By Edith Honan
NEW YORK, Nov 5 (Reuters) - Liberal Democrat Bill de Blasio cruised to victory on Tuesday in the race to succeed New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, marking the first time a Democrat has captured City Hall in two decades.
De Blasio, the city’s public advocate, was leading Republican rival Joe Lhota 73 percent to 24 percent after a campaign in which he railed against economic inequality in America’s most populous city, with 56 percent of precincts reporting.
“My fellow New Yorkers: today, you spoke out loudly and clearly for a new direction in our city, united by a belief that our city should leave no New Yorker behind,” de Blasio told a gathering of about 2,000 revelers on Tuesday night in Brooklyn. “The growing inequality we see, the crisis of affordability we face, it has been decades in the making. But its slow creep upon this city cannot weaken our resolve.”
After promising to close the gap between the rich and poor, he now faces the challenge of high expectations - keeping crime at historic lows and reaching a long-overdue wage deal with the city workers’ unions.
The 6-foot-5-inch (1.96-meter) tall de Blasio won a hotly contested Democratic primary in September by focusing on the controversial “stop-and-frisk” police tactic endorsed by Bloomberg and by criticizing the billionaire mayor for presiding over “two New Yorks” - one rich, one poor.
He also promoted expanding access to pre-kindergarten, proposing a tax on the city’s highest earners to pay for it, and said he would fight to save community hospitals from closing.
But it was de Blasio’s charismatic, biracial family that offered perhaps the biggest boost.
A campaign ad featuring de Blasio’s teenage son, Dante, who sports a tall Afro, argued that the police department’s stop-and-frisk policy unfairly targets young, black men and was easily the most discussed ad of the campaign, transforming Dante into a local celebrity.
“He’s the first candidate for mayor in a long time that I‘m actually excited about, excited about him helping to bring the city together and deal with issues of poverty,” voter Russell Neufeld, 66, a lawyer, said at his polling site in Brooklyn.
‘THE ASPIRATIONAL MAYOR’
Alan Siege, an adjunct professor who teaches entrepreneurship at the City University of New York, said he voted for de Blasio because of the candidate’s message for equality.
“I think it’s good to be a manager,” Siege said, speaking of Lhota’s experience. “But you have to have a vision too, and I think de Blasio has that.”
Lhota, who was a deputy mayor under Rudolph Giuliani and later headed the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, derided de Blasio as a “socialist” and insisted his opponent would lead New York back to its dark days of high crime and poor fiscal management.
In conceding the race on Tuesday night, Lhota congratulated de Blasio but said the campaign had been a “fight worth having.”
“Despite what you might have heard, we are one city,” Lhota said.
Democrats have been locked out of City Hall for two decades despite holding a 6-to-1 registration advantage over Republicans.
Despite his decisive win on Tuesday, de Blasio, who grew up in Boston and served two terms in the City Council, has his work cut out for him.
The city is forecasting a budget gap of $2.2 billion in the next financial year and is facing demands for retroactive pay increases from public sector unions that the current administration estimates could cost the city $4 billion to $8 billion.
“Bill de Blasio is the aspirational mayor and it is always hard to measure aspirations,” said long-time Democratic consultant Hank Sheinkopf. “He is the vessel for both the positive desires and resentments of a large portion of the city.”
“The expectations on him will be very high,” Sheinkopf said.