Sixteen year-old Dante de Blasio, son of New York City public advocate Bill de Blasio, has become quite an asset to his father’s mayoral campaign. The charming Brooklyn Tech student with the old-school Afro is a bona fide media darling, appearing in an “inspiring” political ad and several glowing newspaper profiles. A television news program called him “one of the most recognizable faces of the New York City mayoral race.” Even as his father could be poised to win it all, Dante is stealing the show. But he’s also learning one of the quintessential New York lessons: When you make it to the top, someone will start tearing you down.
The man his father is running to succeed, Mayor Michael Bloomberg, charged in a New York interview that Dante’s prominence in the de Blasio campaign was “racist.” When pressed, Bloomberg backpedaled, saying that he didn’t think de Blasio himself was racist, but that he was “making an appeal using his family to gain support. I think it’s pretty obvious to anyone watching what he’s been doing.” Bloomberg’s implication was that de Blasio—who is white—was making a play for African-American votes by putting his mixed-race family front and center in his campaign. The mayor acknowledged that such a tactic was “comparable to me pointing out that I’m Jewish in attracting the Jewish vote.” What he really objected to about the de Blasio campaign, he said, was its premise “that there are two different cities here. And I’ve never liked that kind of division.”
It has long been the habit of politicians on both sides of the aisle to use family members—particularly good-looking, eloquent ones—as campaign surrogates. And it has long been understood that voters’ ethnic and racial affinities can make the difference in a close election. Mike “the Mensch” Bloomberg knows this all too well, as he conceded.
It’s only recently, however, that attacking a candidate’s children has been considered fair game. Like much of the animus in our politics, the phenomenon can be traced to the George W. Bush presidency, when the media routinely pilloried the teenaged first daughters, twins Jenna and Barbara, for their rich-girl behavior. By contrast, the media’s treatment of the Obama girls has mirrored the respect afforded to Chelsea Clinton during the 1990s.
On the Republican side, though, campaigning with your children is more likely to draw accusations that you’re using them as “props.” During the 2008 presidential race, blogger Andrew Sullivan skewered vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin’s tendency to campaign with her youngest son, Trig, who was born with Down syndrome. “[She] made campaign speeches featuring [Trig], hauled him around night and day on a book tour, and used him as the central prop in the construction of a political identity,” he wrote in 2010.
Former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum heard similar criticism during his 2012 presidential campaign. Santorum’s daughter, Bella, was born with the rare genetic disorder Trisomy 18. Reports about her frequent hospitalizations during primary season led to charges that the Catholic politician was exploiting her condition to attract the sympathies of religious conservatives. Santorum’s mention of Bella during his remarks at the Republican National Convention prompted New York Times editorial page editor Andrew Rosenthal to tweet, “Can’t Santorum leave his daughter, Bella, alone?”
Dante de Blasio’s father, though, is a liberal hero, running on a platform of ending the NYPD’s stop-and-frisk tactics, taxing the wealthy to pay for pre-kindergarten and after-school programs, and closing the gap between rich and poor. Judging by the reaction to Bloomberg’s comments, criticizing de Blasio’s use of his family is beyond the bounds of common decency. The Daily Kos called the mayor an “entitled a**hole” and the “Chief Jerk of New York.” The Jewish Daily Forward ran a piece headlined, “Michael Bloomberg, Leave Dante de Blasio Alone.” The Nation said Bloomberg was the real racist. Even New York’s liberal governor, Andrew Cuomo, chimed in. “The comments that were reported clearly are out of line and have no place in our political discourse. There are plenty of substantive issues without raising unnecessary and inflammatory topics,” he said.
Cuomo is right. But if he offered similar statements about the attacks on the parents of Trig Palin or Bella Santorum, they weren’t catalogued by Google. New York’s political elite seem surprised that children can get caught in the crossfire of a rough-and-tumble campaign. That precedent has been clearly established—provided the children in question have Republican parents.