There were many times during the Michael Bloomberg era when the mayor’s considerable marketing expertise was self-defeating. The 2004 promise to slash homelessness by two-thirds and his 2006 vow to significantly reduce poverty were dramatic and earned the mayor nationwide praise at the time, but now stand as reminders of Bloomberg’s shortcomings. As cool as it sounded, PlaNYC wasn’t a real strategic plan, making what was actually an earnest and prescient attempt to make the city more sustainable seem overhyped. And nothing stained the mayor’s effort in 2008 to overturn term limits more than the favorable City Council testimony of nonprofit leaders who, it later emerged, had benefited from private donations by the mayor.
Mayor-elect Bill de Blasio could suffer from a similar problem. Just as Bloomberg was a brilliant marketer, de Blasio is considered a genius political tactician. Naysaying aside, de Blasio got Hillary Clinton into the US Senate, and he later won tough races for City Council in 2001 and public advocate in 2009. In the space of a few short weeks this summer, he went from fourth to first in the Democratic primary battle. It’s hard to notch so many wins without getting the reputation, as someone put it about de Blasio, that he’s “more Machiavelli than Marx”—more invested in strategic calculation than in the principles at play.
I don’t think that’s fair; de Blasio is not some airbrushed political chameleon. But the video released on Christmas Eve in which de Blasio’s daughter Chiara revealed her struggles with depression, alcohol and pot will only harden the impression that Blasio is more spin than substance. It was just a little too skillfully handled: The perfect timing of its release, the careful editing, the schmalzy music. It’s not that Chiara seems anything less than totally genuine talking about her past. It’s just that when a candid confession is packaged with so much showmanship, it starts to seem less candid.
Given the high profile of his family in the de Blasio campaign, the Chiara story was fair game for the media, and it’s a credit to those reporters who heard rumors about her troubles during the mayoral race but didn’t pursue them when the de Blasio campaign refused to comment.
And given the fact that she’s his 19-year-old daughter, it’s also fair play for the mayor-elect to want to exert some control over the way the story came out. It just would have been better—and more in keeping with the avowed goal of helping other teenagers wrestling with similar demons—to do it with less varnish. Inviting a responsible journalist in to interview Chiara would have allowed the mayor-elect to influence the timing and tone of the story without appearing to manipulate every detail.
Five days out from the inauguration of the first Democratic mayor in twenty years, all this talk of media strategy and family skeletons seems like a distraction from real issues. But this administration’s approach to telling its own story—the good, the bad, the ugly—will be incredibly important to gauging everything from de Blasio’s public safety initiatives to the performance of schools during his tenure.
From day one, Mayor Bloomberg stressed “transparency.” But this often meant providing a large volume of information that the administration wanted the public to have, not what the public necessarily wanted to get. Whether it was the September 11 oral histories that it took a court battle to shake loose or the sector-level crime stats that the NYPD is still making it unnecessarily difficult for us to see or the simple but usually unanswered question of where the mayor was over the weekend, the Bloomberg era was one of extreme message control.
For the next mayor, a little less media discipline might be a good thing—more engaging to a cynical citizenry, and more worthy of a valuable message like Chiara’s.