Who Is the Real Black Candidate?

How NYC mayoral hopeful Bill de Blasio took a bite out of Bill Thompson's key voting bloc.

Bill de Blasio (Mario Tama/Getty Images); Bill Thompson (Mario Tama/Getty Images)
Bill de Blasio (Mario Tama/Getty Images); Bill Thompson (Mario Tama/Getty Images)

(The Root) — While the New York City mayoral campaign may appear issues-based, a closer look reveals blurred lines linked to race. In elections, perception is often everything, and politicians charming the public with their families is nothing new. But a white candidate wooing potential African-American voters with his black family and liberal politics is unprecedented.

As the Sept. 10 primary vote approaches, the role of the “real” black Democratic candidate has volleyed between the two front-runners: West Indian-American candidate Bill Thompson and white candidate Bill de Blasio, with the idea of blackness drawn from more than skin color. De Blasio’s proximity to his wife, Chirlane McCray, who is black, and their biracial son and daughter has made de Blasio more relatable to black voters.

“De Blasio’s crossracial appeal gives him some import as people are thinking about blackness as beyond just black. It’s a real signal about how New Yorkers and black voters view race as it connected to policy,” Charlton Mcllwain, associate professor at New York University and co-author of Race Appeal: How Candidates Invoke Race in U.S. Political Campaigns, told The Root. “And as much as we’d like to say voters are attracted to issues, image matters.”

A recent Quinnipiac poll reports 47 percent of black voters support de Blasio, while 25 percent support Thompson. This has left Thompson, who nearly beat outgoing Mayor Mike Bloomberg in 2009 thanks in part to the black vote, struggling against de Blasio in the black community. 

Part of de Blasio’s appeal can be directly linked to his Afro-coiffed son, Dante, says Maurice Carroll, director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute. The fact that Dante has appeared in ads championing his father’s opposition to stop and frisk, a key issue for black voters, certainly hasn’t hurt.

“I think Thompson took for granted that he was the black candidate, therefore he’d have the black voters,” said Mcllwain. “It’s interesting that he now finds himself in the position of having to say, ‘I’m the real black candidate, don’t be fooled by this white guy.’ “

Recently, the Rev. Calvin O. Butts endorsed Thompson, specifically calling him “the right African American.” Curious as Butts’ word choice was — there are no other blacks in the race — Thompson says he’s not worried about securing the city’s black vote.

“The pollsters were wrong about me in 2009 and they’re wrong now,” Thompson told The Root.

In August the repeal of the New York Police Department’s controversial stop-and-frisk practice created a turning point in the mayoral race. When a federal judge ruled the policy unconstitutional because of its racial bias, knowing where each candidate stood on the issue suddenly became imperative. While a source within the de Blasio camp says the campaign made no attempt to specifically court black voters but rather address universal issues, his stance against stop and frisk struck a chord with black voters.