The politics were supposed to come easy for de Blasio, but became his weak spot

NEW YORK — Bill de Blasio promised a transformation so extraordinary, New Yorkers would scarcely recognize their city if they elected him mayor. No longer would the upper crust gallivant around, untethered to the problems plaguing the masses. He would tax a relative few to expand pre-K for all, force developers to build affordable housing and rein in the nation’s most powerful police department.

After 20 years of Republican mayors, New Yorkers decided to take their chances on a Democratic political operative turned politician — one who had violated a U.S. travel ban to honeymoon in Cuba and raised money for Nicaraguan revolutionaries. They seemed keen enough on his principles to shrug off questions about his management credentials.

Eight years later, supporters and detractors alike are confounded by what became of a man who assumed the mayoralty at a time of prosperity and is leaving office amid a crisis of immeasurable proportion.

In a phrase, it’s complicated.

De Blasio proved himself to be a capable manager who shepherded New York from the epicenter of the Covid-19 pandemic to a city that reopened schools, restaurants and theaters — all while maintaining one of the highest vaccination rates in the country. Along the way, he broke with his own conventions — challenging unions and religious leaders who have reliably supported his electoral ambitions.

But the sharp political instinct that guided him from Brooklyn school board to City Hall eluded him throughout his tenure. He instigated unwinnable fights, waged class warfare on people who fancy themselves civic boosters and persisted in courting constituencies that never much liked him in the first place.

That paradox, which became clear after he was in office just a year, intensified as he settled into a role he sometimes suggested he was only witness to. (More than six years into the position, for instance, he promised to “save our city” from the ails of economic inequality, as though he were not in charge of the metropolis.)

“When Bill de Blasio took office, there was a misconception that he would be a formidable political animal and someone with questionable management abilities. And the reality is, the opposite occurred,” John del Cecato, a consultant who worked on de Blasio’s 2013 campaign, said in a recent interview.

“People can complain about his style, and how he treats some people he interacts with,” del Cecato said. “But they can’t question the results of the past eight years.”

Now de Blasio — who will hand over the job to incoming Mayor Eric Adams on Saturday — is gearing up to run for governor in June. He has hinted at a campaign focused on his record on income inequality and Covid, which was initially overshadowed by vitriol for his own public health department, and more recently by a shortage of tests during a surge in cases.

“We want to fundamentally take this moment as a moment of transformation, just like we saw this country do after the Great Depression — profound transformation, much greater equality and fairness in the distribution of wealth,” de Blasio, who declined to be interviewed for this story, said during a recent press conference.

He is almost certain to be haunted by fissures with left-of-center Democrats who initially supported him. And if they have forgotten, one of their own will be on hand to remind them: Public Advocate Jumaane Williams, an early de Blasio supporter, is running for governor as an unabashed activist. Meanwhile, Gov. Kathy Hochul has been working to make inroads with wealthy and middle-class voters who either didn’t back de Blasio in the first place or lost faith in him along the way.

While acknowledging the difficulties of the job, Williams criticized de Blasio for “a lot of unnecessary failures” in an interview this week. “He didn’t really push forward in earnest a lot of the things that many people were asking him for,” Williams said.

Tackling inequality

De Blasio vowed to “take dead aim” at New York’s wealth gap. He ballooned the budget from nearly $73 billion when he took office to more than $102 billion today to expand city services.

He availed every 4-year-old of pre-K, albeit without a wealth tax, which was denied to him by former Gov. Andrew Cuomo — his nemesis who resigned amid scandal over the summer. The initiative, which cost nearly $1.5 billion in taxpayer funds this year, is lauded for its relief for working parents who cannot afford child care as much as for being an academic innovator.

He spent another $166 million this year on legal services for renters — a program that contributed to a 41 percent drop in evictions from 2013 through 2019, according to a city-issued report card.

He increased city subsidies to the struggling public hospital system, which proved vital when the pandemic hit. “Had we actually closed hospitals or closed clinics, we wouldn’t have those resources available to us now,” Deputy Mayor Melanie Hartzog told POLITICO in a recent interview.

And he reopened a contract with the largest municipal union, District Council 37, to ensure some of the lowest-paid city workers were making the wage he was demanding of the private sector.

“That helped literally about 20,000 of our people who were below the $15-an-hour,” union President Henry Garrido said in a recent interview.

He lamented the mayor’s failure to close gender and racial pay gaps in the union. “This is something he ran on — the tale of two cities and income inequality,” Garrido said. “It would’ve substantially improved the lives of many people who are his constituents.”

One measure of inequality calculated by the U.S. Census shows no improvement over his tenure, and unemployment in the city is double the national average. But the Independent Budget Office determined the gulf between rich and poor narrowed from 2014 through 2019, in contrast with a national trend, Gothamist recently reported.

“I’m no huge fan of Bill de Blasio. I don’t think he’s been that good of a mayor, but I think his policies and what he pushed for made a meaningful difference in income inequality in New York City,” said economist James Parrott. “That’s a lot of people in New York.”

With that record came public disdain for the wealthiest residents.

“I will not tell you that Gucci and Tiffany are my central concerns in life,” the mayor declared in 2016, responding to the posh retailers’ fears about heightened security around neighboring Trump Tower costing them business.

That comment, perceived as dismissive, proved a headache for de Blasio’s private-sector liaisons, recalled Gregg Bishop, then the city’s commissioner for the Department of Small Business Services.

“I cannot tell you how much heat I got from the business community and I had to go and clean it up,” said Bishop, who largely defended the mayor’s record.

De Blasio avoided the gala circuit, refused for years to visit the High Line in Manhattan and derided Central Park’s “elitism.” Aides implored him to attend these functions, three recounted in recent interviews. Former Deputy Mayor Alicia Glen once warned him to stop criticizing a hedge fund firm whose executive had been an ally.

He even referenced the fictional Showtime drama “Billions” to explain his trepidation about hedge fund manager Steve Cohen buying the Mets, someone privy to the conversation told POLITICO.

“De Blasio was dismissive of the business community, particularly the corporate community, and I think that cost the city a lot in terms of collaboration on economic and workforce development,” Kathy Wylde, head of New York’s leading business consortium, said in an interview.

Former spokesperson Eric Phillips said the approach excluded New Yorkers who are pivotal to the city’s economy. “Ultimately I don’t think that strategy did anybody any good,” he said in a recent interview, blaming some of the most divisive messaging on staffers.

Fumbling politics

De Blasio’s near-singular focus on his mission helped him win reelection in 2017 despite multi-year investigations into his campaign finance practices that belied his soaring rhetoric about reforming the system.

But he fumbled in an arena he once dominated.

A campaign-operative-turned-candidate, the mayor never quite got his footing as he grappled with an ever-changing political landscape during his tenure. He fashioned himself an ideological warrior but governed as a pragmatist; he dug in his heels when pushed by progressives on issues they hold dear, like affordable housing and police reform, while trying to appeal to moderates and conservatives who never gave him a chance. And he avoided tough political decisions, often kicking them to meandering ad hoc task forces while lecturing Democrats across the country for lacking his boldness.

For all his soaring oratory, the mayor cared more about local political machinations than either ideology or management, said one former agency official, who declined to speak on the record. “It was the smallest of small politics,” the person said.

The cascade of missteps could be distilled into the saga over how to handle city statues.

Inspired by a national conversation about dismantling Confederate monuments, de Blasio ordered a review of all “symbols of hate on city property.” Pushback ensued from New Yorkers of Italian descent, who admonished the half-Italian mayor’s consideration of calls to remove a statue dedicated to Christopher Columbus. His gusto for the issue waned.

Tensions erupted when a related campaign spearheaded by the mayor’s wife, Chirlane McCray, to honor female icons appeared to rebuff a request for a monument to Mother Cabrini — the Roman Catholic patron saint of immigrants. Italian-Americans again nearly revolted, with “A Bronx Tale” star Chazz Palminteri challenging de Blasio during his weekly radio segment. The mayor blamed the fight on the New York Post for previously misquoting the actor, but Palminteri dismissed that.

The mishap reportedly led to the ouster of de Blasio’s cultural affairs commissioner, and a year later a Mother Cabrini statue was finally unveiled — by Cuomo.

While small in scope, the episode displayed some of de Blasio’s most self-destructive qualities.

His reliance on commissions — at times seemingly to avoid making tough decisions — has led to a stalemate on far more consequential issues, like school segregation and property tax reform.

“If he hadn’t picked incredibly stupid fights that wasted political capital over and over again and showed voters his disdain for the job and the city, he actually could have been an incredibly popular mayor,” said one former adviser, citing years of therapy over dealing with de Blasio in declining to speak on the record. “They did a lot. In spite of that, they spent an enormous amount of mental, political and psychic energy tilting at windmills and almost daring New Yorkers to dislike him.”

De Blasio also struggled at times to navigate the Democratic Party’s leftward shift.

He once identified with the progressive movement, and grew frustrated by what he viewed as its rejection of a mayoralty that was putting many of its priorities into practice.

Some of it stemmed from natural tensions between activists and mayors.

And some was the result of a new generation that he couldn’t quite relate to. During an early talk with Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, de Blasio urged the new Congress member to forge better relationships with Jewish community leaders who were troubled by her stance on Israeli politics, according to two people familiar with the meeting. A defender of Israel who believes the left misunderstands the relevant history, de Blasio instructed his aides to follow up with Ocasio-Cortez repeatedly, until finally accepting her apparent disinterest in his advice, the people said.

De Blasio also didn’t wield the powers afforded a mayor, several aides concurred in recent interviews. He never vetoed a piece of legislation, accepted what some viewed as a bad deal with the Trump administration on oversight of the city housing authority and allowed the City Council to push for changes to the charter that curtail executive authority.

“Bill de Blasio’s political instincts come from being a legislator. I think he didn’t settle into the powers of the mayoralty and the executive branch,” said Glen, who was otherwise supportive of his record.

Another area where he faces criticism is treatment of staff.

Some commissioners felt micromanaged; others felt ignored. Younger aides were often harangued over their mistakes — one to the point of being kicked out of a car, according to multiple people. He has been known to criticize the chefs at Gracie Mansion over the content of salt in his sauce and the placement of silverware around his dinner plate.

Police relations

De Blasio’s relations with the NYPD, which can make or break a mayoralty, started off tense and worsened over time.

He made good on his campaign promise to reduce stop-and-frisk — a tactic that was found to be employed unconstitutionally under former Mayor Mike Bloomberg. And for most of his tenure, violent crime fell before rising during the pandemic.

But his sweeping rhetoric around police reform took a backseat when faced with one of his biggest challenges.

During de Blasio’s first year in office, Eric Garner, an unarmed Black man selling loose cigarettes, was killed by a police chokehold. Protests were contained, and the mayor even embarked on a family vacation to Italy a few days later. But conflict erupted when a grand jury decided not to press charges against the officers that December. The mayor responded with an emotional speech referencing his own fears as the parent of a biracial son.

Weeks later, after two NYPD officers were assassinated in a squad car, scores of cops turned their backs on him as he visited the grieving families in Brooklyn’s Woodhull Hospital.

De Blasio and his police commissioner at the time, Bill Bratton, managed to quickly regain control over the situation, but the mayor never appeared to recover from the shock. Six years later, when police officers drove a car into demonstrators following the murder of George Floyd, he instructed protesters, “You’ve made your point; it’s time to stay home.”

Aides quit in protest and some of his most loyal confidantes publicly denounced his handling of the situation.

Some of his commissioners of color were so upset they requested an audience with the mayor. A virtual meeting was scheduled but, after they were left waiting for half an hour, a staffer informed them de Blasio would not be joining after all, a person involved with that meeting told POLITICO recently.

“The cops never forgave him and activists never forgave him. He lost both coalitions,” progressive advocate Jonathan Westin said in a recent interview.

First Deputy Mayor Dean Fuleihan disagreed: “The mayor had a set of values he entered with eight years ago. Those values drive us, and that includes the NYPD, which is a different place than it was eight years ago,” he said in an interview.

Perhaps because of these foibles, de Blasio never received the national attention he craved.

He botched an effort to impact the 2016 presidential election, declining to endorse Bernie Sanders but waiting so long to back his former boss, Hillary Clinton, that her campaign manager dubbed him “a terrorist.” He hoped to corral candidates to a bipartisan forum, but none agreed to show up. Four years later his own campaign for the White House went nowhere.

But his signature achievements — pre-K and a vaccine mandate — are mirrored by current White House policy, Democratic consultant Neal Kwatra said. “He may not have become president, he may not have gotten traction, but Joe Biden has adopted a big part of the Bill de Blasio agenda,” Kwatra said. “Bad management, bad optics, often bad execution, but a pretty darn good record.”

Even some of de Blasio’s staunchest defenders admit that despite his record of achievements, people don’t seem to like him.

Asked about this dynamic on NY1’s Inside City Hall recently, the mayor replied: “I could have been someone people wanted to have a beer with, but I didn’t do anything to make their lives better. I’d much rather be the person who made their lives better.”

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