By Howard Graubard, an attorney, Brooklyn resident and former aide to a state Senate minority leader, blogged about local, state and national politics at Ben Smith’s “Room 8” (and elsewhere) in 2006-’16 under the pseudonym “Gatemouth.” (No one was fooled.)
This week, in his New York Magazine blog, Andrew Sullivan noted an interesting trend in the voting in Virginia’s governor’s race, which he saw as a sign of hope for Democrats:
“Demographically, the only real shift outside of turnout was in white votes. Clinton won blacks and Hispanics by 88 and 65 percent, respectively. Northam’s compatible numbers were 87 and 67—barely distinguishable. But Clinton won only 35 percent of the white vote, while Northam won 42 percent.”
It was a trend replicated elsewhere, but not in New York City.
In 2013, mayoral candidate Bill de Blasio pounded the point that New Yorkers lived in a divided city. Calling out the incumbent, Michael Bloomberg, de Blasio stated:
“On a whole range of other issues he simply neglected our neighborhoods and failed. And those who would seek to continue those policies are destined to fail millions of New Yorkers as well. So let’s be honest about where we are today. This is a place that in too many ways has become a tale of two cities, a place where City Hall has too often catered to the interests of the elite rather than the needs of everyday New Yorkers.”
But, despite his campaign’s being based upon New York’s being “The Tale of Two Cities,” in large measure we voted as if we were one. De Blasio won almost everywhere that year in both the primary and general election. After eight years of Rudy Giuliani’s “tough love” without the love, and 12 years of Mike Bloomberg’s technocratic version of “Rudy with a human face,” New Yorkers of all colors and classes had had enough of Bloombergism and enthusiastically embraced course correction, heading due left.
But that was then. These days, in contrast to his campaign rhetoric emphasizing our divisions, incumbent Mayor de Blasio now calls us “one city, built to last.”
Nonetheless, despite the mayor’s implication that he has united us, the election results reveal we are now more divided than before he took office.
The purpose of this article is to compare the results of the seemingly similar 2013 and 2017 mayoral elections and show how different they really were, and what impact those differences made.
The executive summary is that, in 2017, white outer-borough voters flew the coop on the matter of Mayor Big Bird.
Four years ago, Bill de Blasio won primary and general-election victories of enormous scope. Though he did not claim a majority of the primary vote, the breadth and depth of what can only be described as a de Blasio landslide was almost breathtaking. De Blasio beat his nearest opponent by nearly 15 percentage points and by over 100,000 votes.
De Blasio carried every borough. Of the city’s 65 assembly districts (ADs), de Blasio ran first in 55 of them, and second in the 10 ADs he lost.
Much has been made of de Blasio’s strength in black areas in a contest where his strongest primary opponent was a black man, and of his strength in other minority communities. But that wasn’t the whole story.
Twenty-two NYC Assembly seats had a white majority in the 2010 census. In the 2013 primary, de Blasio carried 17 of them.
The white-majority ADs de Blasio carried in 2013 ran the gamut. De Blasio won Brownstone Brooklyn and every white-majority AD in Manhattan outside of the affluent Manhattan Silk Stocking, but he also won Dov Hikind’s 48th AD (in spite of, or perhaps because of, Hikind’s support of Bill Thompson); and Southern Brooklyn’s conservative 45th AD, represented by Steve Cymbrowitz.
And the general election was more of the same.
Four years ago, I struggled to find a story in the results for the general election for mayor. De Blasio received 795,679 votes (73.15 percent) to Joe Lhota’s 264,420 (24.31 percent), with 27,611 votes (2.54 percent) going to everyone else. Finding any detail that proved anything to the contrary was a daunting task.
I started my search for a story by looking at who won where.
In the 2013 general election, de Blasio carried 55 assembly districts and lost 10. The ones he lost were the 45th, 46th and 48th in Southern Brooklyn; the 64th in Southern Brooklyn and Staten Island; the 62nd and 63rd on Staten Island; the 23rd and 26th in Queens; and the 73rd and the 76th on Manhattan’s Upper East Side.
All were white-majority.
My original intent was to look at the results by dividing the ADs into categories based on the 2010 census (White Majority, White Plurality, Black Majority; Latino Majority, Latino Plurality, Asian Majority and Asian Plurality). But as I did the work, it became clear that proceeding with this was pointless. The results indicated Lhota had gotten his clock cleaned everywhere, except, possibly, in white-majority ADs.
Life seemed too short to expend the time required to do a detailed autopsy, so I instead went hunting in the ponds where the big white ducks resided. I restricted myself to looking at the white-majority ADs. There were 22 and Lhota had won 10. It seemed possible there might be a story there.
The 2013 story was that de Blasio won the city’s white-majority ADs 263,485 (57.95 percent) to 177,002 (38.93 percent), a margin of 19 points. Of course, this looked like a tiny margin when one compared it to the vote in the 43 ADs where whites were not a majority, which de Blasio took by a vote of 532,194 (84.07 percent) to 87,418 (13.81 percent).
Anyway, using the white totals I came up with really wasn’t fair—Manhattan didn’t count. What about the city’s heartland, the four outer-boroughs, where the real white people lived?
Lhota had won eight of those 15 ADs; surely there was a story there.
Well, there was a real quantitative and qualitative difference in those results. In the city’s 15 white-majority outer-borough ADs, de Blasio beat Lhota 150,271 (54.34 percent) to 117,594 (42.54 percent), a spread of merely 12 points.
But that included brownstone and hipster enclaves—surely Joe Lhota had won the real white New York of Vito Battista, John Marchi, Mario Biaggi and Mario Procaccino.
So, the next measure I took was to determine who won the outer-borough, white-majority ADs that lacked a bridge or tunnel to Manhattan. Lhota won eight of those 12 ADs.
And I was right: Archie Bunker Land, B’nai Brak and Little Minsk had combined to give Joe Lhota a landslide over de Blasio of 106,063 (49.04 percent) to 103,619 (47.91 percent), a stunning victory of just over 1 percent.
Ironically enough, non-hip, outer-borough white NYC couldn’t manage a margin for Lhota that was one tenth as wide as the nearly 13 percent victory Lhota managed in Manhattan’s Silk Stocking ADs, where Lhota won 28,570 (53.75 percent) to 22,030 (41.45 percent).
Those people obviously knew where their bread was buttered and decided that they preferred to keep that bread in their pockets.
In the 2013 general election, we were not a “Tale of Two Cities”; we were more like a tale of one and two-thirteenths.
But that is no longer true.
This year, unofficial results posted by the NYC Board of Elections show that de Blasio received 726,361 (66.16 percent) to Nicole Malliotakis’ 303,742 (27.67 percent), with 77,743 votes (6.17 percent) going to everyone else.
The mayor lost 13 ADs to his 10 the last time, but his losses were somewhat different.
Last time, every AD he lost was white-majority. This time, he also lost two ADs that were Asian majority (though probably still with a large white vote) and one that was white-plurality (with strong Latino and Asian minorities, but still probably white-majority in its vote). On the other hand, two white ADs went in the opposite direction. Last time out, the mayor lost the two ADs in Manhattan’s Silk Stocking. This time, instead of losing the Silk Stocking ADs by nearly 13 points, he carried them by nearly 11 points: 22,860 (50.81 percent) to 18,026 (40.07 percent).
But overall, the mayor’s vote in the white neighborhoods dropped. In 2017, the mayor won the city’s white-majority ADs not by 20 points, but by nine: 228,356 (50.66 percent, a loss of over seven points) to 187,812 (41.67 percent). The mayor was again stronger in areas where whites were a minority. In the 43 ADs where whites were not a majority, the mayor won by a vote of 498,005 (76.96 percent) to 115,930 (17.91 percent).
As already noted, the mayor’s drop in white neighborhoods was not universal; in fact, the mayor’s surge in white Manhattan was not restricted to its richest area. The mayor’s margin improved in Manhattan’s white-majority ADs as a whole as well, going from a 62.44 percent-to-32.77-percent victory over Lhota in 2013 (a margin of nearly 30 percent) to a 65.53-percent-to-25.10-percent victory over Malliotakis (a margin of nearly 40 percent).
But what about white outer-borough voters?
Where Lhota had won eight of the white-majority outer-borough ADs, Malliotakis won 10 of them. Moreover, Lhota lost those 15 ADs by nearly 12 points, while Malliotakis carried them by over eight: She took 147,337 (50.90 percent) of those votes to de Blasio’s 122,672 (42.38 percent), a loss of nearly 12 points.
And if we take out the brownstone and hipster enclaves and just measure who won the white-majority outer-borough assembly districts without a bridge or tunnel connection to Manhattan, the change in the white vote becomes even more profound. Where last time Lhota carried those ADs by barely over a point, Malliotakis won them by nearly 25 points, 136,095 (59.42 percent) to 79,021 (34.50 percent), a loss of over 13 points. Malliotakis won 10 of the 12 ADs in the category.
And such a hemorrhaging of white outer-borough votes had real consequences, which The New York Times has gone out of its way to obscure.
In the most questionable piece of NYC post-election commentary published last week, J. David Goodman of The New York Times gave Mayor de Blasio credit for Democratic victories in heavily contested council races:
“The outcomes, based on early returns, also indicated that in some of the closest races, Mayor Bill de Blasio’s successful campaign provided enough coattails to propel fellow Democrats to wins around the city.”
Specifically, the author cited the council races of Justin Brannan (43rd District) in Greater Bay Ridge and Kalman Yeger (44th District) in Greater Borough Park.
Let’s get real here.
Yeger got 11,061 votes in that district (66.81 percent); de Blasio got 6,465 (39.00 percent). Even if we compare just the votes Yeger got on the Democratic line to de Blasio’s combined vote on the Democratic and Working Families lines, Yeger still outpaced the mayor by over 1,500 votes or almost 10 percent, taking 8,064 votes (48.69 percent).
But aside from the extremely limited degree that Yeger can be said to have benefited from de Blasio’s “coattails,” he also benefited from those belonging to Malliotakis, as both Yeger and Malliotakis shared the Conservative Party line.
In fact, on Election Day, I personally heard a few voters tell Yeger campaign workers that they would not vote for any Democrat, and then come back after voting to inform the Yeger workers that since there was no Republican, they made their protest known in the council race by voting for the Conservative. In fact, if the Conservative Party votes secured by Yeger had gone instead to his strongest opponent, Yoni Hikind, the race would have gone from a Yeger landslide to a near dead heat.
As for Brannan, he scratched out a victory of 12,516 (50.51 percent) to 11,621 (46.89 percent) over his Republican opponent, John Quaglione—a close race and a stunning contrast to the race four years before, when Quaglione lost 62.76 percent to 35.50 percent.
And there may be an explanation for Quaglione’s improvement.
In the same area where Brannan barely won, the mayor managed only 9,330 votes (36.56 percent) to Malliotakis’ 14,302 (56.05 percent). Sal Albanese, who represented almost all of that area on the council from 1982 to 1997, got 1,119 (4.39 percent) on the Reform line.
How badly was the mayor repudiated here? Well, in the same area, the incumbent councilman, Vincent Gentile—who’d recently run fifth in the countywide district attorney primary while still winning that area—managed to get 48 percent of that district’s votes on the Reform line, without campaigning.
In other words, the mayor ran 14 percent behind a political zombie.
But if one believes The Times, the mayor lent Brannan coattails by getting nearly 3,000 fewer votes and running behind him by almost 14 percent.
Those were not coattails; they were nearly a noose.
So, dragging a local down to only 51 percent in a district Hillary Clinton carried is considered “coattails”? Apparently, if you only wound a Democratic council candidate, that is considered successful “coattails.” Other merely wounded victims of the mayor’s “coattails”—like Paul Vallone (19th District: de Blasio 31.74 percent) and Chaim Deutsch (48th District: de Blasio 31.01 percent), who both faced tough races where they were attacked as puppets of the mayor—will be happy to learn this.
But let it be clear: The mayor’s coattails did, in fact, actually (and likely mortally) wound one City Council member.
In 2013, Elizabeth Crowley was re-elected to her council seat (District 30) with 58.94 percent of the vote to her Republican opponent’s 40.91 percent.
This year, preliminary returns have Crowley at the bottom end of a 10,221 (50.25 percent) to 10,088 (49.49 percent) defeat to Republican candidate Robert Holden. Whether Crowley will suffer the hell of defeat will ultimately be decided after a visit to recount purgatory.
But if Crowley is defeated, perhaps the cause can be described as death by asphyxiation, after choking on mayoral “coattails.”
Crowley managed to outpace the mayor’s abysmal showing in her district by over 3,400 votes and over 17 percent, but not even that could save her.
So, we are once again “A Tale of Two Cities.” It might not be fair to say that the mayor of White–Outer-Borough New York City is Nicole Malliotakis, but it would be less unfair to say that in that fourth of the city, the mayor is not really Bill de Blasio.
While the numbers tell us how, they don’t really tell us why. But here are some things to chew on.
The first is the daunting reality of what local government can accomplish in 21st-century America; the second is what local government can ever accomplish in the city of New York.
The mayor has had to govern in an era where little federal help has turned into practically none at all, and, like every mayor, he must govern using a budget constrained by needing Albany’s approval for virtually every revenue enhancement. His response has been to use the tools he has: zoning variances and rezoning, selling off public assets with strings attached, tax abatements and other tricks of what could be called “progressive schmeer” and “progressive extortion.”
Such methods have become the coin of the realm for getting new schools, library improvements, parks and affordable housing. It is a modus operandi with both limits and pitfalls, and it has attracted critics from all along the political spectrum—left, right and center.
Good-government groups rightly worry that such methods foster corruption, and on election eve, this critique was enhanced by the lurid accusations of mayoral pay-for-play spilling out of the mouth of a skeevy developer-turned-government-witness.
But it is not only mayoral methods that attract critics, but also mayoral goals.
Many New Yorkers who support what they think of as liberal policies on a state or federal level believe municipal government should be about providing municipal services. New Yorkers often define “municipal services” broadly, to include things in realms like public health, sanitation, infrastructure, public safety and education. It appears that many white middle class voters believe that de Blasio’s definition goes somewhat further than their own.
Then there is the matter of culture. Crime may not be on the rise, but many New Yorkers feel that it is. There is more panhandling. There is less quality-of-life policing. We don’t know exactly what the problem is, but we can smell it in the air, and it often smells like urine. We may not care about Christopher Columbus, but we don’t want to have to care about Christopher Columbus and people are making us have to care about Christopher Columbus—and the mayor seems to be encouraging them. And he’s traveling to Germany and traveling to Iowa, trying to be the national and international progressive spokesman, despite the fact that progressives usually seem uninterested.
The voters most peeved by the mayor seem to be the white middle class. Votes for minor candidates more than doubled from 2013. In white outer-borough assembly districts, they accounted for about 8 percent of the vote.
The message such voters were sending was, enough is enough.
I’m not sure there are any larger implications here for the future. The mayor lost in many places where Hillary won and where Democrats will continue to win national elections (as they did among many Giuliani and Bloomberg voters).
Next year’s governor’s race plays out on different turf with a different set of issues. The governor’s intra-party opposition flows from largely different forces from the mayor’s. Though many people dislike them both, few find it plausible to link one to the other. But the mayor can and will be linked to the Democrats’ effort to take the state Senate, and this link does not seem likely to play in their favor.
However, those looking for larger meaning can take this to the bank: In many areas of white outer-borough New York City, the mayor is box-office poison. For local Democrats, he is not a credential to be displayed, but an obstacle to be overcome.
EDITOR’S NOTE: We have removed a line in this article about de Blasio embracing socialism, as this was not included in the author’s original piece.