It’s fitting that the campaign to succeed a media mogul mayor may have turned on a television ad.
New York City Public Advocate Bill de Blasio handily won the city’s Democratic primary Tuesday, though it’s not yet clear if he had enough votes avoid a runoff with the second place finisher, former Comptroller Bill Thompson. It could take up to a week to count all of the ballots. Joe Lhota, a deputy mayor under Rudy Giuliani, won the Republican race.
A longshot at the outset, de Blasio benefitted from a well-timed sexting scandal and an electorate ready for change after 12 years of Mayor Michael Bloomberg. But the defining moment of the onetime political operative’s populist campaign was a shrewd 30-second ad.
“I want to tell you a little bit about Bill de Blasio,” says an African-American teenager in a kitchen — identified only as a 15-year-old named Dante from Brooklyn – as the ad opens. “He’s the only Democrat with the guts to really break from the Bloomberg years,” Dante continues, before listing the ways de Blasio would do just that. Over images of de Blasio with his family, the ad ends with the line: “Bill de Blasio will be a mayor for every New Yorker, no matter where they live or what they look like and I’d say that even if he weren’t my Dad.”
It was a sharp message, with a savvy delivery. The topics it covered – the city’s stop-and-frisk policing policy, stagnant middle class wages and rising housing costs – tapped into the frustration and anger of voters who feel left out of Bloomberg’s prosperous global city. Having Dante make the case allowed de Blasio to establish himself as the anti-Bloomberg without seeming inflammatory. If Bloomberg could come off as an imperious, Manhattan-centric mayor who favored the wealthy, the ad cast de Blasio as his foil: a Brooklyn family man with a black wife and son who would look out for the entire city.
“It was definitely the electoral equivalent of soft power,” says William Cunningham, a former communications director for Mayor Bloomberg. “He didn’t have to hit you in the face with what he was trying to say with the image of his son.”
That image turned the telegenic Dante into a viral star. The Wall Street Journal reported on his interest in one day entering politics, while the New York Daily News talked to classmates at his Brooklyn public school to find out that the “mayoral campaign celeb” is “just a student to his friends.” When Dante appeared onstage for his father’s victory speech Tuesday night, TV news commentators made sure to note his hairstyle.
“Everybody is talking about Dante’s afro,” says Cunningham. “After 20 years of Bloomberg and Giuliani, [New Yorkers] were ready for a change, and he gave them a very distinct picture of what his change would look like.”
Timing helped, too. The ad ran the first week of August, days before de Blasio took his first lead in the polls, and not long after former Congressman Anthony Weiner’s candidacy imploded following his latest sexting disclosures. Weiner had been staking out the liberal ground. Once he was relegated to a sideshow, de Blasio surged ahead. (Weiner finished fifth Tuesday, with barely five percent of the vote.)
De Blasio was further aided by a federal court ruling that found Bloomberg’s stop-and-frisk policy unconstitutional on the grounds that it disproportionately targeted minorities. He was the only leading candidate who called for an end to the policy before the ruling. That stance helped endear him to African-American voters and drew a stark contrast with the Thompson, the only African-American in the race. “Thompson is black, but he’s not giving voice to that anger, that’s just not his style. De Blasio is filling the vacuum,” says Dan Gerstein, a Democratic communications consultant.
Since the “Dante” ad ran, de Blasio built a steady lead that he never relinquished. Whether it’s in a runoff in three weeks or a general election on Nov. 5, time will tell if Dante can do it again for his dad.