Can Bill de Blasio Usher in a New NYC?

The mayoral candidate talked exclusively with The Root about making the city livable for everyone.

Bill de Blasio with his wife, Chirlane McCray (left), and children, Chiara and Dante (Wikimedia Commons)
Bill de Blasio with his wife, Chirlane McCray (left), and children, Chiara and Dante (Wikimedia Commons)

(The Root) — Imagine a world in which a white man running for mayor of New York City could say, “I have a son who looks like Trayvon.”

Bill de Blasio is such a man. And it is the layered nuances of that simple yet deeply personal and important fact that may well help win him the election.

If you don’t know de Blasio, you should. The New York public advocate and current leading mayoral candidate has been a fixture in New York politics for nearly 25 years. He began his career as an aide for David Dinkins, New York’s first and only African-American mayor. De Blasio went on to serve as regional director for the Department of Housing and Urban Development in 1997, before winning a seat on the New York City Council in 2002, representing Brooklyn’s ethnically diverse 39th District. Following three successful terms, he became New York public advocate in 2009.

And that is perhaps the best way to describe this politician: a public advocate — especially for the poor and marginalized.

De Blasio has built a career fighting to improve the quality of public schools, expand the availability of affordable housing and improve working conditions and benefits for the working classes. It is a worldview that he shares with his wife, Chirlane McCray, who just so happens to be African American. McCray’s work as a writer and activist has focused largely on matters of race and women’s rights. The two live in Brooklyn with their son, Dante, 15, and their daughter, Chiara, 18.

And this is where the personal meets the political.

After a recent campaign advert featuring his son, Dante — who sports a big, beautifully bold Afro — African-American and Hispanic voters began to take note. For many New Yorkers who had not been paying much attention to the race — or were distracted by Anthony Weiner’s unfortunate revelations — de Blasio’s fierce criticism of the New York City Police Department’s stop-and-frisk policy suddenly became abundantly clear: This is a man who worries whether his son will be suspected and harassed by police for no other reason than the color of his skin.

This week federal Judge Shira Scheindlin, in the case Floyd v. City of New York, declared the current stop-and-frisk practice unconstitutional and said it amounted to “racial profiling.” Mayor Michael Bloomberg responded by unapologetically defending the racially discriminatory practice and vowing to appeal the decision.

Though the city faces many challenges, stop and frisk and the unfair overpolicing of innocent minorities has remained a major issue for decades. De Blasio, unlike some of his competitors, has made the end of stop and frisk a cornerstone of his campaign. An equally important issue for this public servant is New York’s rising income inequality, a matter he believes must be addressed holistically, from access to quality housing to education, health care services and, yes, police who actually do serve and protect — not just stop and frisk.

The Root spoke exclusively with Bill de Blasio, the man who would be mayor.

The Root: You have been the most outspoken critic of the NYPD”s stop-and-frisk policy. How has having a son who is African American informed your stance on this issue?

Bill de Blasio: It has been a fundamental piece of why I oppose the policies of this city. The question for my wife and I has not been if my son will be stopped, but when. We have had to jolt Dante into the recognition that he must understand that he will be stopped, and he’ll be treated as a suspect. Police won’t know him individually and won’t see into his pure soul. So he needs to be cautious and aware.

And I know that is a conversation that hundreds of thousands of parents have with their children. But that conversation is only happening in African-American and Hispanic households. Policing in New York City has literally become separate and unequal.