NEW YORK -- New York City mayoral front-runner Bill de Blasio on Friday related the highly personal "transcendent moment" he said more of the city's wealthy feel as a result of being asked to think about income inequality, and laid out a broad vision for revitalizing urban America in the face of tea party politics.
De Blasio, a Democrat who leads Republican Joe Lhota by more than 40 points in polls, seemed remarkably at ease in an interview at The Huffington Post's offices, weeks before an election that will decide the next mayor of the nation's largest city. De Blasio, currently the city public advocate, has proposed taxing the wealthy to pay for citywide pre-kindergarten. It is an ambitious, big-government proposal, and it may face tough odds in the state Legislature.
When asked by Arianna Huffington, The Huffington Post founder and editor-in-chief, what can be done to make those in positions of power "also take personal responsibility, not just delegate responsibility to government," he said he believes his campaign -- and the growing national conversation around income inequality -- are already starting that process.
When he began campaigning, he said, "There was the not-unsurprising countercharge from some corners, starting with our own mayor, that it was divisive in some way, or class struggle in some way, to talk about inequality."
But he said he has since heard something quite different, both from New York's middle class and its wealthy.
From "many people in a lot of the business sectors" he said, there was "a sort of a pause that it caused for them to have that conversation brought up front and center."
De Blasio related the experience of listening to a supporter in the real estate industry introduce him at an event Thursday. The real estate leader said he at first felt "uncomfortable" with de Blasio's talk of inequality, until he thought about his own grandfather, an immigrant who worked his way up with menial jobs.
"He thought about what if his grandfather had experienced that lack of opportunity prevalent today," de Blasio said. "And so it became very personal for him in an unusual fashion, and I think this debate is causing a reexamination for a lot of people. That moment last night crystallized for me that maybe people need that little transcendent moment, where it becomes more personal."
The current mayor, Michael Bloomberg, has been an unwavering supporter of Wall Street. De Blasio has taken a different tone, warning of inequality and lamenting New York's Dickensian "tale of two cities." On Friday, he addressed the lack of leadership and lack of wisdom that have left so many behind.
"If our society were a corporation, if our society were a military operation, we would be accused of mission drift," de Blasio said.
When Huffington asked what he would do if he finds himself "presiding" over Wall Street as mayor, de Blasio responded, "I wouldn't say 'presiding' over. I'd say they're here, too. I think they'd find your formulation entertaining."
But de Blasio credited the financial services industry for pressuring Congress to raise the debt ceiling this week, a moment in which he said Wall Street titans had "real legitimacy" to weigh in on the nation's affairs.
He said he hopes business leaders will support his proposal to tax the wealthy to pay for pre-kindergarten. "It will be interesting to see how many will," he said.
One of his goals in office, he said, will be to help expand New York's tech industry. "One, you always need to diversify the economy," de Blasio said. "Two, we need a lot more job creation, and we need a lot better job creation -- meaning job creation that reaches more people.
"You also need economic diversification, because of the portability of the finance industry, and nothing is a given when it comes to that industry," he said.
With de Blasio's steady lead in the polls, progressives across the country have begun anticipating a New York mayor who will be an outspoken supporter of paid sick leave, higher wages for the lower and middle class, and taxing the rich -- the rhetorical polar opposite of Bloomberg.
De Blasio has made gestures toward city business leaders since he won the Democratic primary last month. On Friday, he seemed comfortable with the idea that he will act on the national stage as a kind of big-city counterweight to the tea party.
"The fundamental set of issues that the next mayor of New York City has to take on are the more economic issues, and the national elements of those economic issues," he said. "The federal government must get back in the affordable housing business, and the federal government must get back in the mass transit business and infrastructure business.
"A mayor of New York City needs to do what mayors in the past did, and be a leader in urban America on the fundamental connection between Washington and urban America, which has frayed horribly since the election of Ronald Reagan," he said.
Mayors and governors across the country, de Blasio said, need to "rework a politics of local demand for Washington investment that will somehow tip the balance in Washington -- perhaps aided by the eventual decline of the tea party, which is doing a hell of a job invalidating itself on a daily basis.
"I appreciate deeply what Bloomberg did, but I don't just want to work around the edges. I want to go at the heart of what I think are New York City's challenges and other big cities' challenges."
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