At 26, Joe Lhota was a newly minted Harvard MBA. Bill de Blasio was playing footsie with the Sandinistas. Guess which one is going to be the next mayor of New York City?
According to polls, Democrat de Blasio is running ahead of Lhota, his Republican rival, by more than 40 points. With such a seemingly insurmountable lead, de Blasio is on the cusp of becoming mayor of the most populous city in the United States. But his glide path to Gracie Mansion suffered a downdraft this week when the New York Times reported that de Blasio spent the latter part of the 1980s working for a U.S.-based nonprofit that sent food aid and medical supplies to supporters of the Sandinistas, the socialists who ruled Nicaragua and fought a guerilla war against U.S.-backed Contra militias. In a 1990 interview with the New York Times, de Blasio, then known as Warren de Blasio-Wilhelm (though the Times calls him “William Wilhelm”) and described as “a leader in the solidarity network,” praised the Marxist revolutionaries. “They gave a new definition to democracy,” he said.
Even in liberal, open-minded New York, these revelations raised eyebrows. The Big Apple is known as a progressive city, but New Yorkers have not elected a Democratic mayor in 20 years. Naturally, the de Blasio campaign has been eager to suggest that the candidate’s views have evolved, if not softened, since he was a young man. Though de Blasio won the Democratic nomination by running to the left of his primary opponents, he is transitioning now to a general-election strategy that he hopes will have broader appeal.
If history was a reliable guide, Lhota would be a shoo-in to become New York City’s next mayor. A little bit Italian, a little bit Jewish, the Bronx-born son of a cop, Lhota forged his early political convictions from many of the same cultural forces and civic institutions that shaped the city’s last four mayors. When Michael Bloomberg turned 26, in the turbulent political year of 1968, opportunities to form radical associations abounded, yet he had already begun building the financial career that would one day make him both the city’s wealthiest resident and its most powerful citizen. Lhota’s one-time boss, Rudy Giuliani, turned 26 in 1970, the same year he joined the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York. David Dinkins was a student at Brooklyn Law School on his 26th birthday in 1953. As a patriotic 17-year-old in 1945, Dinkins fought his way into the then-segregated Marine Corps. (He tried several recruiting posts before he could find one that hadn’t already “filled their quota of Negro marines.”) Ed Koch was a decorated combat infantry veteran when he opened his private law practice at the age of 26.
By contrast, the 26-year-old de Blasio’s political development appears to have been guided by a radical left-wing philosophy that can be charitably described as anti-American. According to the Times profile, de Blasio “helped raise funds for the Sandinistas in New York and subscribed to the party’s newspaper.” He took at least one trip to Nicaragua in 1988. In defiance of a U.S. travel ban, de Blasio and his wife took their 1994 honeymoon in Castro’s Cuba.
What do de Blasio’s past revolutionary associations say about his fitness for a position often described as the second toughest job in America? Do the radical dalliances of a politician’s youth matter in the context of a campaign 25 years later? After all, the Times reports that “tens of thousands of Americans . . . flocked to Nicaragua hoping to offset the effects of an economic embargo imposed by the United States.” The candidate, by his own admission, was only interested in helping to support the creation of a more egalitarian society. “[The Sandinistas] built a democracy that was striving to be economic and political, that pervaded all levels in society,” he said in 1990.
Maybe Bill de Blasio is a different guy at 51 than he was at 26. People mellow over time. But if he wins, he will be responsible for keeping Gotham’s diverse and often ungovernable cauldron of interest groups and racial tensions from boiling over. He will inherit a budget crisis that threatens to return the city to the fiscal bad old days of the 1970s. He will be responsible for appointing someone to lead the nation’s largest municipal police force, currently mired in controversy over its stop-question-and-frisk tactics and facing the prospect of a court-appointed independent monitor.
So it seems a fair question: Is Bill de Blasio still a Sandinista at heart?
These revelations, while not likely to derail de Blasio’s chances of becoming the Big Apple’s 108th mayor, make selling him as a mature, mainstream politician marginally more difficult. He may win in a landslide anyway, though perhaps his margin will shrink. Of course, he will be no less the winner than if he had won by a single vote. That’s the way democracy works—as least under the old definition.