Can Black Voters Propel a White Mayor to the Presidency? – The New York Times

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CHARLESTON, S. C. — At the 7:30 a.m. Sunday service at Ebenezer A.M.E. Church, the invited guest was mostly a mystery to the all-black congregation, so much so that when he was introduced by the Rev. Dr. William Swinton Jr., he was called “Bill de Bless-io.” Twice.

Mayor Bill de Blasio took the mispronunciation in stride, easing into his 12-minute speech about how he made life better for working people in New York City, easily dropping into the lexicon of the black church, referring to his mother and mother-in-law as “elders,” and giving “honor to God” before he spoke.

And when he went into his campaign spiel about the devastating effects of income inequality, and how he believed that he could adapt his successes in New York — universal prekindergarten, guaranteed paid time off and increased access to health care — to the rest of the nation, claps of approval filled the church.

“I don’t think they look out for the people,” D’jaris Sanders, 34, who works in the automotive construction industry, said after the service last weekend. “Like he said,” she added, referring to Mr. de Blasio, “the working people.”

If Mr. de Blasio, the 23rd Democrat to enter the presidential race, is to have any chance of success — a recent Quinnipiac University poll of national voters found him with the highest unfavorability rating of any candidate — he will likely need the support of black and Latino voters, a coalition that helped him score an upset victory in the 2013 Democratic mayoral primary, carrying him to the general election win in November, and re-election four years later.

South Carolina, where 61 percent of 2016 primary voters were black, will be a major test for Mr. de Blasio’s viability in 2020, a fact not lost on the mayor. Although he has a lean campaign staff, he has hired a campaign coordinator for the state, Bre Spaulding, a South Carolina-based political consultant.

Basil A. Smikle, a former executive director of the New York State Democratic Party, said that Mr. de Blasio will no doubt repeat “the narrative about his family, how he talks to his biracial son about police brutality, to speak to black voters in early primary states.”

Mr. de Blasio’s wife, Chirlane McCray, is African-American, and his two biracial children played an integral part of his first campaign for mayor; his son, Dante, recorded a memorable campaign ad, and his giant Afro won its own following.

Ms. McCray accompanied the mayor to Iowa, his first visit to an early primary state since he officially declared his candidacy, and was with him on an earlier trip to South Carolina. Their children have yet to be involved in the campaign, but Dante said this week in a radio interview that he has “talked a bit about” helping his father’s effort.

Mr. de Blasio has formidable competition for the black vote, with two black Democratic senators, Cory Booker of New Jersey and Kamala Harris of California, already in the race. There is also a looming question of whether a white man should be the nominee during a period of renewed party energy that is being driven by minority and women voters.

“The question is if it will resonate when you have actual black candidates talking about those same issues,” Mr. Smikle said. “Will he be a more authentic messenger?”

In his campaign stops in Iowa and South Carolina, Mr. de Blasio sought to apply his broader message of narrowing income inequality to farmers and factory workers.

Mr. de Blasio took a short trip on Thursday to Des Moines, where he rallied with striking McDonald’s workers calling for a $15 minimum wage; he said he and his campaign staffers would not eat at the fast-food chain until the workers’ issues were addressed.

In Orangeburg, S.C., Mr. de Blasio filled his plate with hush puppies, pulled pork and macaroni and cheese at Dukes Bar-B-Que and ate almost all of it in after chatting with customers about his health care expansion in New York. He met with the city’s black mayor, Michael C. Butler, and also met with another black mayor, Stephen K. Benjamin of Columbia.

Mr. de Blasio toured an ethanol plant in Gowrie, Iowa, accompanied by the former governor of Iowa, Tom Vilsack, right.CreditChristopher Smith for The New York Times

In Gowrie, Iowa, as he toured an ethanol plant with the former Iowa governor, Tom Vilsack, Mr. de Blasio said that voters should trust someone who has “actually done something for working people.”

“It’s all about working people and it doesn’t matter if you’re in Gowrie, Iowa, or if you’re in New York City,” the mayor said.

Christina Greer, an associate professor of political science at Fordham University, said that for Mr. de Blasio, using the term working people “makes sense because it’s all inclusive.”

“By saying ‘working people,’ if you are trying to hang on to black voters, yes, they identify with that term,” Professor Greer added. “But so does a white factory worker in New Hampshire or someone who works in agriculture in Iowa.”

In Charleston, Mr. de Blasio’s description of how he created the universal prekindergarten program in New York City, and then expanded it to 3-year-olds in his 3-K for All initiative, hit home with some of the parishioners at Ebenezer A.M.E.


Mr. de Blasio visited residents’ homes in Columbia, S.C., with that city’s mayor, Stephen K. Benjamin.CreditSwikar Patel for The New York Times

Asked what she thought Mr. de Blasio meant when he said “working people,” Ms. Sanders, standing on the steps of Ebenezer AME in Charleston with her 5-year-old daughter, Makenzie, jabbed her finger at her chest and said, “Me.”

She said that she and her husband paid $8,000 for prekindergarten for her daughter.

“I don’t think it’s fair that your child can get better education versus someone else’s child because of the amount of money,” she added.

Many candidates in the large field for the Democratic nomination are already focused on racial and economic inequity.

Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts has proposed an “ultramillionaire tax” while Senators Booker and Harris have each called for increases in tax credits to help middle- and working-class families. Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont introduced legislation to expand the estate tax, and Andrew Yang, an entrepreneur, has proposed a universal basic income.

Mr. de Blasio has yet to unveil detailed policy proposals, but he has long sought a millionaire’s tax, first suggesting that it could help pay for his universal pre-K initiative, and more recently pushing it as a way to finance needed repairs to the city’s subways.


Mr. de Blasio, speaking at a library in Columbia, S.C., has seen his poll numbers drop among black voters in New York.CreditSwikar Patel for The New York Times

Peter Ragone, a former top aide and now an informal adviser to Mr. de Blasio, said the mayor’s “ability to build coalitions in the Democratic primary” has always been “discounted” by his opponents.

“His message on inequality in all forms and life experience gives him a real shot at appealing to the core constituencies of the party,” Mr. Ragone said. And that definitely starts with African-Americans, he added.

Ms. Harris and Ms. Warren have endorsed the idea of reparations for black Americans, but Mr. de Blasio, when asked about the issue during a visit to the South Carolina Democratic Party Black Caucus in Columbia, would only say that he would create a reparations commission to study the issue if he were elected president.

“It’s time to have that national discussion,” Mr. de Blasio said.

That was not good enough for Willie J. Lawrence, 71, a retired federal police officer from Akin, S.C.

“My point is that we’ve been trying to do this for 40 years and we’ve gotten no traction,” said Mr. Lawrence, adding that the mayor’s position might make supporting him difficult, especially given his lukewarm support back in New York.

Although Mr. de Blasio easily won re-election in 2017, his poll numbers in New York have steadily fallen. And in an April poll conducted by Quinnipiac University, three-quarters of the city’s voters believed that Mr. de Blasio should not run for president.

Mr. de Blasio’s popularity in New York has also waned among black voters; in a Siena College poll of registered voters in New York State taken last month, black respondents gave Mr. de Blasio a 53 percent approval rating, down from 74 percent in a similar Siena poll from January 2018.

Mr. Smikle said that parsing Mr. de Blasio’s record in New York City on issues that affect his base for a national audience will be his biggest challenge.

“A large part of his rationale of running for president is about how successful he has been in New York City,” Mr. Smikle said. “But if the response to his candidacy in New York City is ‘you haven’t done enough here,’ that’s going to be a harder narrative to overcome.”

Indeed, Mr. de Blasio has been criticized by some for not living up to his campaign promises to his base. Midway during his second year in office, dozens of black ministers, justice reform advocates, civil rights activists and four black members of Congress met to discuss their frustrations with the mayor.

Representative Hakeem Jeffries, now the chairman of the House Democratic caucus, attended that meeting, and said at the time that there was “growing disenchantment with the administration in the black community.”


East Brooklyn Congregations

That lingering disenchantment was evident last week in Iowa. East Brooklyn Congregations, a nonprofit comprising congregations, schools and homeowners associations, had sent two residents of the New York City Housing Authority — whose tenants are about 90 percent black and Latino — to confront Mr. de Blasio over the city’s failure to improve conditions at the housing projects.

“I want to know when you plan on fixing Nycha,” Tita Concepcion, 56, a secretary, asked the mayor just before he appeared at a fund-raiser for the Woodbury County Democrats in Sioux City.

“We’re doing it right now,” Mr. de Blasio responded to Ms. Concepcion and Olivia Wilkins, 69, a retired nurse. “It’s not happening,” Ms. Concepcion shot back.

“If you can’t take care of New York City,” Ms. Wilkins asked while waiting outside the fund-raiser, hoping for another shot at speaking to Mr. de Blasio, “how can I trust you to take care of the country?”