Bill de Blasio won’t shut up about his family, for good reason

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Here's a clip tweeted out today by Bill de Blasio's campaign, showing his daughter Chiara telling a crowd of supporters that her dad isn't "some boring white guy who just didn't know what he was talking about" when it comes to caring about all New Yorkers.


 

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That seems to be an implicit dig at Michael Bloomberg, whose "two cities" legacy de Blasio is running against. But the video of Chiara's introduction, like the paid TV commercial of Chiara's brother Dante testifying to his father's qualities as a potential mayor, is also a remarkably effective advertisement for de Blasio's tight-knit, multiracial, Brooklyn-dwelling, public-school-attending family.

This is an explicit, important part of de Blasio's strategy, and has been for as long as he's been a politician. His family and his message are inseparable.

Talking about the Dante ad during an appearance on MSNBC this weekend, de Blasio said, "The important thing to me was portraying who I am, and my family and I have been in this together. My wife and I met in City Hall, working for Mayor Dinkins. ... We always had a sense of our family as part of a community, and then when I started running for office, local school board, an unpaid position, the first time I was campaigning it was with my daughter. She was four, and we were outside her school giving out leaflets. This is very natural to us.

"And I think that family as [an] idea is powerful in New York City today, where we've had a mayor who has not been responsive to the needs of parents, for example public-school parents. I happen to be a public-school parent. ... That's a very important part of what I'm trying to say, is that it's time to have a mayor that actually listens to public-school parents, and so I think this was very natural thing for us, and the response has been warm and positive, and I think people like seeing a loving family together."

De Blasio isn't doing anything unusual by seeking to showcase his family in a mayoral election, and the public-school aspect, while undoubtedly helpful, isn't a prerequisite for electoral success.

Michael Bloomberg, amicably divorced with two daughters who attended The Spence School, was elected three times, with a direct hand from his daughter Emma, who was described by the Times as a "tireless" and high-profile advocate for her father.

(Before him, Rudy Giuliani ran this now-hysterically unsubtle-looking ad about his family, a few years before his marriage to Donna Hanover went very publicly sour, but that was more about canceling out a negative than emphasizing a positive: "I wish all those people who think he's so tough could see him with children," Hanover's voice said, over soft-focus footage of Giuliani smiling and playing with children.)

Among de Blasio's chief Democratic rivals this year, the Quinn campaign believes with good reason that her marriage to Kim Catullo, with all its attendant history-making potential, is a compelling asset, and this week essentially launched Catullo on a comprehensive local-media tour. Bill Thompson's current wife recently began making appearances on the campaign trail, too.

But de Blasio's use of his family stands out, if only by degree: At various points in the past, as during the current campaign, it has almost seemed as if the members of de Blasio's family were the ones running for office, occasionally generating what might be described as low-grade controversy. And even on those occasions, the would-be controversies were nothing but helpful to him. 

When de Blasio ran successfully for public advocate in 2009, and prominently featured his wife, Chirlane McCray, in mailings and TV advertising, Councilman Charles Barron's characteristically combative reaction was this: "For de Blasio to do that is disgraceful. It's an insult to the black community, because you need to be talking about our black issues. Don't just promote your wife."

(De Blasio's response, carried at a cost of zero dollars in write-ups of the Barron criticism: "My family means the world to me.")

When Hunter Walker reported late last year that McCray had once written a cover story for Essence magazine about being a lesbian, the New York Post called it "the weirdest development yet in the race for mayor," and quoted a consultant saying that it "doesn't help" de Blasio's chances.

I disagreed with that anonymous consultant then, and still do, not because what McCray wrote matters, but because the members of de Blasio's family, as the candidate well knows, are still capable of speaking for him more powerfully than he could ever speak for himself. Coverage of them probably represents the best "earned media" scenario for him imaginable.

There's nothing particularly complicated about de Blasio's desire to train as much attention on his family as possible. He's justifiably proud of them. He also knows what moves voters, and he wants to win.