The most interesting mayor in North America is not Toronto's superego-averse Rob Ford, the conservative populist who has received much publicity from comedians across the world, but is instead the recently elected progressive populist Bill de Blasio -- the new mayor of New York City. De Blasio's campaign "One New York, Rising Together," was a refreshingly progressive one that did not emphasize crime, as did the slogans of New York's previous Republican mayors. De Blasio campaigned to support workers, teachers' unions, undocumented immigrants, welfare rights and the need for affordable housing, while criticizing the New York Police Department's unconstitutional use of stop-and-frisk tactics. De Blasio proposed raising taxes on those making over $500,000 a year in order to pay for universal pre-kindergarten classes and to expand after-school programs at middle schools. His campaign document mentioned that 400,000 millionaires reside in the city while close to half the population struggles to survive: according to an April 2013 report, 45.8 per cent of the city's residents live in poverty or near poverty -- characterized as a family of four earning less than $46,416. His campaign was inspiring and effective: on the day of the vote de Blasio had 10,000 volunteers working at 40 locations while his Republican opponent had 500 at nine locations; when the results were counted, De Blasio had received majorities across colour, gender, age, religion, income and education levels, offering him the possibility to implement some of his best proposals.
De Blasio was able to reach out to the city's diverse communities because of his fluency in Italian, his basic Spanish, and his decision to emphasize his bi-racial family, namely his activist wife Chirlane McCray, who is of African-American descent, and their children -- both possessing Italian names -- Dante and Chiara. De Blasio's first television advertisement was narrated by his charismatic son, exhibiting an unforgettable sky-high Afro and noting his father's commitment to the city.
De Blasio's universal reach was complemented by his campaign strategy. In the wake of a popular leader, the standard tactic -- such as that adopted by his opponents -- is to reassure the electorate by promising to follow in the footsteps of the master. De Blasio cleverly did the opposite: he first polarized the debate. He railed against Michael Bloomberg, the popular previous mayor of the city. By campaigning against the past, de Blasio established a unique political position and identity that tapped into the injustice and resentment experienced by the large majority of the city that had not benefited from the previous mayor's three terms in power.
Second, and most importantly, De Blasio polarized for the sake of a common good: "One New York, Rising Together." If he had polarized simply to differentiate himself, as Tea Party candidates like to do -- then he would have mobilized his opposition. Alternatively, if he had presented himself as just continuing on the road of Bloomberg he would have soothed some voters but lacked the originality and magnetism needed to stand out from the other contenders. By attacking the seemingly popular Bloomberg for the sake of greater unity he dismantled all of his opponents' campaigns.
Progressives around the United States and Canada should learn from the de Blasio campaign. It is not a bad idea for progressives to polarize the debate if they make clear that they are polarizing for the sake of a greater unity. The Democrats in the United States and the left in Canada constantly try to gain or hold on to power by proving to the electorate that they are as technocratically dependable as their right-wing adversaries. This is a weak tactic: solid management and balanced budgets are not the stuff of which dreams, or votes, are made. Technocratic skills are not a substitute for higher ideals.
Thomas Ponniah is an Affiliate of the David Rockefeller Center for Latin America Studies and an Associate of the Department of African and African-American Studies at Harvard University.
Photo: Bill de Blasio/flickr. Photographer: William Alatriste
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