New York City's recent Democratic primary for mayor offers many lessons for B.C.'s New Democrats and for campaigns across the country.
The primary race – a six-way, ninemonth long campaign – was won last week by Bill de Blasio, New York City's current public advocate. De Blasio, a former staffer in the Clinton administration and city councillor from the liberal neighbourhood of Park Slope, Brooklyn, began the race in a distant fourth place. His strategy in the Democratic primary can be summed up in one sentence: don't let anyone run to your left.
A message of change – after 12 years of the centrist and politically independent Mayor Michael Bloomberg and 20 years of non-Democratic party rule – seemed obvious. But running on a platform of change alone, with practical "one-step-at-a-time" solutions does not inspire people to volunteer, donate or turn out to vote. If it did, the recent election in British Columbia would have ended differently. De Blasio offered the clearest departure from the Bloomberg era, but it was his embrace of a progressive agenda that pushed the debate into territory his rivals feared to tread.
His message, A Tale of Two Cities, clearly defined his vision of leveraging the government's power to address New York's growing inequality.
Rather than a race to the centre, de Blasio offered a confident and courageous vision that spoke to New Yorkers, from the upscale brownstones in Brooklyn to public housing projects in the Bronx. He called for "an act of equalization in a city that is desperately falling into the habit of disparity." De Blasio's campaign blasted TV ads across the city describing him as "the only candidate that will raise taxes on the rich to fund early childhood education and after-school programs." It's not often you hear candidates say they'll raise taxes and see their poll numbers rise. De Blasio's primary campaign broke new ground.
He talked about New Yorkers' struggles to find affordable housing and laid out a plan to build or preserve 200,000 affordable units. Despite warnings that he was engaging in "class warfare," and fear mongering about a flight of capital, de Blasio's support was universal across the city. Black and white, gay and straight, old and young, rich and poor – his support spanned New York City's five boroughs. In a city with 389,000 millionaires and three million people on food stamps, that message struck a strong chord with the "99 per cent." Rather than hurting him, however, de Blasio's Tale of Two Cities surprisingly earned him more votes than his opponents in areas where the average income was upward of $170,000.
His vision of a city that addresses income inequality spoke to people across the social spectrum.
A Tale of Two Cities rings true not only for New York City, but also for cities across the United States and increasingly for Canada. In British Columbia, where one in four children have lived in poverty for over a decade, every progressive campaign must place inequality – and the solutions to it – at the core of their message.
De Blasio's campaign proves that a strong, clear and unapologetic position on addressing inequality can draw support.
Peter Beinart wrote recently in the Daily Beast that "de Blasio's victory is an omen of what may become the defining story of America's next political era: the challenge, to both parties, from the left."
Twenty years ago, the only pathway to victory may have been to stake out middle ground, but if de Blasio's victory is any indication, it is unlikely to be the conduit to the future.
As New Democrats in British Columbia think about renewal and prepare for a leadership change, they must consider B.C.'s own tale of two cities. The time is ripe to boldly communicate an unabashedly progressive agenda.