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De Blasio focuses presidential hopes on African American voters

Democratic presidential candidate and New York City Mayor

Democratic presidential candidate and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio greets guests after speaking at the Rainbow PUSH Coalition annual International Convention on July 1 in Chicago. Credit: Getty Images/Scott Olson

In 2014, after a Staten Island grand jury declined to indict Officer Daniel Pantaleo in the death of Eric Garner, Mayor Bill de Blasio spoke about raising a black son to be wary of encounters with police.

Last month, from the debate stage as a Democratic presidential candidate, de Blasio again evoked his son Dante’s experience of growing up black in America.

But then, earlier this month, when de Blasio demurred on calls for Pantaleo to be fired after federal prosecutors declined to charge the officer, black leaders seized on the mayor’s inaction as being at odds with his messaging.

“You cannot be president, you cannot be the Democratic nominee, if Daniel Pantaleo is still on the force,” Public Advocate Jumaane Williams said at a City Hall rally with Garner’s family. “You can bring your wife out and you can bring your son and your entire family — who are lovely people — but that does nothing for the broken promises to the black and brown people of this city.”

In his long-shot bid for the White House, de Blasio has reached out to black voters nationally with the same pledge: to fight income inequality, which helped him get elected locally in 2013 with 96 percent of the African American vote. Still to be determined, however, is how his handling of the Garner case may affect the perception of him among African Americans.

A local official in South Carolina — one of a small handful of elected officials who have endorsed de Blasio — told Newsday he still stands with the mayor but urged him to reconsider firing Pantaleo.

“I think he should take a second look at it,” said Willie B. Owens, an Orangeburg County councilman. And, regarding Garner, he added: “The young man threw up his hands and gave in. I really don’t see why it was necessary for the police officer to try to choke him.”

De Blasio has spent almost as many days campaigning in South Carolina, where African Americans make up the majority of the Democratic electorate, as he has in the other three early-to-vote states combined.

His biracial family has been central to his image. His wife, Chirlane McCray, has been alongside him for almost all of his campaign. McCray and their son Dante, a paid advisor on the campaign, have traveled to South Carolina without de Blasio to stump on his behalf.

The de Blasio campaign has touted his success in rolling out universal prekindergarten and implementing paid family leave and other policies benefiting everyday New Yorkers. It also highlights his work on criminal justice reform, including improved police-community relations, record-low crime rates and decreased arrest numbers.

"His work will not stop there, whether he's the leader of New York City or this nation," campaign communications director Jaclyn Rothenberg said.

De Blasio has said Pantaleo deserves due process, and that the decision to oust the officer, whose salary rose while he was on modified duty, remains up to NYPD Commissioner James O’Neill. The mayor has declined to say whether he believes Pantaleo should remain on the force.

Five years ago in Staten Island, Pantaleo was captured on video with his arm around Garner’s neck during an arrest. Garner’s gasping last words, “I can’t breathe,” are a rallying cry of the Black Lives Matter movement.

De Blasio and McCray met earlier this month at Gracie Mansion with Garner’s family. But the family left unsatisfied with the mayor.

“It is outrageous that I have had to be fighting for five years to get the mayor to do his job to make sure that there is accountability when the NYPD murders our children,” Garner's mother, Gwen Carr, said in a statement.

Police Benevolent Association president Patrick Lynch pointed to the Staten Island and federal decisions against criminality, saying, "Although Mr. Garner’s death was an undeniable tragedy, police Officer Pantaleo did not cause it."

McCray, like de Blasio, would not say whether she believes Pantaleo should be fired. 

"I cried with disbelief when I heard the DOJ decision, but the Garner family’s tears could fill a river," the first lady said in a statement to Newsday. "It should never have taken this long. I hope that the NYPD process, which will be done next month, will bring them a measure of closure."

Christina Greer, a Fordham University political science professor, predicted the mayor in the second round of Democratic presidential debates this week will face questions about the Garner case. She noted that South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg at the first debates was asked about the shooting death of a black man by a white officer in his city.

"You’re asking for a promotion, and I’m very disappointed with the one example I have. What happens when you’re in charge with all of them?” she asked of de Blasio and incidents of police violence against African Americans.

Greer stressed, however, that African American voters are multi-issue voters.

April Brown, 36, a community official in Columbia, South Columbia, said she hadn’t yet formed an opinion on de Blasio’s handling of the Garner case.

Brown has met the mayor twice, including at a historically black college, and said she was drawn to the de Blasios’ work on early childhood education and mental health services.

De Blasio was “speaking that truth, that we do need to invest in our very, very young, vulnerable children,” Brown said.

She hasn't decided who she'll support for president.

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