Bill de Blasio and the Deval Patrick trajectory

Bill de Blasio with a megaphone. (Dan Rosenblum)
Tweet Share on Facebook Share on Tumblr Print

A conversation with MSNBC host and Salon columnist Steve Kornacki about the rise of Bill de Blasio.

Steve: I'm starting to think the best parallel for what's happened with de Blasio in the last month is Deval Patrick in Massachusetts. That probably sounds random, but I think the Patrick example encompasses pretty much everything that's happening here.

The basic story is that Patrick, who ran the Civil Rights division of the Justice Department under Bill Clinton, began the 2006 campaign for governor as a total afterthought. Once Joe Kennedy, as he always does, took himself out of the race, the overwhelming favorite for the Democratic nomination was Tom Reilly, the attorney general. He was basically a mainstream liberal and was the next-in-line guy, although he'd staked out a few positions (like on taxes) that were designed to appease general-election swing voters—the folks who had voted Republican for 4 straight gubernatorial elections. As the '06 campaign opened, Massachusetts—bluest of the blue states—hadn't actually elected a Democratic governor since the Dukakis landslide of 1986. Does this sound familiar?

So at first, Reilly is way ahead, with Patrick polling in single digits. But Patrick leaned heavily on his biography—born to a single mother on the South Side of Chicago, given a chance to make something of himself by Milton Academy outside Boston—and staked out policy and rhetorical turf to Reilly's left. What became clear pretty quickly is that support for Reilly, a publicly bland fixture on the political scene, was thin. The Democratic base wasn't in the mood to settle for the next-in-line guy, and Patrick caught fire. His ascent was almost as sudden and dramatic as de Blasio's has been. By the time the primary rolled around, it wasn't even close: 50 percent for Patrick, 27 percent for Chris Gabrieli (a rich businessman who jumped in at the last minute when Patrick lapped Reilly), and 23 percent for Reilly. Specifically, here's the overlap I see between NYC '13 and MA '06:

MORE ON CAPITAL

ADVERTISEMENT

1. Power of the personal: I guess we can't quantify the degree to which de Blasio's showcasing of his family has enhanced his message, built credibility with key constituencies, and generally made his campaign feel more exciting. But I think it's very real. And it's similar to how Patrick's own personal story and the history-making potential of his campaign (first black governor in a state with a fraught racial history) stirred the base and made his campaign feel bigger than it otherwise might have.

2. Vulnerability of the front-runner: I always thought Reilly got kind of a bum rap from Dems in Massachusetts in '06, and I think the same is happening with Christine Quinn now. Both were/are largely in line with their party bases and on any scale of national Democratic politicians well to the left. But they both had been on the stage a while, both had insider titles, and both carried themselves publicly with the bland caution of a front-runner. This made it easy to caricature them as creatures of the establishment.

Along these lines, they both also made some general election-minded concessions early on. Reilly entered the race knowing he'd be the heavy favorite on the Dem side, but also aware that it had been 20 years since a Dem had won in Mass. He calculated that his biggest obstacle was coming across the general election voters as the same kind of Dem they kept rejecting. So he staked out positions on the death penalty and taxes that were supposed to keep the suburbs from revolting in the fall. This reminds me of Quinn's ties to Bloomberg. At the outset of this campaign, she had reason to think her biggest threat was being dismissed by November voters as the next Dinkins/Messinger/Green/Ferrer/Thompson. She wanted them to feel safe finally backing a D; hence the (comparatively) non-acrimonious relationship with Bloomberg and the Ray Kelly thing. By thinking ahead to November, Reilly and Quinn created space on the left for skillful challengers to claim there were urgent ideological imperatives in rejecting them. Even if the claims were overstated, there was a built-in appetite among the Democratic base to go along with them.

3. Effects of long-term Republican rule on Democratic base: Democrats themselves were a key reason for the sustained run of Republican governors in Mass. In 1990, a cultural conservative, John Silber, lost lefty bastions like Cambridge, Amherst and Provincetown to Bill Weld. In 1998, a reformer/good-government Democrat, Scott Harshbarger, lost blue collar, traditionally Democratic cities like Lowell and Fall River. And in 2002, the state's bedroom communities flocked to Mitt Romney, who promised to uphold their culturally liberal values while protecting them from big, bad Democratic bosses and power brokers.

But Romney changed everything as governor. After two years, he basically quit on the job and began pitching himself aggressively to national Republicans. The reaction among the Democratic base was rage, watching their state's governor embrace a far-right platform and travel the country bashing Massachusetts. It created a hunger for a candidate like Patrick that hadn't been there for the previous 20 years. In New York City, it's been five straight mayoral elections that non-Democrats have won, and with Bloomberg fatigue among Democrats soaring, de Blasio is tapping into something similar.

4. The general election: Republicans in New York City all say de Blasio is the Democrat they want to run against—the easiest mark when it comes to convincing voters that electing a Dem will turn back the quality of life to where it was a generation ago. Patrick was also the Republicans' dream opponent in Massachusetts in 2006, for roughly the same reason. But his Republican opponent in the fall, Lieutenant Governor Kerry Healy, threw everything at Patrick that Republicans had been throwing at Dems for a generation—most infamously with the parking lot ad. But Patrick was likable, not just to the liberal base of his party, and 2006 was not a good year to be a Republican (the national anti-Bush wave gave Dems control of the House and Senate). Patrick ended up winning by 20 points. In the climate of '06, Mass voters weren't scared by reminders of bad things from 20 years ago. They were exhausted with their outgoing Republican governor, unusually open to a "clean break" message, and they liked Patrick. It's not a prediction, but I could see something similar playing out here in the fall.

Josh: It seems pretty clear the general will play out quite a lot like that if de Blasio is the nominee, in terms of the line of attack against him.

Joe Lhota even happens to be a little like Kerry Healey, in terms of resume: thinksy Republican with strong public-sector managerial credentials and distinctly blue-state views on social issues.

But his defining characteristic for voters is going to be his affiliation with a prior Republican administration, and he'll have no choice, as far as I can tell, but to play that to the hilt. He's already got Rudy Giuliani up on the air to answer the attacks of his better-funded, say-anything primary opponent, John Catsimitidis. And assuming Lhota gets through to the general, I'm picturing his campaign against de Blasio as one big parking-lot ad, warning of high crime and busted budgets and shuttered businesses if New York puts an unreconstructed liberal in City Hall.

The question is whether voters here are going to be any more scared by reminders of bad things from 20 years ago than the Mass voters were in 2006. If the Democratic primary polls are any indication, they aren't.

That's kind of inevitable, isn't it?

Steve: Oh yeah. I mean, what else could Lhota run on in a heavily Democratic city like this except trying to recapture the mood that helped Rudy and Bloomberg defy gravity? And really, I'm trying to stop making predictions. I've made enough awful ones in the past. Who knows, maybe Quinn has a good final week, ekes into the runoff and beats de Blasio? But if de Blasio does get through, I'm just increasingly skeptical that Lhota will get much traction with the "Never forget 1993" message. When you think about it, I'm not sure that kind of message has actually worked since 1993. I mean, Rudy won on it the first time. He got re-elected in 1997 on his own record. Without 9/11, voters would likely have handed the city back to the Democrats in 2001. And '05 and '09 were Bloomberg running on his own record (aided by his own fortune and all of the obvious and not-so-obvious things that did for him), which Lhota doesn't have.

So now we have an open-seat election with the city increasingly tired of Bloomberg—a natural feeling after 12 years of anyone. Not to turn this into a shameless plug, but when we had de Blasio on my show and pressed him about what the R's will do to him this fall, I thought he handled it well. In the current climate, I'm inclined to believe him when he says, "It isn't 1993 anymore."

Josh: So that's the other variable. Times are different, yes, but the question here is also whether de Blasio isn't somehow better equipped to stave off the scary stuff—whether he doesn't somehow read as a more managerially competent liberal than Messinger/Green/Ferrer/Thompson did.

I thought he handled your questions well, too, and in general that while he's not an electrifying candidate, and lacks the charisma even of an Anthony Weiner, he's a smart guy who gives a good account of himself.

But I think the biographical stuff has been huge for de Blasio, in making voters feel comfortable with him. It's never been a mystery, as far as I'm concerned, why de Blasio leads with his family—I think they're always going to be the best possible advertisement for who he is. The much-discussed racial angle is part of it, and is undoubtedly a huge factor in his ability to compete on an equal footing with Bill Thompson for African-American voters. But I'd also speculate that their circumstance—raising public-school kids in the outer boroughs—gives him a major advantage in terms of his credibility when he's talking about understanding people's problems and the personal stake he has in, say, not letting public safety go to pot.

I don't believe for a second that his wife, Chirlane McCray, meant to take a shot at Christine Quinn for not having a traditional family when she and de Blasio did that interview with Maureen Dowd. But I do think she was stating a premise of the campaign (one that her seasoned-candidate husband would probably have left unstated, even in post-correction form) when she asserted that the de Blasios understood stuff Quinn couldn't.

Steve: I have to say, you kind of opened my eyes to the potential power of the public-school kids thing. I hadn't really considered it, maybe because I don't have kids. But overall, I agree that the impact of his family isn't just to give him credibility with African-Americans and with Nation-reading liberals, who are maybe drawn to the idea of a politically progressive biracial family. I mean, to look at the Q poll yesterday, he's also leading among moderate and conservative Democrats. Now what's moderate and conservative when it comes to Democrats in New York City? I'm not exactly sure. But I suspect his image, at least for now, is boosting him with people who have essentially zero interest in being part of the Great Progressive Reawakening.

Josh: Well or maybe I'm just a sucker for it, as an outer-borough parent of public-school children.

But something's working for him. And his great political achievement, if the polls stick, will have been in attracting votes from people who, as you say, couldn't care less what we or any of the other media-natterers think, and who don't consider that they're enlisting in any movement by deciding to like Bill de Blasio. I suspect those are also the people who stand to be least disappointed by a de Blasio administration, too, once he stops being a designated critic of the powerful and becomes the guy responsible for denying raises to unions and keeping crime down and waging if-you-must campaigns to try to force Albany to do things it isn't inclined to do.

Or am I getting ahead of myself?

Steve: ... at which point the liberals who made de Blasio's campaign a national cause finally concede that, you know what, Mayor Quinn would have been pretty much the same.

But yeah, maybe we're both getting ahead of ourselves. I try to learn from my mistakes, and one of them has consistently been overreacting to polls, even when we're talking about a clear polling trend. Azi wrote about how Quinnipiac's numbers may be a little shaky, so maybe the new one that has de Blasio at 43 is garbage. Maybe it's more like 35-23-22, or something like that. And maybe a week-long barrage from Quinn/Thompson keeps de Blasio safely under 40, elevates his negatives and turns the runoff into a real game. Or maybe the first general-election poll has Lhota, like, six points behind or something. When I was younger, I was too dumb to know how dumb I am. But I'm a little more mindful now of how easily I can get carried away with things, which makes me take pains to hedge, like I'm doing now. That said, when de Blasio took the lead a few weeks ago, Quinn then got her act together in the second debate and got the Times endorsement and I figured the race would tighten. I'm surprised it hasn't, at least not in the numbers we've seen.

Josh: Like Tom Reilly all over again.