Joe Lhota campaign ad. (Source: Joe Lohta for Mayor, Inc)

So is Joe Lhota’s attack ad against Bill de Blasio in the NYC mayor’s race the latest incarnation of Willie Horton, or is it merely a color-blind piece of highly misleading fear-mongering?

Released the day after de Blasio trounced Lhota in Tuesday’s debate, the ad flashes photos of riots and corpses to claim that “Bill de Blasio’s recklessly dangerous agenda on crime will take us back” to the bad old days of high crime and graffiti gone wild. The ad starts, though, with that viral video of bikers attacking an SUV in Manhattan:

Those are indeed some scary photos, all presumably from before mayors Giuliani and Bloomberg made the city safe. But in some terrific digging, AM New York discovered that the photo of a body laying near a shopping cart is from December 2, 2012, when Mayor Bloomberg was fully in charge (as he will be until January 1, 2014). Changing the original color photo to black and white does help age it bit.

And that still shot of a man with a ’fro drawing a gun in a stairwell? Well, that’s an undercover police officer (from 1978), not, as you might think given the fear-inducing context, a gunman caught in the act.  

But what about the ad’s specific charges, like that “Bill de Blasio voted to take over 5,000 cops off our streets”? Turns out that was a Bloomberg initiative. “It is true,” says a New York Times factcheck, “that Mr. de Blasio, as a councilman, voted in favor of budgets proposed by Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg that led to a reduction of the Police Department’s work force.”

OK, but after that biker attack (which occurred, of course, in the dark old days of a few weeks ago), did de Blasio respond by saying cops should “visit motorcycle clubs and talk to bikers,” as you might conclude from the quotation marks? No. Those words come from a New York Post paraphrase; its story did at least go on to quote de Blasio’s actual words: “Democrat Bill de Blasio, meanwhile, has urged that cops visit motorcycle clubs and talk to bikers. ‘We have to be very tough on this one—this is an unacceptable state of affairs,’ de Blasio said.”

The Republican candidate’s word-twisting could be worse: Lhota claimed early last week that de Blasio would “dispatch the NYPD to sit down and have coffee with the bikers.”

Lhota’s ad, called “Can’t Go Back,” never specifies why he thinks de Blasio would be so dangerous. But he’s referring to de Blasio’s opposition to the NYPD’s stop-and-frisk policy, which a federal judge recently ruled unconstitutional, saying it was a “form of racial profiling.”

“Can’t Go Back” itself is a kind of decade profiling: not all the still images include black people, but they’re represented enough—by shots of the racially charged Crown Heights riots, of a black man in the graffiti-covered subway car, and by that Afro’d cop you don’t know is a cop. Lhota’s “dog whistle” signalling “the days of racial unrest and polarization” is loud and clear, as de Blasio ally Letitia James, running for his current job as public advocate, puts it.

De Blasio went further, saying, “This is just like the Willy Horton ad,” the infamous spot that associated a convicted black murderer with Mike Dukakis on behalf of George H.W. Bush in the 1988 presidential race. “It’s divisive and negative,” De Blasio continued. “The images are so far over the top, it’s unbelievable that anybody responsible would ever authorize such a thing.”

Lhota was incensed at the suggestion. “What you should do is go look at the Willie Horton ad and then ask yourself why they would make such a ludicrous comparison.”

“It’s not using scare tactics,” Lhota insisted. “Bill de Blasio has no background whatsoever when it comes to public safety. And what he has said about public safety shows a level of naïveté that would throw us back to what New York City once was.”

De Blasio’s team responded today with a low-key positive ad, featuring his daughter, Chiara. (Watch it below.)

But Lhota’s overall attack, that de Blasio would be soft on crime, might be having an effect. The Times implied as much: “Despite his anger [over Lhota’s ad], there were signs on Wednesday that Mr. de Blasio…was staking out a more nuanced tone on policing. After spending much of the primary criticizing the police commissioner, Raymond W. Kelly [for promoting stop-and-frisk], Mr. de Blasio told reporters that he had no plans to entirely dismiss Mr. Kelly’s policies.”

In any case, Lhota says to expect more ads like this one: “This is the first of many commercials that I know will define and describe what I believe Bill de Blasio is.”

Read about the time that Lhota called de Blasio a communist (Leslie Savan reports)