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The Big Apple's Obama?

De Blasio and the Left

by LOUIS PROYECT

On August 16th I wrote an article for my blog titled “A Dossier on Bill de Blasio”  that mentioned in passing his occasional appearance at NY Nicaragua Solidarity steering committee meetings nearly 25 years ago, something I likened to Obama’s overtures to antiwar activists on Chicago’s South Side—an investment that could pay future dividends. As de Blasio escalated up the electoral ramps in New York, he was careful to retain his liberal coloration even though he became an ally of Dov Hikind, a Brooklyn pol who once belonged to Meir Kahane’s terrorist Jewish Defense League.

When Hikind spearheaded a drive to force Brooklyn College to add a speaker reflecting Zionist policies to a meeting on BDS, de Blasio issued the following statement: “The Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement is inflammatory, dangerous and utterly out of step with the values of New Yorkers. An economic boycott represents a direct threat to the State of Israel–that’s something we need to oppose in all its forms. No one seriously interested in bringing peace, security and tolerance to the Middle East should be taken in by this event.”

Despite his anti-landlord rhetoric, he also endorsed Bruce Ratner’s downtown Brooklyn megaproject that ran roughshod over the local community’s needs. Originally based on a design by superstar architect Frank Gehry, the project so appalled novelist and Brooklynite Jonathan Lethem that he was inspired to write an open letter to Gehry calling the project “a nightmare for Brooklyn, one that, if built, would cause irreparable damage to the quality of our lives.”

There’s lots of excitement among liberals about the prospects of a de Blasio mayoralty. As might have been expected, the Nation Magazine endorsed him in the primary election as “reimagining the city in boldly progressive, egalitarian terms.” Peter Beinart, a New Republic editor who has gained some attention lately for veering slightly from the Zionist consensus, wrote an article for The Daily Beast titled “The Rise of the New New Left” that was even more breathless than the Nation editorial. Alluding to German sociologist Karl Mannheim’s theory of “political generations”, Beinart sees the de Blasio campaign as “an Occupy-inspired challenge to Clintonism.”

Most of Beinart’s article takes up the question of whether de Blasio’s momentum could unleash broader forces that would derail Hillary Clinton’s bid for the Democratic Party presidential nomination in 2016. Perhaps that analysis can only be supported if you ignore the fact that de Blasio was Hillary Clinton’s campaign manager when she ran for senator from New York in 2000. The NY Times reported on October 7, 2000: “At the White House, the president, Mrs. Clinton and her campaign team can often be found in the Map Room or the Family Theater, drilling for her debates, or fine-tuning lines in some speech.” One surmises that Bill de Blasio was there.

Reporting for CounterPunch on July 26, 2005, Joshua Frank referred to Hillary Clinton as the Margaret Thatcher of the Democratic Party, a reference to her acceptance of a top position with the Democratic Leadership Council, a body that sought to expunge all traces of George McGovern style liberalism from the party.

With respect to de Blasio’s campaign being “Occupy-inspired”, it is important to note that in an interview with Bhaskar Sunkara in the Nation, he tried to dance around the sticky problem of Bloomberg’s eviction of the protestors from Zuccotti Park: “The location that they were using did become a problem. I think it was appropriate to say that that had to change.” Of course, it had become a problem. It was a constant reminder that people were unhappy about the rich lording it over the rest of society.

Despite de Blasio’s liberal image and even more radical connections a quarter-century ago, he would have probably followed the same path as Oakland’s Mayor Jean Quan who sicced 600 cops on Occupy activists on October 25, 2011 just two weeks before Bloomberg’s sweep of Zuccotti Park. If anything, Quan had an even more radical past than de Blasio. In the 1960s she was a member of the Third World Liberation Front when she was an undergrad at Berkeley. But when you begin to run City Hall in a major American city, you have to leave all that behind you. Law and order comes first.

On September 4th I was contacted by Javier Hernandez, a NY Times reporter who was working on an article about de Blasio. He had seen my article and wanted more information about his role at the NY Nicaragua Network. I told him (and an NPR reporter who contacted me later on) that it was difficult to remember what someone said or did that long ago. I referred him to people who had remained active with the network long after I had dropped out. Hernandez dug up material from younger people whose memories have remained sharper than my own. They helped him recreate the Bill de Blasio of the good old days:

Mr. de Blasio’s answering machine greetings in those days seemed to reflect a search for meaning. Every few weeks, he recorded a new message, incorporating a quote to reflect his mood — a passage from classic literature, lyrics from a song or stanzas of a poem.

Over time, he became more focused on his city job, and using the tools of government to effect change. The answering machine messages stopped changing. He no longer attended meetings about Nicaragua.

His friends in the solidarity movement were puzzled. At a meeting early in 1992, Mr. de Blasio was marked absent. A member scribbled a note next to his name: “Must be running for office.”

If he told his comrades that he was running for office, he would have likely reassured them that it would be to challenge corporatist values after the fashion of Beinart’s new new left. Hernandez writes:

Increasingly, he was distressed by what he saw as “timidity” in the Democratic Party, as it moved to the political center in the dawning of the Clinton era, and he thought the government should be doing more to help low-income workers and maintain higher tax rates.

Nowadays de Blasio would probably confess to this being a youthful indiscretion, at least to those who were not eager—like me—to debunk the notion that he is an “Occupy-inspired” candidate. I for one am anxious to see Bill de Blasio become the next mayor of New York as part of the long, difficult but necessary task of waking Americans up from the deep slumber that allows them to trust capitalist politicians to turn back the ever-increasingly cruel attack on their standard of living. If you pay careful attention to what is happening behind the scenes, you will see that de Blasio will likely be known as the Big Apple’s version of Barack Obama. The NY Times reported on September 11:

But as Mr. Lhota [the Republican nominee] seeks to secure support, Mr. de Blasio, aware that his rhetoric has unsettled powerful people, has quietly been in touch with several establishment figures recently, including Rob Speyer, the chairman of the Real Estate Board of New York, and the financier Steven Rattner. Both men have close ties to Mr. Bloomberg, and supported the campaign of Christine C. Quinn in the Democratic primary.

In some of these conversations, Mr. de Blasio has played down his unabashedly liberal positions, pointing out that no public-sector union has endorsed him, and saying that he would represent the wealthy as well as the 99 percent if elected mayor, according to people familiar with the discussions.

The marketing of Bill de Blasio, like that of Barack Obama, has been most skillful. Most experts in the field regard the ad that featured his son Dante, sporting a 60s style Afro (de Blasio is married to an African-American), as key to his success. It played to both liberal and African-American constituencies. Two of Obama’s top campaign advisers are now working for de Blasio. His campaign manager is Bill Hyers and John Del Cecato has been producing his commercials.

Although I had no trouble telling the NY Times or NPR what I remembered about de Blasio, I sent the NY Post packing. To my surprise, some of my email correspondents charged me with abetting a redbaiting campaign against de Blasio as if NY Times readers or NPR listeners would be scandalized about the candidate’s youthful fling with the left. They make it sound as if going to Nicaragua was something to keep secret, like a New Yorker magazine cartoon of bearded anarchists assembling a bomb in the Paris sewers.

The Times article accurately noted that “Tens of thousands of Americans — medical workers, religious volunteers, antiwar activists — flocked to Nicaragua hoping to offset the effects of an economic embargo imposed by the United States.” Like Bill Clinton’s antiwar activities at Oxford, Kerry’s testimony to Congress as an embittered Vietnam veteran, or Obama’s friendship with CP’er Franklin Marshall Davis in Hawaii, these are the sorts of things you expect young people to do. It is only hard-core radicals who continue challenging the system well into their sixties and seventies such as the unrepentant author of this article.

The irony is that no matter the intent of the NY Times reportage, it will only make de Blasio more attractive to people sick and tired of business as usual. Today very few people have any idea of what Nicaragua stands for, many knowing it only as a spot featured from time to time on the House Hunters show on the HGTV cable network with a couple of gringos looking for a place on the beach at an affordable price. In fact Daniel Ortega would fit right in at some of those meetings de Blasio is going to right now. He learned long ago that the only way to get ahead in Nicaraguan politics is not to offend Uncle Sam. But at least Daniel Ortega came to this point only after putting up a valiant if doomed resistance that tested his own mettle and those of the people he risked his life to liberate. Bill de Blasio came a lot cheaper.

Louis Proyect blogs at http://louisproyect.wordpress.com and is the moderator of the Marxism mailing list. In his spare time, he reviews films for CounterPunch.