Branding Bill De Blasio: The Message Machine That Made NYC’s Next Mayor

John Del Cecato
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It was a make or break moment for John Del Cecato.

It was early August, and the Democratic strategist had just convinced his client, New York City mayoral hopeful Bill de Blasio, to pay for and air a television ad he believed could turn the tide for a struggling campaign.

The ad featured the white candidate’s biracial, teenage son, Dante, sporting a large Afro hairdo and praising his father’s progressive policies. The campaign hoped it would convey the message that de Blasio’s family looked like New York. Critics would later grumble the ad was a sly way of injecting race into the campaign.

But it was clear to Del Cecato that something dramatic needed to be done. Recent polling had showed de Blasio in third place in the Democratic primary. He would need to finish in at least the top two to qualify for a potential runoff.

Then the news came. The ad had only been on air a short time when Del Cecato found out the respected pollsters at Quinnipiac University would be coming out that day with a new survey of the primary. He knew he had to tamp down the de Blasio team’s expectations.

“I sent an email out when they said we’ve got a Q poll coming out today,” Del Cecato recalled in a recent interview with TPM, “and I said, ‘I just want to preface this by saying that, you know, we’ve only had this spot up a couple of days, so don’t call me and say our ads aren’t working.'”

Hours later, Del Cecato changed his tune. The poll had showed de Blasio was out in front. He was polling at 30 percent of the likely vote, six points ahead of any other Democrat.

Del Cecato fired off another email.

“As soon as it came back, I was like, ‘I would now like to claim credit for getting us to 30 percent,'” Del Cecato said with a laugh.

It was the most crucial moment in de Blasio’s campaign, and one that catapulted him to a primary victory on Sept. 10 and eventually a win in the general election on Tuesday.

In a pair of interviews conducted in recent weeks, Del Cecato gave TPM an extensive glimpse behind the scenes at the messaging operation that sent de Blasio to City Hall by branding him as a “true progressive populist” and putting the spotlight on his diverse family.

It campaign was also a high water mark for Del Cecato, a former protege of President Obama’s senior strategist David Axelrod, and one that could set him up to become a major player in next year’s midterms and beyond.

While Del Cecato said his email to the de Blasio campaign following the poll was meant as a joke, others were more ready to hail the ad’s effect on the race.

Axelrod, for one, told TPM that the ad should get a lot of credit for the win.

“The race turned around almost overnight. It’s very rare that you put an ad on television and it has the kind of kinetic effect that this ad did,” Axelrod said. “Many ads work at the margins, this one really turned a race around.”

Even Quinnipiac’s pollster, Maurice Carroll, was effusive in a press release announcing De Blasio was 23 points ahead with voters days before the primary.

“Dante’s big Afro is the campaign image everyone remembers,” Carroll wrote. “What a TV commercial! What a boost with everyone who has kids! What a plus in the black community!”

Axelrod was the man who first brought Del Cecato into New York City politics. During New York’s 2001 mayoral election, Axelrod worked as a top strategist to former Bronx Borough President Fernando Ferrer. He told TPM he brought Del Cecato into that race to work as Ferrer’s communications director.

When the 2001 race ended in a primary loss, Del Cecato joined Axelrod’s firm, Axelrod & Associates. In 2006, he was made a partner of the firm, which was renamed AKPD Message & Media. At AKPD, Del Cecato made commercials for both of Obama’s White House bids.

Del Cecato said Axelrod “taught me everything I know” about making political ads. Though Axelrod sold his shares and left AKPD in 2009 to join the Obama administration, the two have remained close, including periodic conversations during the mayor’s race.

“In terms of our own conversations, you know, he’d call every once in a while,” Axelrod said.” I mean, I was not taking a position in the race, but he would call every once in a while, more to use me as a sounding board for things that he already had largely worked through.”

According to Del Cecato, he and de Blasio first began talking about working together on the race in late 2010 while the strategist was working on Obama’s re-election bid.

“He called me and said, ‘Hey, I don’t know how this works. I don’t know if I’m supposed to be courting you, or you’re supposed to be courting me. … I know you’ve got this whole presidential campaign to go through, but I want to work with you if you’re interested in doing this,'” Del Cecato recounted.

Early last year, Del Cecato met with de Blasio and his wife, Chirlane, to work on what he described as a “basic message framework” for the campaign.

Del Cecato said he came up with the idea of using the phrase “tale of two cities” to serve as a “metaphor” for de Blasio’s platform. That slogan became a constant refrain throughout the mayoral bid, which Del Cecato characterized as distinct from other contemporary campaigns that focused on the “middle class.”

“In New York, more so than I would say any other big city in the country, there is this vast income inequality where the middle class is disappearing. If you say ‘middle class’ to half of New Yorkers, they’ll say, ‘What are you talking about?'” Del Cecato said. “He wanted to get at that. Like, actually be a candidate who didn’t choke on the word ‘poor’ and said poverty is not a good thing.”

Axelrod said Del Cecato gave him a sneak preview of the famous “Dante” ad before it went on air.

“He showed me the ad after it was done and I knew instantly that it was a winner,” recalled Axelrod. “It was powerful.”

Del Cecato said he latched onto the idea of using de Blasio’s son in an ad after the teenager — and his hairdo — made headlines at the campaign kickoff in January.

“My thought was to make a first ad that tells something about his family, introduces his family,” Del Cecato said. “It’s somewhat eye-catching and kind of has a little twist in it and that establishes him as the true progressive in the race.”

De Blasio’s children, Dante and his sister, Chiara, were a presence throughout the campaign. They appeared on stage at events and alongside their father on the campaign trail and at his victory speeches. A mailer sent out in the final weeks of the campaign featured a photo of de Blasio, Chirlane, and the children under the headline “Meet The Brooklyn Family Who’s Fighting To Change New York.”

Chiara starred in de Blasio’s final television commercial of the race, which was released Oct. 17. It was a response to an ad from de Blasio’s GOP rival, Joe Lhota. The Republican’s ad had used footage of angry biker gangs to warn that de Blasio would “take New York backwards” to the days of much higher crime rates.

Del Cecato said the Democratic campaign decided to film a response to that ad to highlight the differences between de Blasio and Lhota, who was a deputy mayor under Rudy Giuliani.

“It was really more of an opportunity that we seized on to deliver our message and use some jiu jitsu there to use that ad, though we didn’t think it was particularly effective, to kind of further diminish (Lhota) and show him as kind of a yapping dog instead of a serious candidate,” Del Cecato said.

Del Cecato said he thought Chiara was the perfect messenger to deliver a rebuttal.

“You’ve got this incredibly telegenic, hopeful young woman who looks like New York and is just an engaging presence on TV,” he said.

Del Cecato said he thinks displaying de Blasio’s interracial family helped New Yorkers learn more about his background.

“It’s not just that people love diversity, it’s that now they think they’ve figured you out a little bit … get a little better sense of what he went through,” Del Cecato said.

Seeing de Blasio’s family spurred voters to spend time thinking about his background, the strategist said.

“When you see him, it’s like Chiara said during that one fundraiser, you know, ‘He’s not some boring old white guy,‘” Del Cecato said of de Blasio. “It’s not a matter of checking boxes, like, look he has a wife that looks like some communities, he looks like some communities, his daughter and son look like others. It’s more that people get a sense of putting the puzzle together more. … If they just saw kind of the standard, white picket fence family, they probably wouldn’t take any time to think about you as a human because they’re like, ‘OK, yeah, another one of those.'”

Just as voters who make small donations are more likely to show up and support a candidate at the polls, Del Cecato said viewers who spend time pondering de Blasio’s family are more likely to give him their votes.

“It’s almost like they invested a little in the campaign,” said Del Cecato. “If you’ve taken 30 seconds, or five minutes, or 20 minutes to either think about the family, to kind of process it, it just makes you that much more invested in, ‘I think I know de Blasio a little bit.'”

Of course, like all strategies, this focus on the family could have backfired.

In 2009, when de Blasio was running for Public Advocate, there was a small uproar with critics complaining mailers that featured his wife and children were racially exploitative. During the mayor’s race, there were some indications voters were turned off by de Blasio’s efforts to capitalize on his childrens’ diverse appeal.

In a September interview with New York magazine Mayor Michael Bloomberg grumbled that de Blasio was staging a “racist” campaign by “making an appeal using his family to gain support.” On election night Tuesday, Lhota noted in his concession speech that his wife and daughter “didn’t make a commercial.”

Del Cecato said the de Blasio campaign saw the reaction coming and even “compiled a list one time of every candidate who had their kids featured in an ad” to point to if reporters questioned the childrens’ starring role. However, Del Cecato said he “just didn’t worry” about facing criticism that the focus on de Blasio’s family was somehow exploitative.

“Every campaign I’ve ever worked on where a candidate has kids, the kids are in the ads in some capacity. He happens to have a very interesting family and a very New York family,” Del Cecato said of de Blasio. “I just didn’t worry about that because his family is in part what drives him to be so personally committed to education, to be so personally committed to the working parents.”

Based on Tuesday’s result, the strategy was clearly successful. However Del Cecato said de Blasio was also helped along by several “strategic mistakes” made by his rivals. Among them was that the other candidates “underestimated” de Blasio and misunderstood the voters.

“They also didn’t believe that a progressive message could … carry the campaign as far as it did. I think they misread the electorate and thought, you know, we’re going to talk only about the middle class and were going to be as business friendly as possible,” said Del Cecato. “Mayor’s races are won on message and you have to have something that can separate you from the field.”

With his central role in the messaging strategy and now iconic commercial that propelled de Blasio to a historic upset victory, it stands to reason Del Cecato’s services will be in high demand next year and possibly in the 2016 presidential race. AKPD is currently working on Martha Coakley’s Massachusetts gubernatorial campaign, Rep. Bruce Braley (D-IA) Senate run in Iowa, Connecticut Gov. Dannel Malloy’s (D) re-election effort, the San Diego mayoral bid of Nathan Fletcher, and the Pennsylvania gubernatorial campaign of Rob McCord, who Del Cecato noted, “happens to be married to an African-American woman.”

Del Cecato said his firm would “probably take one more” client next year. He was far more vague about his plans for 2016.

“It’s so far ahead. I haven’t really — I’m barely thinking about 2014,” he said with a laugh.

Del Cecato might not be considering his options, but Axelrod said he’s confident his protege will have no shortage of suitors following his success with de Blasio.

“Every great media consultant has these sort of watershed elections in their background. I think this one, John made an iconic ad that will be remembered for a long time. And when he steps in a room and shows his reel, everyone in that room is likely to know that ad,” Axelrod said. “I think he will be very much in demand.”

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