Carol Felsenthal
On politics

Will Bill de Blasio Steal Rahm’s Star-Mayor Spotlight?

The likely new NYC mayor is a diehard liberal with a fascinating biography.

lazerCam/Flickr (CC by 2.0)

The new “it” boy of national politics is not a president or a wanna-be president or a U.S. senator. It’s Bill de Blasio, 52—and he’s not even running for national office.  He’s the man almost certain to become the next mayor of New York on November 5. (He’s running some 40 points ahead of his personality-challenged Republican opponent.)

The handsome, strapping, 6’5” left-winger—as a young organizer in 1988, he went to Nicaragua to help the Sandinistas and, according to the New York Times, described himself back then as an adherent of “democratic socialism”—will be attracting, I’ll bet, even more camera time and fawning press than our own celebrity mayor,  Rahm Emanuel.

And the focus will be not only on de Blasio.   On the campaign trail he’s surrounded by his attractive, edgy,  biracial family—two teenaged children, Chiara and Dante,  and an African-American wife, Chirlane McCray, who, before dating Bill, was an active lesbian. 

McCray is described as having “built and guided her husband’s campaign” and having “eras[ed] the line between spouse and strategist,” attending all meetings, consulting on hires, editing all his speeches, articulating such campaign themes as opposition to the closing city hospitals serving the poor. 

Chirlane is a “fixture” on the trail, and she and Bill de Blasio “are as much a package deal as Bill and Hillary….”  The family is “ubiquitous,” with the father “rarely miss[ing] a chance to weave his children into stump speeches.”

Added to that, the outgoing de Blasio has a biography that’s the stuff of screenplays, especially the tragic story of his emotionally and physically wounded war hero father, recipient of a Purple Heart as well as degrees from Yale and Havard—a casualty of the McCarthy witch-hunts, an alcoholic who eventually shot himself through the heart.

The de Blasio bio is fresh and more dramatic than the oft-told story of the admirable and activist Emanuel parents rearing three super-achieving sons in Wilmette. And de Blasio’s immediate family  is out there, more public than Rahm’s exceedingly private wife Amy and their carefully sheltered-from-the-spotlight teenaged children, Zacharia, Ilana, and Leah. 

Take 16-year-old Dante de Blasio’s campaign commercial, addressing, among other issues,  the fraught subject of stop and frisk. “My father is the only one who will end an era of stop-and-frisk that unfairly targets people of color.” The commercial—viewed some 276,000 times on YouTube—was said to help boost Dante’s dad  from fourth to first place in the crowded Democratic primary. The attraction was not so much to all of Dante’s words, but to his huge, gorgeous afro, coupled with the sentence quoted above about stop and frisk. This week the campaign is out with a commercial from 18-year-old daughter Chiara,  wearing her signature flowered headband, quoting her father’s promises and, adorably, rolling her eyes at the sudden celebrity of her “little brother.”

The de Blasios are set to move from their Park Slope, Brooklyn rowhouse to Manhattan’s Gracie Mansion (the official residence of the mayor of New York), so they will occupy a more public spot in the city’s consciousness than outgoing Mayor Michael Bloomberg and his girlfriend in their lavish Upper East Side townhouse—or Rahm’s family in its private home in Ravenswood.

Most Chicagoans, I’d bet, respect Amy Rule for not allowing her children to become little public figures, and for following her heart in avoiding the limelight for herself. Remember the ridicule that greeted Bill and Hillary’s declaration that the public, were it to elect Bill,  would get “two for the price of one.” I’d bet too that most Chicagoans wouldn’t recognize Amy Rule if they sat next to her on the bus. She has been so under-the-radar, so quiet that, in 2012, when she gave her first interview, more than a year and half after her husband’s inauguration,  Sun-Times editors headlined it, “She Speaks.”  

“I haven’t really had anything of civic interest to share,” she said. “One public person in the family is enough, in my opinion.”

An admirable statement, I think. And, to the credit of Chicagoans, it’s not as if anyone is clamoring for Amy to take a public role, or has any right expecting her to. Rahm is paid to be mayor; she is not. (The Sun-Times story mentioned above described Rule’s behind-the-scenes work for DC-based “Urban Alliance,” for which she “network[ed] with Chicago businesses, trying to find companies who would commit to employing a Chicago public high school student for 12 hours a week during the school year and full-time over the summer.”)

Still, Rahm, whose last fundraising haul included donations from such stars as Robert DeNiro and Calvin Klein, maintains one of the brightest Hollywood glosses in politics, with some help, to be sure, from his Hollywood super-agent brother, Ari.

Robert Redford and his Sundance Productions is making an eight-episode CNN “docuseries,” titled Chicagoland—scheduled to air next year—in which Rahm is said to have a starring role. According to Steve Johnson writing in the Tribune, “One of the attractions to Chicago, CNN made clear, is that President Barack Obama calls the city home and Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s high profile.” It’s likely to be a flattering portrait, if not of the city, than certainly of Rahm. Johnson quotes Redford as saying, that “much of” the challenge of Chicago “falls on the shoulders of its tough, visionary mayor, his team and people doing heroic work in neighborhoods throughout the city.” And Rahm continues to appear on The Late Show with David Letterman, although in last month’s appearance he got slapped with Letterman’s opening, “What I hear about Chicago now is `Oh, don’t go to Chicago, the violence is unbelievable.’”

De Blasio is attracting his own cadre of camp followers. At some stops he not only introduces his family, but also such stars as Cynthia Nixon, Harry Belafonte, Steve Buscemi, and Susan Sarandon, the latter rallying with him in protest of the closing of a Brooklyn hospital that serves a mostly poor population. And if de Blasio sticks to his promises on the issues—he and his wife have joked that she will force him to stay faithful to his progressive views under threat of divorce—he’ll accumulate scores of celebrity friends from what Fox News hosts like to call “the Left Coast.”

Having closely followed the de Blasio campaign, my hunch is that Chirlane McCray is set to become as much a public figure as her husband, creating a double boost of fame, or triple or quadruple if the camera-ready children are also included. The mayor of the third city may soon find that the mayor of the first city is giving him a run for the title of “America’s mayor.” 

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