this race is that for most voters this race ended in September,” he said.

With the race nearly over, Lhota tried to gain an advantage by lampooning de Blasio for being an hour late to one of his own campaign rallies. To explain, de Blasio said he’s not a morning person. “If you do not have the physical wherewithal to be the mayor, you should not be the mayor," Lhota said darkly.