(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.
"The inequality crisis facing our city has crippled New Yorkers regardless of race or gender," de Blasio told The Root. "When it comes to stop and frisk, I am the only candidate in the race who supports creating an independent inspector general, enforcing a strong racial profiling ban and removing NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly."
On stop and frisk, Thompson has been ambiguous on the subject. Recently he opposed two City Council bills that would make it easier for those mistreated by the race-based policy to seek restitution.
"The situation isn't a question of legislation; rather, it requires a mayor with the courage to say we will eliminate racial profiling in the city of New York," Thompson explained to The Root. "We will make sure stop and frisk is no longer being used to profile people because of what they look like. I talked about this issue in 2009 as well."
Still, one can't underestimate the impact that de Blasio's family has had on the mayoral race. De Blasio's daughter, Chiara, has also stumped for her dad on the campaign trail, saying at a supporters' dinner, "It'd be one thing if he was just some boring white guy and had no idea what he's talking about, but he cares about everyone in this city, every type of person, rich, poor, black, white, blue … whatever."
De Blasio's wife also has a public presence of her own. In 1979 she wrote an Essence magazine essay entitled "I Am a Lesbian," proclaiming herself a homosexual woman of color. Then, in a March 2013 follow-up interview, McCray explained how she met de Blasio at City Hall in 1991, fell in love and welcomed their two children. With an approachable charm, McCray lends credibility to the de Blasio campaign in the same way first lady Michelle Obama did for the president when some blacks doubted whether a biracial candidate truly represented them.
Like the image of Clinton playing the saxophone on The Arsenio Hall Show in 1992, a Sept. 2 Daily News photograph of de Blasio with his family during the West Indian Day parade captures the crux of it all. In the photo, Dante is grooving on the left, McCray is dancing on the right and de Blasio, center, is literally jumping in the air. The image captures a man comfortable in the multicultural surroundings that encapsulate New York City.
On Sept. 10, New Yorkers will see whether Thompson or de Blasio draws the most African-American voters. Until then, the fight for black authenticity continues.
Hillary Crosley is The Root's New York City bureau chief. Follow her on Twitter.