Politician Injects His Interracial Marriage Into Campaign

Bill de Blasio is the Democratic candidate for New York's Public Advocate, an elected position that is second-in-line to the Mayor. But the politician is under national scrutiny for running campaign ads that include photos of his family — de Blasio is white, his wife is black and their children are biracial. Some politicians have been reluctant to put their mixed race families front and center. De Blasio explains his decision and what message he hopes the ads will send.

MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Coming up, Soledad O'Brien drew critical acclaim and some criticism for her award winning documentary series "Black in America." Now she is back with a look at what is now America's largest minority. We'll talk with CNN's Soledad O'Brien about her latest series, "Latino in America." It debuts tonight - that conversation in just a few minutes.

But first, politics and race in the Obama era. Barack Obama is often referred to as the first African-American president. But it might be more accurate to describe him as our first biracial president. The way we talk about race is rooted in many things, of course, habit, convenience and, of course, history - this country's traditional reluctance to acknowledge that men and women of different races meet, fall in love, get together and get married.

And that reluctance to admit the obvious is particularly evident in public life, where political leaders often seem well behind the times in showcasing family members who, let's say, don't fit the traditional mold. Now, one politician in New York is challenging old stereotypes about race and campaigning head on.

Bill de Blasio is a city councilman who is running for public advocate. No big news there. But his campaign ads have attracted some attention because de Blasio is white, his wife Chirlane is African-American and his ads feature her and their two children. And he's with us now to talk about all this. Thank you so much for joining us.

Mr. BILL DE BLASIO (Democrat Public Advocate candidate, New York): Thank you very much, Michel, for having me.

MARTIN: Before we jump into the conversation, I just want to play one of your campaign ads and obviously this is radio, you can't see it. You'll just have to take my word for it that, for some people, this is eye catching. So here it is. It's narrated by your wife, Chirlane, and the opening shot is one of you walking in the park with your two children. Here it is.

(Soundbite of Bill de Blasio's campaign ad)

Ms. CHIRLANE McCRAY: Bill de Blasio lives in Brooklyn and sends his children to public schools. Bill is a dedicated public servant who spent his career fighting for equality and opportunity for all New Yorkers. In the city council, Bill led the fight against extending term limits. He supports the mayor when he's right and opposes him when he's wrong. Bill's a great husband and father, and he'll be a great public advocate. I should know. This big guy is my husband.

MARTIN: So you know this is the Obama era, of course, and many people think that this country is beyond race. Did anyone advise you not to showcase your family in these ads?

Mr. DE BLASIO: Well, first of all, we're not beyond race obviously. And I know, you know, I appreciate you looking at these issues so intensely, because we still have to have much more of a discussion about them. There certainly were voices that were hesitant and there were critical voices when I did show the ad and when we sent mailings with my family.

You know, my wife and I literally met in the city hall during Mayor Dinkin's administration, you know, the first African-American mayor of New York City as we were involved in an effort to make social change. And I thought it was important to portray our love and our family, because I thought you can't be yourself and be authentic without showing everything about who you are. And, yes, there was criticism and there was concern, but I'm absolutely convinced it was the right thing to do.

MARTIN: What was the criticism and what was the concern?

Mr. DE BLASIO: Everyone wonders how the people are going to see these things. Having gone through the, you know, the early time of my relationship with my wife and seeing some people bristle at it, even in our own family, by definition, there was going to be some bias out there. And people were going to react, you know, some people were going to react negatively. I felt from the beginning a vast majority of people would embrace it and I think that's what we saw.

In fact, we got a lot of very emotional, positive response. Particularly women of color, I think, came up and said that it was meaningful to them that we portrayed this whole family and made it so central, and showed that this was something to celebrate and hold up as an example. And I will say, there were certainly some critical voices. One of my colleagues in the city council was negative towards the ads and, you know, I think unfairly so.

MARTIN: Saying what?

Mr. DE BLASIO: He treated it in his world view as an appeal to black voters in particular and argued that it wasn't substantive enough. And my counter is simple. We ran a very substantive campaign. We talked about issues of concern to all voters. I've done a lot of work, in particular, in the black community and I'm gratified to say that the response was strong and positive in almost all communities.

MARTIN: I'm reminded of the fact that our former Defense Secretary Bill Cohen who's Republican, his wife, he's white. His wife, Janet Langhart Cohen, is African-American. And they say in their joint memoir that he had asked her to marry him while he was still in the Senate. He's a former senator from Maine and she refused saying she did not want to be the cause of him losing an election. She didn't want it on her conscience if his constituents were unable to accept her and that it was the cause of his losing his race. And they did not marry until he was out of the Senate or at least he was and had made it clear he was not running again. So I wanted to ask, if you don't mind my asking, how does your wife feel? Did she have any of those concerns?

Mr. DE BLASIO: I think she shared the concern that there would be people who would have some feelings of intolerance and bias, but not enough to not do it. Both because it was the only way to say what we stood for and who we were, but I think we both had a core feeling that in part because of Obama and part because of a lot of other progress that's been made in politics and media that it was exactly a different time than what we experienced when we first got together during the Dinkin's years in the early '90s.

I think back then you would have assumed that something like this would have been front page news and very charged, and many people would have reacted out of bias negatively. I think today it was overall a positive. I think people were ready for it and it would help people get more ready for more, for more of an acknowledgment and an embrace of the fact that this society is becoming different and I think better. And that multiracial families, in particular, are a bigger and bigger part of American life.

I hope Soledad O'Brien - who's done incredible service - I hope that will be her next look at America, because I think the multiracial families in many ways are the future of the country.

MARTIN: What does public advocate do, by the way, for people who don't live in New York City?

Mr. DE BLASIO: Sure, it's a watchdog role for people around the country and sort of one part attorney general in a sense, not the legal way, but the watchdog making sure the government is accountable and works for people. Next in line of succession to the mayor of New York City if the mayor can no longer serve. In that sense, a kind of a vice president-like position. It's one of three citywide offices in the city, so it's a crucial platform to actually try and get government to work.

MARTIN: Bill de Blasio is a city council member in New York City. He's the Democratic candidate for public advocate, and he was kind enough to join us in our studios in New York. Bill de Blasio, thank you.

Mr. DE BLASIO: Thank you, Michel.

MARTIN: We think it's fair to note that Bill de Blasio is not the only candidate in the running for public advocate. He's the Democratic nominee as we said. We reached out to his Republican challenger Alex Zablocki for comment and he e-mailed us back to say: It's a wonderful thing that de Blasio has his family in the ads. And he said, quote, "In one of the most diverse cities in the world, we should hope more people proudly display their love for one another in the way that they have on the campaign trail."

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