New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio is virtually unchallenged within his party and all but certain to win a second term in November. He’s got a string of liberal policy victories in his back pocket – paid sick leave, paid family leave and a municipal ID card program – and he’s positioned himself as an outspoken opponent of President Donald Trump on policies like police reform and sanctuary cities.
But three years after riding into office with bold liberal promises and visions of leading a national charge on issues like income inequality, de Blasio is still struggling to fashion the national profile he’s long sought.
His efforts to push a national agenda in 2015 sputtered quickly and his awkward election-year relationship with Hillary Clinton’s team only exacerbated criticisms of political hubris and tone deafness at home, underscored by his recent insistence on being chauffeured in city car to his Brooklyn gym at the same time he’s calling on people to make sacrifices to combat climate change.
Moreover, the broader liberal revolution the mayor once hoped to lead has come to be defined on Bernie Sanders’ terms, not de Blasio’s, leaving the New York mayor’s place in the national debate unclear – particularly compared to his Republican predecessors, Rudy Giuliani and Michael Bloomberg.
“He’s got a Bernie message,” Vermont Rep. Peter Welch said of de Blasio at an April dinner in Burlington, where the mayor was a guest speaker, but the Vermont senator was the star.
"There’s absolutely no doubt that the mayor of New York City should have a bigger role in the national discussion than he does,” says one Democratic political operative in New York City. “Even at this point in his mayoralty, I feel like Bloomberg was starting to come out more, and certainly during his second term, he began to become a national player. … Before he was elected, people expected Bill de Blasio to eventually be playing a larger role than he currently is."
Trump’s election may have given de Blasio a new opportunity, and the mayor is traveling the country delivering speeches and meeting with some of the party’s most influential donors, as he looks to rack up a landslide re-election. Earlier this month, he traveled to the U.S. Conference of Mayors’ annual meeting in Miami to announce an effort led by a group of mayors to push back against the Senate Republicans’ effort to repeal the Affordable Care Act.
But by all accounts, the mayor of the United States’ largest city has a lot of ground to make up. Influential Democrats outside New York City are polite in their praise – but they’re not yet clamoring for a de Blasio revolution.
California Democratic Party Chair John Burton hosted a fundraiser for de Blasio in San Francisco in March and had good things to say about de Blasio, noting that “when you’re the Mayor of New York, you’re an automatic national figure.”
But Burton notes that primary reason he threw the event was a friendship with de Blasio cousin and labor operative John Wilhelm. “I don’t know Bill that well at all, and I could say if it wasn’t for his imposing stature [de Blasio is 6’5”], and his being John’s cousin, that I would not have remembered him that much,” Burton said.
De Blasio spokesman Eric Phillips argues that local wins have to come before national status. “The Mayor’s only been in office a few years and he’s achieved dramatic success on crime, education, job-creation and housing,” he told POLITICO. “He’s putting big progressive wins on the board locally and he’s cognizant that without that management and policy success someone won’t have the credibility it takes to influence the national debate. You’ve got to do one before the other.”
Slow out of the gate
Critics, however, contend that de Blasio actually took the opposite approach out of the gate – getting out over his skis in his first bid for national relevance early in his first term.
His landslide victory in 2013, built on progressive promises like universal pre-K and police reform, catapulted him from an unknown public advocate to a national voice for liberals disaffected with the Democratic Party.
But the mayor stumbled in his efforts to rally national liberals behind him. A national group de Blasio founded in 2015, called the Progressive Agenda, failed to attract significant interest as the mayor faced a series of increasingly difficult challenges back in the city.
And his plan to host a bipartisan presidential forum in Iowa fizzled when nobody would agree to attend it.
Then De Blasio’s failure to endorse Hillary Clinton early in her candidacy — unlike many other leading Democrat officials — left her campaign staff and closest allies fuming publicly and privately over what they saw as the mayor’s arrogance.
Clinton surrogate Hilary Rosen heckled the mayor when he held a press conference in Iowa last winter, as he stumped for her campaign. And Clinton campaign manager Robby Mook called de Blasio a “terrorist” for his public praise of Bernie Sanders in a series of emails hacked and leaked last summer.
De Blasio tried to make it right with effusive praise for Clinton, but it was too late: He’d become persona non grata among the Democratic establishment. He eventually endorsed Clinton, but the awkward dance ultimately left de Blasio looking out of step with not only Clinton’s camp but also with Sanders and his supporters.
People close to the mayor say privately that they regard the Progressive Agenda, and the Clinton debacle, as a political failure they’d like to forget.
“That moment deflated his ability to translate his rhetoric into political support among progressives,” Baruch College political science professor Doug Muzzio said.
Phillips, the mayor’s spokesman, calls that contention “academic silliness. Progressives will ultimately only care about what Bill de Blasio does for working New Yorkers, not the date he endorsed Hillary Clinton.”
The irony is that in hindsight, some of de Blasio’s criticisms of Clinton look prescient — most of all his argument that she wasn’t addressing economic inequality in her campaign, an issue that Sanders ended up turning into a rallying cry for his insurgent bid. Indeed, many of de Blasio’s policy ideas, particularly universal pre-kindergarten, have been embraced by national Democrats.
During de Blasio’s April trip to a Democratic fundraising dinner in Burlington, dozens of admirers flocked to Sanders, who at one point was surrounded six-deep by selfie-seekers and taught a couple how to switch the lens on their phone to capture a photo.
Unsurprisingly, De Blasio was less of a draw. It took the mayor only a few minutes to shake hands with a handful of admirers, at which point he began to introduce himself to other attendees. In his remarks, de Blasio touted his work on affordable housing, municipal ID cards, and police reform, though his biggest applause line was came when he told the New England crowd that he remains a Red Sox fan.
His fellow speakers, including Sanders, seemed to know de Blasio mostly for his universal pre-K program, an early legislative victory in the mayor’s term. (Vermont’s pre-K program went into effect this school year.)
Sanders said de Blasio is “leading that revolution for childcare in New York City.”
De Blasio is not getting credit for leading the way on addressing inequality, however, in part because the progressive movement has gotten pretty crowded since the heady days of 2014, when he was at the vanguard.
When Sanders made a surprise trip to New York City in January, it was not to appear with de Blasio, but instead to praise a free-tuition plan being offered by Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a proud centrist and rival of the mayor who had been a harsh critic of Sanders during his primary campaign.
And who, exactly, can lay claim to the party’s platform remains an open question after Democrats’ bruising losses of November’s election.
As California’s Burton puts it: “Nobody’s gonna capture the national stage right now, because nobody knows what the hell’s going on."
Despite his high poll numbers in New York City, De Blasio’s tendency to lecture the press and condescend to his seasoned agency heads don’t help. Even loyal staff members past and present say privately that he’s difficult to work with.
Muzzio ascribes some of de Blasio’s failure to launch to his personality, and says he’s unnecessarily alienated allies both inside and outside New York City. “In terms of policy, he should be in the forefront of the national progressive movement, but he isn’t,” Muzzio said.
New York elected officials, for instance, were enraged in February when the mayor traveled to the Democratic National Committee elections in Atlanta to support Keith Ellison’s candidacy for chairman, but failed to do any campaigning on behalf of the two New Yorkers seeking vice-chair positions within the party.
Critics and other politicians say the mayor’s staff have often been so disorganized that it’s virtually impossible to schedule events with him.
This past spring, when New York’s congressional delegation secured federal reimbursement for the NYPD’s costs of providing security at Trump Tower, Reps. Grace Meng, Nita Lowey, Carolyn Maloney and Jerry Nadler hustled to City Hall’s Blue Room for a press conference to celebrate the funding victory. But an apologetic de Blasio left while the event was still ongoing so he could travel to Vermont for his event with Sanders that evening, leaving the lawmakers alone to field questions.
He’s also had difficulty organizing coalitions in Albany among the Democrat-led Assembly to push or protect his legislative agenda, and he’s still locked in a distracting feud with New York’s Governor Andrew Cuomo, also a Democrat.
None of those stumbles are likely to have an impact on his chances for re-election this year. Recent polls show the mayor with a 60 percent approval rating, his highest ever, and he faces a shallow field of poorly-funded Democratic challengers in this year’s primary election.
De Blasio’s team said the mayor is actually working on building his profile at home. “He’s a methodical guy who cares more about the work at home than about being another talking head on national issues,” Phillips said. “Those expecting him to be a national force right out of the gate don’t understand the challenges or the rhythms associated with one of the most demanding jobs in American politics.”
Still, the Trump era – which has coincided with de Blasio’s re-election run — has given the mayor an opening for a national do-over.
A second chance
In recent months the mayor has made fundraising stops in Florida, Seattle, Los Angeles and Chicago, and collected donations from some of the party’s most prominent fundraisers, like AOL CEO Timothy Armstrong, early Facebook investor Sean Parker and hip hop mogul Russell Simmons.
Boston criminal justice activist and former real estate developer Woody Kaplan was more than happy to donate to de Blasio’s re-election this year, because he supports the mayor’s criminal justice proposals, including reducing the use of stop and frisk and his closing the city’s jail at Rikers Island. But Kaplan demurred when asked about the mayor’s viability for higher office.
“There are at least 34 Democrats being speculated publicly about running for president, so I’m staying out of that for the time being,” Kaplan said, adding, “I’ll probably bet on a horse, eventually.”
If de Blasio is seeking to broaden his profile on the national stage, or considering a run for higher office, he’s going about it in a gentler fashion than he did in 2015. Rather than serving as the face of a progressive coalition, he’s been more content to share the stage with other elected officials.
Rather than touring the country on his own to promote his agenda, he’s been courting the favor of his fellow mayors and working to build alliances with mayors around the country to resist the president’s agenda.
“There is no central headquarters for the progressive movement,” he said in a recent press conference, when asked what he saw as his role in the movement today. “This is a bunch of likeminded people trying in many ways to work together more than ever before. It is a work in progress.”
— Bill Mahoney contributed to this report from Vermont.