Current and past geopolitics pulled the race for City Hall away from stop-and-frisk and tax-the-rich toward insights about the candidates’ worldviews early this week.
After speaking out on Monday about the need for continued vigilance against Iran, Republican Joseph Lhota declared that he and Democrat Bill de Blasio “think very differently about how the governments of the world should work and how we should interact with our government.”
The two candidates were largely in accord when it comes to U.S. policy toward Iran’s nuclear ambitions and the need to continue sanctions as they each spoke at a rally Monday near the United Nations timed to the start of the General Assembly this week (see video.)
But Lhota later seized an opportunity to criticize his rival for events in another part of the world a quarter-century ago after a New York Times report analyzed de Blasio’s little-known travels to Nicaragua and Cuba.
“Actions taken with the Sandinistas, who were fighting Americans as well as capitalism, [were] absolutely not the right thing to do during the Cold War,” Lhota told reporters. “Going to Cuba illegally is never a good thing in this country. His point of view in the world and my point of view in the world are contrasting and different.”
The Times reported that de Blasio visited Nicaragua in 1988 as a young leftist activist with the intention of distributing food and medicine during the socialist Central American country’s conflict with the U.S.-backed Contra rebels, and came away with an admiration for the Sandinista government. He also honeymooned with his wife, Chirlane McRay in Cuba, in 1994, violating a U.S. travel ban, the report said.
De Blasio hurried away from the UN rally Monday morning rather than answer questions from a large scrum of reporters trailing him. And the Times reported Tuesday that he later in the day denied describing himself as a “democratic socialist” in notes that the paper’s reporters found in a New York University archive.
“The bottom line is the values that I have put forward I think have been consistent over the last quarter-century or more,” he said in front of Queens Borough Hall. “I believe in a more just society. I believe government has to be a tool for a more just society. And I think it’s that simple.”
In a 1990 interview, de Blasio, then a volunteer with the Nicaragua Solidarity Network, told the Times the Sandinistas “gave a new definition to democracy. They built a democracy that was striving to be economic and political, that pervaded all levels of society.”
His activism on behalf of Nicaragua continued into his days as a young aide in the Dinkins administration but ceased around 1992, the Times said.
On Tuesday morning, Lhota extended his attack a second day saying, “Mr. de Blasio’s class-warfare strategy in New York City is directly out of the Marxist playbook. Now we know why.”
Lhota, who trails de Blasio in two recent general election polls by about 40 points, clearly hopes to gain ground by painting his rival as a left-wing radical in moderate clothes and with a shorter haircut.
And the Sandinistas story seemed on Monday to eclipse the emphatic endorsement of de Blasio by President Barack Obama. In making the endorsement, Obama said: “Bill’s agenda for New York is marked by bold, courageous ideas that address the great challenges of our time.”
But political commentator Henry Stern, founder of New York Civic, said it was unlikely that de Blasio’s past activism (unmentioned in his campaign biography) would play a key role in the race.
“The guy’s a radical, but the question is how much most people care about these things,” said Stern. “He’s not Patty Hearst. He didn’t blow anything up or commit any crime. If Israel was involved somehow, it would be different.”
Intensive discussion in the race about the Sandinistas and his support could put de Blasio in a bind, however, as the candidates head into debate season.
The party, which held power from 1979 to 1990, was accused of anti-Semitism by a group of Nicaraguan Jews who came to Washington in 1985 — three years before de Blasio’s visit — in support of U.S. aid to the Contras.
According to a Washington Post report at the time, the group lobbied Jewish members of Congress and Jewish organizations to stop opposing CIA support for the rebels.
The record on the subject is somewhat murky, however. JTA reported in April 1986 that a group of Jews who fled Nicaragua said at a Capitol Hill press conference that the Sandinista government was anti-Israel and anti-Semitic. But Rabbi Balfour Brickner, then leader of the Stephen Wise Free Synagogue (who died in 2005) rebutted the charge, saying at the time that those Jews had left for political reasons, not because of persecution. The human rights activist rabbi told JTA that despite ties to the PLO, the government under President Daniel Ortega was neither anti-Semitic nor anti-Israel, producing a letter to that effect by Nicaragua’s foreign minister.
Elliott Abrams, a senior fellow at the conservative Council on Foreign Relations, who was an assistant secretary of state charged with monitoring human rights at the time the Sandinistas seized power, recalls receiving news that a synagogue in Managua was set abalze by the group while worshipers were inside.
He was told by higher-ups that the act was considered political, not anti-Semitic.
“I had read a great deal about the indifference toward the plight of Jews in the 20s and 30s,” he said. “But I never understood it until I read that cable.”
Abrams noted that antipathy toward Jews and Israel by the Sandinistas “shouldn’t be surprising” given the politics of the time. “It was the height of the Cold War, and they felt an affinity toward the Soviet Union, Cuba, the PLO, Libya … this was their crowd.”
De Blasio’s campaign did not respond to a request for comment about the alleged anti-Semitism of the Sandinistas.
Ezra Friedlander, a consultant who previously helped Christine Quinn gather Jewish votes and now backs de Blasio, said the issue likely wouldn’t gain much traction.
“Most voters don’t even remember that era and have no inkling about that whole time period,” he said. “It would be different if he were running for president, but to discern what his foreign policy was has nothing to do with delivering city services.”
Stern added that the pilgrimage to Central America seemed intended as something akin to liberals going to the South to support civil rights in the 1960s, when de Blasio was a child. “If you want to be in a revolution, you find the nearest one,” he said.
While there was no daylight between the contenders’ stated view on U.S. policy toward Iran, Lhota came across as more skeptical of diplomacy, while de Blasio on Monday afternoon praised the administration’s handling of the issue.
“The Obama administration deserves tremendous credit for putting sustained and growing pressure on the Iranian regime, and the reason you’re seeing this sudden change of tone [from Tehran] is because these sanctions are working,” de Blasio said at the press conference in Queens.
He was responding to a question from John Kenny of the website New York True about diplomacy with Iran’s new president, Hassan Rouhani, which is being received warily in Israel.
De Blasio added, “We’ll only believe it when we see tangible results. … We need to see them renounce nuclear weapons.”
Lhota told reporters at the Iran rally “diplomacy is only one aspect of the type of negotiations and pressure that we need to put on Iran. … We still need to be as vigilant as we possible can to protect the State of Israel.”
Despite having no direct impact on foreign policy, New York mayors have a long history of staking out positions on international affairs, particularly regarding the Middle East.
“We are the capital of the world, the headquarters of the United Nations,” Lhota said. “The mayor of New York has always been asked about issues around the world.”
When a TV reporter asked if Lhota favored keeping Iran’s leader out of New York, noting the antipathy of Lhota’s former boss, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, toward Palestinian Authority President Yasir Arafat, the candidate said, “There is a world of difference between heads of state and Yasir Arafat, who was a murderer. … He was a murderer, end of sentence.”
At the rally outside the United Nations, speakers convened by the Jewish Community Relations Council here expressed concern that a war-weary Obama administration would succumb to the softer tone presented by Rouhani and compromise on curbing the country’s nuclear ambitions.
“[Rouhani] has changed the tone and tenor of Iran’s message to the world,” said JCRC executive Vice President Michael Miller. “But as Americans and as New Yorkers, as political and faith leaders we have to say clearly and unequivocally that we will not be taken in by his soothing rhetoric and newfound charm offensive without seeing tangible and meaningful actions.”
The confluence of Iran and Nicaragua being raised on the same day is interesting given that the two countries were tied together in the 1980s Iran-Contra scandal, in which the Reagan administration was found to have sold weapons to Iran, in part in order to secretly fund efforts to aid the anti-Sandinista rebels.