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How Two Family Portraits Tell the Story of NYC’s Mayoral Race | The Nation

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Leslie Savan

Politics, media and the politics of media.

How Two Family Portraits Tell the Story of NYC’s Mayoral Race

Even without reading the stories on Bill de Blasio’s and Joe Lhota’s families, you can see from the photos just how the New York mayoral race is playing out.

The timing and the lead photos of a New York magazine cover story, “Meet the de Blasios,” and a New York Post three-page spread, “Livin’ La Vida Lhota,” are strikingly similar: both came out yesterday, ten days before the election, and both feature the candidate warmly embracing his all-smiles family in a classical pyramidal composition—the wives and kids forming gentle slopes that lead to the paterfamilias at the peak.

The de Blasio family glows in light. In fact, they all but dissolve into it, fading into the white background, as if floating in heaven. NY mag airbrushed in the halo effect to suggest that expectations of NYC’s future first family may be running too high; the cover photo is captioned, “Their holiday card is going to be great. Then what?”

But there’s nothing airbrushed about the tangle of arms and hands holding each other: the de Blasio family is tight, as united, it seems, as they are racially diverse. The photo also speaks to a diversity of heights. At 6 foot 5, Bill normally towers over the petite Chirlane McCray, his wife, but here he’s bending down into his family, minimizing any separateness, holding them together—as, the picture implies, he would hold together the ethnic, economic and borough-bickering diversity of New York City.

That de Blasio is a skyscraper among six- and eight-floor buildings is more evident in photos of him next to the very short Mayor Bloomberg, the mid-sized Lhota, and the tall Obama. De Blasio’s height, I think, appeals to voters—who doesn’t feel a little more protected by a giant? It might be an unfair advantage, but de Blasio’s physical presence makes Lhota’s warnings that he’d be soft on crime even harder to believe.

In a photo inside the magazine, de Blasio tamps down his height still more. As he and Chirlane lean together into their children, Bill landing below Dante’s Afro, the parents function as a wall of support for their kids. Will they do the same for the city’s much, much larger family?


Bill de Blasio and his family (Source: New York magazine)

Here’s the lead photo in the New York Post story:


Joe Lhota and his family (Source: New York Post)

The Lhotas also glow, but the light surrounding them comes from more earthly sources: light from the window reflects off of the stainless steel pots, the white tiles and glass cabinets of their apartment-sized kitchen, and the blonde hair of Joe’s wife, Tamra, and 22-year-old daughter, Kathryn, not to mention from their smiles.

This photo (unlike several photos lower down in the story) doesn’t say “tight family” as the de Blasios’s does: limbs don’t interweave, Tamra has one hand (and her mind?) preoccupied elsewhere, and you don’t see Joe’s arms at all.

And, most obviously, when compared to the de Blasio photo, this photo says Lhota’s family is white. Maybe the Post was trying to compensate for a lack of diversity by spicing up the print version of the story with the aforementioned headline, “Livin’ La Vida Lhota.” Online, where readers are more likely to snark, the piece is simply called “Life with the Lhotas.” We also learn from the piece that Lhota’s background is not whitebread but “a melting pot of Czech, Russian-Jewish and Italian ancestors.”

The two family portraits come at a time when Bill de Blasio’s family has been front and center—the kids doing TV ads for him and Chirlane usually with him campaigning—while Lhota’s family is rarely seen. As Kathryn Lhota told the Post, “We’re such a private family to begin with and I’m grateful that we’ve been able to maintain it.”

But forty or more points behind, Lhota needed them to step out. And perhaps the New York Post needed it even more, to combat the liberal media. You can almost see Rupert Murdoch’s Post, sibling to the Roger Ailes–run Fox News, saying, “The liberal media’s not going to give Joe a fair shake, we gotta do it ourselves, we’re going to go glow for glow, candidate’s child for candidate’s child. That’s fair and balanced.”

This must not have been easy for Lhota, not only because his family prefers privacy, but because Lhota has been insisting that Bill de Blasio “is using his family because he has no policies.” “Heck, if you didn’t have any policies and plans you’d put your lovely family out there. It’s as simple as that.”

That’s ridiculous: it’s de Blasio’s policies—on housing, taxes, policing—that Lhota has been railing against all along. It is true, though, that de Blasio’s family helped catapult him above better-known rivals in the Democratic primary—particularly helpful was that now-famous TV ad in which Dante vouches for his dad as someone who’ll end “a stop-and-frisk era that unfairly targets people of color.” It’s also true that “diversity” can be used merely symbolically. But in de Blasio’s case, it’s part and parcel of all those policies that Lhota claims de Blasio lacks.

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Lhota has also said that de Blasio “has a wonderful family, and he uses that to get across that he’s a nice guy.” But the Post piece ends with Lhota’s family, including their Labrador, making him look super-nice—and maybe even taller than de Blasio. Lhota, who had taken his daughter to all the Harry Potter movies, is asked which Potter character he is most like. From the Post:

“I identify with Hagrid,” the giant groundskeeper. “Big guy with a heart of gold.”

Lindy wags her tail, her big brown eyes fixed on his as she hopes for another treat. Helpless, Lhota slips her more macaroni.

“A heart of gold,” Tamra says. “Absolutely!”

Leslie Savan wonders whether de Blasio will dissapoint progressives, when and if he is elected NYC mayor.

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