Who will carry on Bloomberg's legacy?

With his promise to put Main Street ahead of Wall Street, Bill de Blasio has emerged as an unlikely frontrunner in the New York mayoralty race.

Global attention on the race to succeed Michael Bloomberg after 12 years as Mayor of New York City has mainly focused on the late entry into the Democratic Primary of Anthony Weiner, a disgraced former Congressman apparently incapable of keeping his iPhone in his pants. It deserves deeper scrutiny than that. New York City Hall, a $70 billion enterprise serving a population of eight million over five boroughs, is widely seen as the second biggest prize in US politics after the presidency.

Michael Bloomberg was required by law to leave office four years ago but struck a deal with the City Council that allowed him to serve a third term.  There is little doubt he would run again if rules permitted. A spritely 71 years old with $27 billion in the bank, Bloomberg is not the retiring kind, but bypassing term limits is a hand you only get to play once.  In fact, the early front-runner to replace him, City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, is so bedeviled by orchestrating Bloomberg’s victory lap that his final term seems likely to come at the expense of her first.

Weiner’s candidacy is in tatters, despite a brief post-announcement surge in the polls that caused jitters in national Democratic circles. The compulsive "sexting", a hobby he pursued with gusto even after it had forced his resignation from Congress, turns out to be among Weiner's more appealing traits. At times, he seems less like a candidate running to be Mayor of New York than a character actor playing a candidate running to be Mayor of New York, a scheming weasel whose nefariousness is exposed in the nick of time, allowing someone a lot more like Tom Hanks to prevail.

Latest polls show Weiner tracking fourth for the prized Democratic berth, behind Quinn, Bloomberg’s 2009 opponent William Thompson and Bill de Blasio, the New York City Public Advocate (a kind of elected ombudsman). Assuming no candidate attains 40 per cent of the vote, a run-off scheduled for October 1 between the top two candidates will almost certainly see the preponderance of also-ran voters rally around whichever of them isn't Christine Quinn.  Unexpectedly to many, it is de Blasio who has emerged as the most likely to claim that spot.

Aside from winning the early endorsement of noted actor, liberal activist and tantrum-thrower Alec Baldwin (a mixed blessing at best), de Blasio’s campaign barely registered in the media or opinion polls until recent weeks.  But by railing against what he casts as rampaging economic inequality under Mayor Bloomberg and Speaker Quinn, de Blasio has struck a chord among New York Democrats.

Astute observers should have seen this coming. De Blasio has chosen a good time to cast himself as the anti-Bloomberg.  A New York Times poll released on Friday makes clear that New Yorkers have had enough of an incumbent the paper says they hold in “almost loveless admiration". He gets credit for keeping crime rates low (a trend that started under the underappreciated David Dinkins two decades ago), and voters generally approve of his bossy-britches anti-smoking, pro-environment measures.

At the same time, overwhelming majorities think Bloomberg is too close to Wall Street and, most critically, believe he's failed to turn around the city's 1,700 ailing public schools. Their dissatisfaction seems well grounded: statewide exam results released this month show fewer than one-third of the city pupils meet minimum reading and maths standards. That figure is roughly twice as bad among African American and Hispanic students.

And so it is that Blasio's  "tale of two cities" message — with its signature policy idea to slug millionaires with higher taxes to fund pre-school education — has found its moment.  This kind of left-wing economic populism is striking a nerve across the country, at least among Democrats. The next most popular figure in the party after Hillary Clinton is first-term Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, an unapologetic liberal firebrand. Formerly a Harvard law professor, Warren’s Capitol Hill interrogations of Wall Street executives – where she blends academic precision with incandescent rage — are a sight to behold (and widely beheld, if YouTube views are any guide).

The White House, too, has adapted to the zeitgeist.  In recent speeches, Obama has taken to blaming global competition and economic polarisation for "the erosion of middle class security”, language that would have been unthinkable during Clinton's Third Way presidency. The days when the mere mention of "class warfare" would send Democratic operatives reaching for Valium are over, at least for now.

The success of Warren and de Blasio (if it holds) shows that economic anxiety offers rich pickings for both parties. For Republicans, egged on by the Tea Party, the Great Recession exposed the folly of big deficits and government overreach. For Democrats, it laid bare the growing inequality between rich and poor, exacerbated by an under-regulated and unscrupulous finance sector. Pick your poison.

If de Blasio wins in November, it will be the best chance yet for a Democrat with executive power to turn rabble-rousing words into concrete action. He will face few of the impediments that confront Obama, who has about as much chance getting a budget passed by the GOP-controlled House of Representatives as I do.   Progressive Democrats, in the majority on the City Council and long frustrated by Bloomberg's heavy-handed centrism, will rally behind de Blasio's agenda. Thanks to a vibrant city economy and Bloomberg's prudent management, the council's fiscal house is in order.   The ducks align nicely.

The challenge for de Blasio will mirror that faced by Tea Party-backed Republican Governors elected in 2010.  Elected on a wave of discontent, newcomers like Rick Scott in Florida and Rick Snyder in Michigan have had a much harder time governing than campaigning. Insurgents can make terrible incumbents, and de Blasio will need to strike a fine balance between overreach and capitulation. Minority communities and public sector unions will expect quick results and Wall St titans and their cable news mouthpieces will warn of a mass exodus if the new Mayor enacts anything that threatens their bottom line.

He will need to disappoint each of these audiences to varying degrees, and the skill with which he does so will make or break his mayoralty. To mend failed schools, for example, he needs cooperation from powerful teacher unions but he can't fall under their spell without losing parents in the process.  He can't spend four years battling the city's powerful business interests, but he needn't succumb to their bullying tactics either.  If overheads were the decisive factor in where hedge funds and stockbrokers located their operations, he should remind them that lower Manhattan would be a ghost town.

"It is a miracle that New York works at all," E.B. White wrote in his spellbinding 1949 essay Here is New York.  "The whole thing is implausible". If the city’s residents propel Bill de Blasio to City Hall — and my strong suspicion is that they will — the degree to which he can successfully keep this unlikely show on the road will determine whether his election becomes a roadmap for fellow Democrats or a cautionary tale.

Phil Quin is a New York based consultant and freelance writer and former advisor to Gareth Evans and Steve Bracks. He can be found on twitter at @philquin