NYC mayoral favorite Bill de Blasio has Mass. roots
CAMBRIDGE — It was not a typical teen cause in the late 1970s.
But when students at Cambridge Rindge and Latin School were concerned that they were not learning grammar, they knew whom to turn to: Bill de Blasio.
The gangly 6-foot-5 senior huddled with administrators and teachers. Before long, students were taking a grammar class called Better Than Basics.
“You went to Bill to get it done,” said Nora Burns, a fellow member of the class of 1979.
These days, de Blasio is the leading candidate for mayor of New York, an outspoken liberal poised to become the city’s second consecutive mayor with Massachusetts roots, succeeding Michael R. Bloomberg, a Medford native.
Initially dismissed as a long shot, de Blasio won a crowded Democratic primary on Sept. 10, and polls show him with a wide lead over the Republican nominee, Joseph Lhota, in the race to the Nov. 5 general election.
A sharp critic of Bloomberg, de Blasio argues that the city has become “two New Yorks” divided by race and income, and he vows to raise taxes on the rich and to end the city’s controversial stop-and-frisk policing strategy.
But decades before his surprising political success, he was making his mark on a smaller stage, as a student activist in this proudly left-leaning city that helped shape his values. At an age when many of his peers were sneaking into rock concerts, de Blasio was revamping school disciplinary codes, fielding student grievances, and decrying the unequal treatment of minorities — a younger, floppy-haired version of the candidate he is today.
“When I hear some of the positions he’s taking around equity, I say, ‘Yup. That’s the Bill de Blasio I know,’ because he was always thinking about issues of social justice,” said Rob Riordan, who was de Blasio’s teacher in a high school English class called “Reading and Writing on Human Values.”
In an interview earlier this month, de Blasio, 52, said growing up in Cambridge gave him a “very progressive grounding” that continues to guide him in New York. “There was an atmosphere of social consciousness,” he said.
But in high school, de Blasio’s obsession with student government could elicit eye-rolling from other students.
One teacher recalled that students hummed “Hail to the Chief” when de Blasio walked into class. He was nicknamed “Senator Provolone,” in a nod to the generous Italian sandwiches he would bring to lunch and to his “overweening investment in political life,” said Gerry Speca, who was de Blasio’s drama teacher. In the high school yearbook, he was labeled “future president of the U.S.A. — the Untied Sneakers Association.”
His overloaded résumé of student government activities landed him a profile in the Globe when he was 17. The paper interviewed him while he was leaning on his desk at the state Department of Education, where he was the coordinator of the Student Services Center. The story described the teenage de Blasio as a “students’ rights advocate” whose interest in politics began in the sixth grade when he started talking back to the television as he watched President Nixon speak about “his economic and Vietnam policies and all the inequalities happening to people.”
“I suddenly thought, ‘Why am I complaining instead of doing something about unfair things?’ ” he said then.
De Blasio said in that piece that he channeled his frustrations into his school, where he helped rewrite the sixth and seventh grade disciplinary codes to ensure that students were granted hearings before the student government if they had problems.
“I feel that many students aren’t getting a people-oriented education,” he said then. “I’ve felt that school systems discriminate against students, and the way to do something about it is to work through people to change the system.”
Born in New York, de Blasio moved to Cambridge in 1966, when he was 5. His mother, Maria, was a public relations manager at Polaroid, and a historian. De Blasio’s name then was Warren Wilhelm Jr., though he was still called Bill. Later, he changed his last name to de Blasio, his mother’s maiden name because, he has said, she raised him while his father was estranged from the family.
Within Rindge and Latin, de Blasio attended the Pilot School, an alternative, 180-student program located on the Harvard campus and founded in 1969 by teachers who believed the main high school was too regimented.
“It was a very collaborative-learning, call-your-teacher-by-their-first name, sit-on-the-desk-with-bare-feet kind of place,” Burns said.
The teachers introduced de Blasio to one of his favorite books at the time, “The Autobiography of Malcolm X,” and he eagerly followed the school’s participatory ethos.
He circulated questionnaires to determine whether students were being denied access to electives and after-school activities, and served on committees that interviewed prospective teachers and sought to diversify the student body.
Dot Reilly, 85, who was the school secretary, recalled how de Blasio came to her desk one day and said he wanted to start an Italian club, but could not find any Italian students. “And not even you can join,” he told her.
“Now, wait a minute, Bill,’” she told him. “‘My maiden name was Zunino. Is that Italian enough for you?’ And he said, ‘Great! Great! We can start our club.’ So we started the Italian club — Bill and I.”
Still, the young de Blasio confessed that it could be frustrating work, trying to interest teenagers in the management of their high school. “Sure, I get discouraged sometimes about trying to get students more closely involved with school,” he told the Globe in 1979. “I don’t get into yelling at people, so I have a lot of pent-up feelings, but I go jogging or listen to music, soft rock, or opera.”
In the New York mayor’s race, de Blasio rarely mentions his youth in Cambridge, other than to note that he went to high school with Patrick Ewing, the former star center for the New York Knicks. His roots in the city are a potential sore spot, since he has had to acknowledge that he is no fan of the New York Yankees.
“I am very much a Red Sox fan,” de Blasio said in the interview this month. “I can name you more players than you could possibly imagine. It’s just part of who I am.”
He said he visits Cambridge only occasionally, but feels a “very strong personal connection” to the city, which reminds him of Park Slope, Brooklyn, where he lives now.
Many of his former classmates and teachers are closely tracking de Blasio’s fortunes, seeing him as the embodiment of the school’s liberal values and as a welcome antidote to the infamy of two other alumni, Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev, the Boston Marathon bombing suspects.
Reilly, the retired secretary, said she wants to visit the teenager she once knew if and when he moves into Gracie Mansion next year. “If he gets in,” she said, “I will make sure one of my kids takes me to see him.”
Michael Levenson can be reached at email@example.com.