Bill de Blasio, the liberal who kept going

De Blasio at his announcement in January. (De Blasio for New York.)
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Shortly before the City Council voted to extend term limits five years ago, one outspoken Brooklyn councilman stood up and delivered a powerful speech condemning the move.

"We are stealing like a thief in the night their right to shape our democracy," Bill de Blasio declared before casting his "no" vote during the most divisive Council meeting of Speaker Christine Quinn's tenure.

With that statement inside Council chambers in City Hall on Oct. 23, 2008, de Blasio set himself on a path to his victory Nov. 5, 2013, when he defeated Republican Joe Lhota by a staggering 73-24 margin.

"I've spoken throughout this campaign about a tale of two cities," de Blasio said in his mayoral victory speech in the Park Slope Armory, to a large, delighted crowd. "That inequality, that feeling of a few doing very well while so many slip further behind, that is the defining challenge of our times because inequality in New York is not something that only threatens those who are struggling."



Four years ago, when de Blasio won a race to become public advocate, it seemed likely to be the peak of his career as an elected official. 

De Blasio struggled to gain relevance, overseeing a 40-person staff with a meager, Bloomberg-ravaged $2.3-million budget in an ill-defined position with virtually no tangible responsibilities. For the most part, de Blasio had a quiet tenure, surfacing occasionally when he managed to grab a piece of a national issue, as when he spoke out against the limitless corporate donations to political campaigns that resulted from the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision in 2010.

As public advocate, de Blasio only sponsored six bills in the Council, and he delayed taking positions on several hot-button issues, like whether to require companies that receive city subsidies pay higher wages. (He eventually supported that measure.)

In the latter half of his term de Blasio gravitated more toward local causes like water bills and city-issued fines on small businesses, but he failed to establish himself as a recognizable Democratic commodity on the order of a Christine Quinn, or Bill Thompson, or even Anthony Weiner. 

But he had a plan.

De Blasio began running for mayor in earnest in October 2012, with his pledge before the pro-business group Association for a Better New York to increase income taxes on New Yorkers earning at least $500,000 to fund Universal Pre-Kindergarten and expanded middle-school programs. Here, de Blasio was presenting himself as the natural choice of voters fed up with the extended tenure of Michael Bloomberg. 

Three months later, on a blustery January afternoon outside his Park Slope house, de Blasio officially declared his candidacy. He stood alongside his wife, Chirlane McCray, and son Dante, who later starred in a compelling TV ad that introduced his attractive, biracial family to many voters. (De Blasio's 18-year-old daughter Chiara was attending college in California.)

The announcement attracted less press coverage than Quinn's energetic, five-borough rollout in March, and the months that followed proved a tough haul.

Other than a report he issued in February attacking the Bloomberg administration for excessive fines on small businesses in the outer boroughs, de Blasio got scant news coverage. He was in the horse-race trap. Lack of attention meant he couldn't break ten percent in public polls. Poor showings in the polls meant less media attention. 

De Blasio stuck to his theme of discontent with the mayor and his preferred successor, hammering Quinn for her closeness to the administration and in particular for her delayed support of a bill mandating paid sick days.

But he failed to clinch unified support from the city's powerful labor unions, which make up the Working Families Party that he helped found. Union leaders privately worried about his low poll numbers and sub-par fund-raising, compared to his Democratic primary rivals.

De Blasio ended up receiving the backing of 1199 Service Employees International Union, which has strong a political ground operation, but lost other major labor groups like the United Federation of Teachers and 32BJ, the buildings-service workers union.

De Blasio stayed focused. He was selling a progressive vision of change, particularly for lower-income New Yorkers who struggled with the city's high cost of living.

His campaign's message anticipated the public's mood: An Aug. 28 Quinnipiac University poll found 65 percent of likely Democratic voters wanted "a new direction" from Bloomberg, while only 25 percent wanted his successor to stay the course. 

De Blasio highlighted his plan to tax wealthy city residents, and a report released in April by the Bloomberg administration showing 46 percent of city residents living in or near poverty in 2011.

"They did a very good job of articulating a progressive message with regard to income inequality by highlighting de Blasio's plan to tax the wealthy and that's important," Thompson's campaign manager Jonathan Prince told Capital.

Then in May, the campaign was struck by a meteor in the form of Anthony Weiner, who entered the primary and promptly obliterated the public's view of the entire field, but especially de Blasio, who like Weiner is a white, male, Bloomberg-criticizing champion of the outer boroughs. 

A Wall Street Journal-NBC New York-Marist poll released June 25 showed Weiner with 25 percent. Quinn had 20 percent, Thompson 13, and de Blasio 10.

A Quinnipiac poll released the following day showed Weiner with 17 percent, a mere two points behind Quinn and one point ahead of Thompson. De Blasio, again, had 10 percent.

On July 10, de Blasio made a splash by getting himself arrested protesting the state's closure of Long Island College Hospital in downtown Brooklyn. The issue earned him a significant amount of local press at a time when he needed it most, even if he didn't realize it.