NEW YORK – With violent crime at historic lows but rents and homelessness at record highs, New Yorkers elected Democrat Bill de Blasio as their next mayor Tuesday after embracing his vow to bridge the gap between rich and poor and to end police tactics that critics call racist.
The Republican candidate, Joe Lhota, campaigned on warnings that De Blasio, a staunch liberal who has served as the city’s public advocate since 2010, would drag New York back to the days of sky-high crime, no-go neighborhoods and racial tension.
But throughout the campaign, opinion polls showed Lhota, who was deputy mayor under Rudolph Giuliani and who last year served as chairman of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, lagging about 40 percentage points behind De Blasio.
De Blasio, 52, went to his polling place with his wife and children, who became something of a campaign issue when critics accused the Democrat of exploiting their multi-racialism. De Blasio’s wife is black, he is white, and his telegenic son and daughter proved a hit with voters when they starred in TV ads for their father.
"This morning is an extraordinary moment for me and my family," De Blasio said after voting. "It has been a very, very long journey, and to get to this morning at our polling site, in our neighborhood, to finally cast our vote is an incredibly emotional moment."
Lhota said he would not have changed anything about his campaign, even though political experts said he was a lackluster candidate who waited too long to attack De Blasio as soft on crime.
"Everything I’ve done I wanted to," Lhota, 59, said after voting in Brooklyn. "I’m very optimistic about tonight."
The election closed out a campaign with no shortage of unexpected twists, including the May arrival into the Democratic primary race of disgraced ex-Congressman Anthony Weiner. Weiner, who was forced to resign his congressional seat in 2011 amid a sexting scandal, shook up a Democratic field that had long been led by the City Council speaker, Christine Quinn.
Quinn, hoping to become the city’s first female and first openly gay mayor, lost ground to Weiner. She suffered further as the other Democrats seized on her close relationship with the outgoing mayor, Michael R. Bloomberg, and blamed her for enabling him to serve a third term.
As Weiner lost backers after admitting to more online relationships with women, much of his support went to De Blasio.
De Blasio also won points with black and Latino New Yorkers by bashing as racial profiling the police department’s stop-and-frisk tactic in high-crime neighborhoods.
De Blasio vowed to fire the police commissioner, Raymond Kelly, if elected. He also said he would fund educational programs with a tax on New York residents earning $500,000 a year – something that would require state legislative action.
Both promises helped catapult him over six other candidates to clinch the ballot spot without a runoff.
Lhota’s closest primary rival was a billionaire supermarket magnate, John Catsimatidis, a political novice. He portrayed Lhota as a heartless cat-hater after the former transit chief questioned the wisdom of officials closing a subway line for hours so that kittens lost on the track could be saved.
"I’m not the anti-kitten candidate," Lhota declared as he sought to defend himself at one of the Republican debates.
In the end, he easily defeated Catsimatidis on primary day, but he never was able to make a dent in De Blasio’s huge lead.
The Democrat had a built-in advantage because of the city’s political makeup. Democrats outnumber Republicans by more than 5 to 1. De Blasio also benefited from the controversy over stop-and-frisk, which many blacks and Latinos – who overwhelmingly support De Blasio – say unfairly targets them.
In addition, polls showed that voters were ready for a change after 12 years under Bloomberg, whom De Blasio portrayed as out-of-touch with working-class New Yorkers.
He and Lhota both tried to present themselves as far different from Bloomberg, whom they portrayed as Manhattan-centric and too focused on billionaires and big business to notice regular residents’ problems.
Bloomberg did not endorse either candidate, saying he didn’t want to interfere in the race, but said Tuesday he believed he was leaving the nation’s largest city in good shape.
"We’ve made a lot of progress that I don’t think should be turned back," said Bloomberg, whose legacy will include a legal battle over one of his most controversial moves: the banning of super-size sugary drinks to combat obesity in the city. De Blasio has said he supports the effort; Lhota opposed it.
Bloomberg, who was elected as a Republican but switched to an independent, won praise from many moderate Democrats for pushing for stricter gun control measures nationwide – a fight he was able to fund with his own wealth – and for making the city more pedestrian-friendly with bike lanes and pedestrian malls. He took on obesity and other health issues by ushering in smoking bans and crackdowns on trans-fats, and by trying to limit soda sizes.
But as demographic shifts brought more racial diversity to New York and raised the number of Democrats, even fans of Bloomberg said it was time to take the city in another direction.
"I like what he’s done for the city in terms of the bike lanes and bringing businesses here, and I think he’s right to worry about our health," said Jonathan Simpson, who voted for Bloomberg in past elections. "But New York is more than a bunch of skyscrapers and rich people in Manhattan, so that’s why I think we need to have someone totally different like De Blasio in office for awhile."
Bloomberg said he wasn’t worried about the changes that the next mayor might bring, noting that candidates often make promises that fall by the wayside.
"The real issue is not what they said during the campaigns," Bloomberg said after voting. "The real issue is what do they do when they get elected?"