Voters Eyeing De Blasio, With Some Doubts

Photo by: Jarrett Murphy
Maxine, Shunair and Sara discussed the mayoral race on Friday. One never votes. One sometimes does. The only one likely to participate in the Sept. 10 primary is interested in Bill de Blasio.

Interviews in Brownsville confirm what the polls say: Bill de Blasio is the candidate of the moment. But with delicate issues like race at play, voters wanted to know more before committing to him.

By: Jarrett Murphy

This article is an installment in The Five Borough Ballot, a collaboration between City Limits, City & State and WNET's MetroFocus. In each edition of the print and video series, we return to a location in each of the five boroughs to ask real New Yorkers their take on the 2013 election as it unfolds. For a complete overview of the series, go here

Shunair McKay was all set to vote for Council Speaker Christine Quinn. "Because she's for gays," he said as he sat at a picnic table in the middle of Brownsville's Van Dyke housing development on the Friday before Labor Day, "and she came to the parade," referring to a local LGBTQ pride event this summer.

But recently, McKay realized that Quinn "spent a lot of time under Mayor Bloomberg, so it will probably be the same." And McKay wants a change from the page 12 years.

Now, he's thinking about Public Advocate Bill de Blasio. "Last night I was supposed to Google him," McKay said. De Blasio represents the kind of clean break from the Bloomberg years that McKay says he's looking for.

But he's not sold yet. He's seen de Blasio's commercials, some of which feature the candidate's biracial son, and McKay is not sure how he feels about that. "I don't know if he's fake," McKay said. "He might be using his family to win votes."

As the mayoral primary campaign moved into its stretch run, people interviewed in Brownsville last Friday displayed a sharply higher level of awareness than our decidedly unscientific monthly survey found even a month ago. Most people who stopped to talk to a reporter were aware of the campaign and knew at least some of the candidates. Most had not yet made up their mind who to vote for. Some weren't planning to vote at all.

Sitting on his walker with a can of nutrition supplement on his lap, Walter Allen, a man in his 70s who has lived at Van Dyke for 59 years, said he's undecided. "Thinking about it," he said. "I do it with my daughter and son-in-law. We discuss it and then we vote. "

Stepping out of the senior center down the bloc, Lula May Benjamin said she had reading to do.
"They put a whole lot of cards in my mail box," which she planned to read to make up her mind. She couldn't say there was a particular topic or worry that would frame her choice. "No particular issue," she shrugged. "I will read the cards."

Allen Henderson, 72, a former chef at the World Trade Center who missed the 1993 bombing because he was out of work with a cut finger and who was let go after a fight with his boss just two weeks before the 2001 attacks, said he is deciding between de Blasio or former Comptroller Bill Thompson.

Conflating contests, he insisted he won't vote for Spitzer. "He has no moral character. Certain things you don't forgive." He also can't forgive Quinn for her sexuality, an important reminder of a quiet but real obstacle the speaker faces that, unlike the term limits vote or her relationship with the mayor, goes well off the field of fair play. "I don't want a woman mayor sitting with a wife," he said.

Henderson, like McKay, is looking for a break from the Bloomberg era. "The outgoing mayor hasn't endorsed," and that's just as well, he said, because, "whoever he endorses is a lost cause."

Lisa Kenner, a former Democratic district leader and the head of the resident association at the 22-building, 4,000-resident Van Dyke complex, said the public advocate's name is on everyone's lips. "I know they're looking at Bill de Blasio because he has a biracial child" who "might face some of the same pressures these young men are feeling," Kenner added.

As for how she'll vote, Kenner lacks enthusiasm. "I ain't feeling none of them, to tell the truth," she said. "To me, they're knocking down each other instead of talking about the issues. I cut [the August 21] debate off. Who wants to hear that at 7 o'clock at night time?"

She's not the only one who's turned off. "I don’t vote because I don’t want to be blamed for what goes wrong," said Sara, a friend of McKay's sitting at the same picnic table who never votes. Their companion Maxine said she only participates in presidential elections. "They all lie. I believe none of them. It's always the same story," she said.

But all three articulated the kinds of concerns that de Blasio, by highlighting income inequality and his opposition to overuse of stop-and-frisk, has tried to tap into.

Sara and her boyfriend would like to move out of the apartment where they are doubled up—her teenage son sleeps on a couch—but they simply don’t make enough money for anything other than NYCHA to be affordable. Maxine agrees: "Everyone has to leave New York unless you're rich."

McKay says he liked the more visible police presence of the Bloomberg years, but dislikes stop-and-frisk, to which he's been subjected five times. All three agree that the area's teenagers are most in need of government intervention. The next mayor, says Maxine, must do "something for the youth to do because they're totally out of control." Sara agrees: "Even my son is turning into a punk, though I try hard."

Sara is white; everyone else quoted above is black, as is the vast majority of Brownsville. It's a natural place to ask—as we have since February—about whether black people will feel any draw to back Thompson. Allen hews to a familiar line rejecting identity politics, albeit with a rather cynical spin. "It doesn't matter, black or white," he says. "If you ain't gonna do shit, what's the difference?"

Maxine takes a more nuanced view: Whether it's President Obama or mayoral candidate Thompson, race is neither absent from the decision of who to vote for, nor the only factor in it, for people like her. Thompson's race "is going to be part of it for any black person. But that wouldn't be the sole reason."