Kelly: Mayor's race in Big Apple has Omaha connection -
Published Thursday, October 3, 2013 at 1:00 am / Updated at 4:04 am
Kelly: Mayor's race in Big Apple has Omaha connection

The front-runner to become the next mayor of New York City has received counsel for years from a native of Omaha.

Bill de Blasio, who came from far behind to win the Democratic mayoral primary, enjoys a longtime personal and professional friendship with political consultant Jim Crounse — a graduate of Omaha Central High, the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and the Creighton University School of Law.

“For a kid from Omaha to go all over New York City and experience everything New York has to offer on election day,” Crounse said, “is very special and interesting.”

The pair have spent a number of New York election days together as de Blasio rose through a series of political offices.

His victory in the Sept. 10 mayoral primary was truly special for a candidate whose poll numbers at the start of the campaign were in the single digits.

It was special for his buddy from Omaha, too.

“We've become very dear friends, and I really believe in Bill,” said Crounse. “He's a very authentic person.”

The pair met in 2000, when de Blasio, a member of the New York school board, served as campaign manager for Hillary Clinton's successful run for the U.S. Senate. De Blasio then ran for the New York City Council, and the primary election was set — for Sept. 11, 2001.

The 9/11 terrorist attacks shocked New York and the world, and the election was postponed. Crounse spent all day with de Blasio in Brooklyn.

“We saw the Twin Towers burning,” Crounse said. “By 4 or 5 in the afternoon, we went back to his house. A letterhead with burnt edges was floating in the air. It was from a company in the World Trade Center. That day was a bonding experience for the two of us.”

De Blasio was elected to the City Council in 2001 and 2005 and to the office of New York public advocate in 2009.

In last month's primary, he defeated three other major candidates, including former Rep. Anthony Weiner — the front-runner last year before new revelations about his sexual texting became public.

In the Nov. 5 election, liberal de Blasio will face conservative Joe Lhota, a Republican and former chairman of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority.

The result would seem a foregone conclusion because registered Democrats in New York outnumber Republicans six to one. But New Yorkers haven't elected a Democrat as mayor in 20 years — Republican Rudy Giuliani served eight, and Michael Bloomberg, a Republican turned independent, is finishing up 12.

De Blasio's mixed-race family has become very visible during the campaign. He is white and his wife, Chirlane McCray, is black; their teenage children are daughter Chiara and son Dante.

A TV commercial in which Dante, 16, talked about his father was said to have made a big impact during the primary campaign. Then on Sept. 24, President Barack Obama endorsed de Blasio in New York, and said Dante “has the same hairdo I had in 1978. Although I have to confess my Afro was never that good.”

Crounse said Dante's talking about his dad made a difference because, in a personal way, it underscored points that his father had been making consistently from the start of the campaign.

Crounse's specialty is political direct mail, which has become much more sophisticated in targeting voters, including undecideds. His consulting firm is based in Washington, D.C., and he worked on Obama's 2008 and 2012 campaigns, focusing on swing states.

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Columnists Michael Kelly, Erin Grace and Matthew Hansen write about people, places and events around Omaha. Read more of their work here.

Early in his political consulting career, he worked on Nebraska campaigns and then served as chief of staff to U.S. Rep. Peter Hoagland.

In 1987, Crounse got a job in Washington with the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. He was hired by Rahm Emanuel — later President Obama's chief of staff and now mayor of Chicago.

Through Emanuel, Crounse became friends in 1998 with political consultant David Axelrod. The Omaha native recalls Axelrod saying, “I've got a young state senator who wants to run for Congress, but I don't think he has much of a shot.”

Axelrod was right. Obama lost in the 2000 Democratic primary for nomination to a seat in Congress. But he was elected to the U.S. Senate in 2004 and, four years later, to the White House.

Crounse has worked in politics for 35 years, starting with his own run for the Nebraska Legislature while a law student in 1978. While knocking on doors near 48th and Farnam Streets, he bumped into fellow candidate Hoagland and chatted on a porch with him for a half-hour. They became friends, and Hoagland won elections — serving eight years at the State Capitol and six in the U.S. Capitol as a congressman. He was defeated in the 1994 “Republican revolution,” and died in 2007 at age 65.

In his memory, Crounse sponsors the annual Peter J. Hoagland Integrity in Public Service lecture series, alternating between the Omaha and Lincoln campuses of the University of Nebraska.

Crounse, who lives in Alexandria, Va., visits Omaha two or three times a year, and attended the recent Nebraska-UCLA football game in Lincoln. He met his wife, Patsy, on a golf vacation to Scotland, where she was clubhouse manager at the historic St. Andrews course.

He hopes for a de Blasio victory in New York on Nov. 5, but says an election isn't an ending but a beginning.

“What you learn in this business,” Crounse said, “is that campaigning is easy. Governing is hard.”

Contact the writer: Michael Kelly    |   402-444-1000

Mike writes three columns a week on a variety of topics.

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