Commentary: The Legacy of Trayvon Martin Hangs Over New York's Mayoral Election

Candidate Bill de Blasio’s focus on racial profiling has catapulted him to the front of the primaries.

Posted: 09/09/2013 02:18 PM EDT
Commentary: The Legacy of Trayvon Martin Hangs Over New York's Mayoral Election

If Bill de Blasio wins this week's Democratic primary for New York City mayor, he can thank a Black teenage boy for his victory. No, I'm not referring to his biracial son, Dante, whose TV campaign commercial introduced voters to de Blasio's interracial family and Dante's huge afro.

Instead, I'm talking about Trayvon Martin, the 17-year-old unarmed Florida boy who was shot and killed last year by George Zimmerman. After all, it was the Martin case, and the Zimmerman verdict that followed, that prepared New Yorkers for Dante de Blasio's subtle but powerful message against racial profiling.

All summer long, the momentum against racial profiling in New York has been building. It started with outrage after the Zimmerman acquittal on July 14. It continued when a federal judge ruled against the city's stop-and-frisk tactics on Aug. 12. And it came to a dramatic head when the city council overrode Mayor Mike Bloomberg's veto of a police oversight bill on Aug. 22.

During this time, de Blasio's anti-Bloomberg, anti-stop-and-frisk message moved him in the polls from a second-tier candidate to the clear frontrunner. The week after the Zimmerman verdict, de Blasio was in fourth place with 15 percent of the vote. Today he's in first place with 39 percent of the vote, almost enough to meet the 40 percent threshold to avoid a runoff election.

While the New York Times, New York Daily News and New York Post have all endorsed establishment candidate Christine Quinn for mayor, the public has been sending a decidedly different message. Some see Quinn's campaign as a fourth term for Mayor Bloomberg after she helped him amend the city charter on term limits to allow the mayor to run for a third term. And because Quinn had long failed to take a strong position on stop and frisk, she has come across as a typical, cautious politician afraid to stand up against a powerful mayor.

When the city council debated police oversight legislation last October, Quinn refused to be pinned down on her position. "I support the idea of ongoing reform," she said, but she quickly added, "I have not yet taken a position on these four specific bills." Now, a year later, after watching de Blasio's late summer campaign surge, Quinn is finally denouncing stop and frisk. It may be too little, too late.

In a city where Democrats outnumber Republicans six to one, it shouldn't be hard for Democratic candidates to figure out where to stand on this issue. Sixty percent of New York Democratic primary voters think stop-and-frisk policies are "excessive," according to a recent poll. But the one candidate who was smart enough to figure out how to campaign on that issue was de Blasio.

Even Bill Thompson, the only African-American candidate in the race, has sent mixed messages on racial profiling. He and Quinn both oppose police oversight bills that would help rein in the very stop-and-frisk policies to which they say they object. That type of political doublespeak could explain why polls show Thompson is losing the Black vote to de Blasio, and Quinn, the only woman candidate, is losing women voters to de Blasio as well.

Maybe they didn't get the memo. While many observers were focused on Dante de Blasio's hairstyle, it was the substance of his words, not the size of his afro, that made the case for his father in that now-famous TV ad.

Dante describes his dad as unique among the Democratic candidates for mayor for one major reason. "He's the only one who will end a stop-and-frisk era that unfairly targets people of color," Dante says. That's not entirely true — City Comptroller John Liu has been most consistently opposed to stop and frisk — but the message feels authentic coming from a young Black male.

Nevertheless, Dante's words didn't sit well with Mayor Bloomberg, who blasted de Blasio's campaign ad as "racist," an odd charge when 83 percent of the people stopped by Bloomberg's police officers were Black or Latino. And this is the same mayor who increased the annual number of stop and frisks from 100,000 to 700,000, even though 88 percent of those stopped had done nothing illegal.

In the same interview in which Bloomberg attacked de Blasio, the billionaire mayor suggested the poor were whiners because they have air-conditioning, and he credited Quinn for doing a "very good job" of keeping liberal legislation off the city council floor. That's not helpful.

Bloomberg's blessing may be the kiss of death for Quinn and a badge of honor for her opponents. After the Trayvon Martin saga, the last thing New York voters want is four more years of Bloomberg's aggressive racial profiling. But if Bill de Blasio wins the election, he should cut Mayor Bloomberg a check for attacking him. And then he should thank Trayvon Martin, whose tragic death launched a nationwide conversation that has come to define this campaign.

Keith Boykin is a New York Times best-selling author and former White House aide to President Clinton. He attended Harvard Law School with President Barack Obama and currently serves as a TV political commentator. He writes commentary for BET.com each week.

The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of BET Networks.

BET National News - Keep up to date with breaking news stories from around the nation, including headlines from the hip hop and entertainment world. Click here to subscribe to our newsletter. 

Videos You May Like

From Our Partners