Republican mayoral candidate Joseph Lhota outraged Democrats this week by releasing a commercial linking his opponent Bill de Blasio to the supposedly criminal-friendly policies of the Dinkins administration, for which de Blasio worked early in his career. De Blasio condemned the ad as “divisive, inappropriate,” and said that New Yorkers would be “disgusted” by it.
Letitia James, Democratic nominee for public advocate, called the ad a “dog whistle” and insisted it be removed from the airwaves as unfit to be seen.
This phrase “dog whistle” has come into widespread use lately, and is a curious instance of a word that enacts its own meaning. As used by Letitia James it means roughly, “a message with secret meaning that is communicated sub rosa to alert listeners.” Council member James says that Lhota’s ad is trying to stir up white voters with memories of the high crime rate under David Dinkins. But in calling the commercial a “dog whistle” James is dog whistling to her own base that the ad, and by implication Lhota himself, is racist, without ever using that loaded word specifically.
Lhota’s commercial is provocative and crude, and represents a floundering campaign’s miserable effort to gain traction. But in what sense is it false? Bill de Blasio did in fact work for the Dinkins administration, which is widely and commonly held to have been a failure, despite recent revisionist efforts to rehabilitate it. Crime rates peaked and leveled off during Dinkins’ term, when ten thousand New Yorkers were murdered. Ask anyone what their main memory of the Dinkins years is and they will likely cite the Crown Heights riot, which Dinkins accepted responsibility for mishandling. Crown Heights was a major disaster in New York City history, and was labeled “the most serious anti-Semitic incident in American history.” Lhota isn’t blaming de Blasio for Crown Heights, but he is asking whether de Blasio’s policies on crime are similar to those of Dinkins. Why is that question met with insinuations of racism and called out of bounds? De Blasio criticizes Lhota’s work for the Giuliani administration, which seems like a perfectly reasonable strategy for a political campaign. What then is so outrageous about linking de Blasio to Dinkins?
Moreover it is a bit rich for the de Blasio campaign to complain about using race as an electoral tactic. Mayor Bloomberg was stupid and absurd in calling the now-famous Dante de Blasio commercials “racist.” But none other than Council member and former Black Panther Charles Barron more broadly and clearly articulated Bloomberg’s intuition in 2009 when he lambasted Bill de Blasio’s campaign for public advocate, which became the model for his mayoral run:
It's an insult to the black community, because you need to be talking about our black issues. Don't just promote your wife. It's not fair to her, because everybody likes her. But that's the political animalism of Bill de Blasio - that he'll do these kinds of things, and he [won't] even stop at his own wife to get elected.
It's all right to have a family photo in the first piece of mail and maybe even the second piece, but the third, fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh, 10th piece, you're still promoting your wife - it is obvious. Everybody in the city is talking about it. ... The truth of the matter is she is a wonderful, beautiful woman for him to do that is a shame.
So if Joe Lhota is dog whistling that crime will rise under de Blasio by linking him to his former boss’s admittedly terrible policies, what would we call de Blasio’s use of his black wife and kids in his campaign advertising? A howling siren? A klaxon?
Consider this video of Bill de Blasio’s daughter Chiara, which was released on the campaign’s official YouTube channel. It begins with Miss de Blasio saying how happy she is to work with her family on her father’s campaign, “because it would be one thing if he were just some boring white guy who didn’t know what he was talking about.” This line gets a laugh from the audience, including the candidate himself, and is clearly the salient feature of the video, whose description reads, “Chiara de Blasio introduces her dad, who's ‘not just some boring white guy,’ at a Young Progressives for de Blasio event last week.”
Most teenage children think their dads are boring—mine certainly do—but that isn’t the joke here. In fact it is the opposite. Not only is Bill de Blasio not boring as a dad, he is not boring qua white man. How refreshing! This is, please remember, an official message of the de Blasio campaign, linked to the campaign website. We have gone beyond dog whistling here, gone beyond codes or winks or insinuations, and into explicit blazons of overt racial characterization.
I’m not saying that the de Blasio campaign is racist, or that white men are unfairly picked on, or that the Lhota commercial is in good taste. But given that the de Blasio campaign has been so willing to foreground the race of its candidate’s family, and to highlight how extraordinarily different he is from typical white people, it seems more than a bit disingenuous for the campaign to then pretend that a question about de Blasio’s links to a failed mayoralty is beyond the bounds of polite discussion, because some hierophantic ears, tuned to a secret frequency, might hear a message that is already in the open anyway.