Who is Bill de Blasio? It's a question that has likely been Googled with increasing frequency across America's kitchen tables and bathroom stalls, now that the two-term Democratic Mayor of New York City has officially declared his presidential candidacy.
After a lengthy period of proto-campaigning—raising cash for his political action committee, conducting polls, and sucking staff away from City Hall—de Blasio (not deBlasio, or De Blasio, or Deblasio) finally tossed his hat in the ring on Thursday morning, with a three-minute campaign video promising to take on the wealthy, the corporations, and President Trump. He then stopped over on ABC's Good Morning America, where he brushed off questions about his odds amid a historically crowded field, and the fact that New Yorkers overwhelmingly don't want him to run.
"The poll that actually matters is the election," de Blasio said. "It's not where you start, it's where you end." (Where he’s starting: the sole presidential hopeful among 23 candidates to earn a net negative rating from fellow-Democrats.)
For voters living outside the five boroughs, our towering, Massachusetts-reared mayor (at 6’5”, de Blasio stands one inch above the tallest president, Abraham Lincoln) may seem like a mystery. While that sentiment is sometimes shared by reporters who cover his administration, we’ve done our best here to give non-New Yorkers a snapshot of who Mayor Bill de Blasio is, and how the city has changed (or hasn’t) under his watch.
He’s late to things.
Chronic lateness is an annoying trait found in many New Yorkers—we’re just “too busy” and selfish and odds are the people we’re meeting will also be 10 minutes late—and Mayor de Blasio is no different. For his first year or so in office, this meant that he was late to appointments, press conferences, a memorial service for victims of a plane crash, and a flight to Puerto Rico. The NY Post bought him an alarm clock, and eventually de Blasio learned to show up and be the mayor on time. Reporters cared, voters didn’t.
Nowadays, de Blasio is late to adopt policies that would seem to be no-brainers for any Democratic candidate for president who is running as a progressive leader.
The mayor announced his support for legalizing marijuana in December of 2018, five years after he was first elected mayor and three years after his pal Bernie Sanders proposed federal legislation to legalize it, when 69 percent of Democrats and 62 percent of all Americans had already thought it was a good idea.
For years, he refused to support a modest initiative to help impoverished New Yorkers afford mass transit, while similar programs in other cities thrived. De Blasio resisted calls to begin the process of shutting down the decrepit, violent jails on Rikers Island until it became politically impossible for him to dismiss them. He supported Amazon’s plans to build a massive campus in Queens with $3 billion in city and state subsidies before he deftly embraced the activists who opposed the deal.
And for someone who fancies themselves a leader with a national profile, Mayor de Blasio is excruciatingly slow to make national pronouncements.
"There's a lotta spine there, a lotta steel there," de Blasio said in his less-than-convincing endorsement of his former boss Hillary Clinton, months after other high-profile party members had made up their minds.
After seemingly every other Democratic leader in America had already decided to run for president, de Blasio’s last few months of dithering felt adorably enraging, like the kid who just stands up on the high dive for ten minutes looking down at the water while the line below grows longer. “Cmon Bill it’s not THAT scary just do it or come down! We’re gonna go get some ice cream okay?”
A more charitable interpretation is that the mayor was being “deliberative.” Either way, we deeply appreciate the extra time to put this blog post together.
(Ed Reed/Mayoral Photography Office)
He says he’s making NYC the “Fairest Big City In America.”
“Fairness” is a squishy metric by which to judge a public servant—what’s fair to some is inevitably “unfair” to others. Life isn’t fair! (It’s also the name of de Blasio’s political action committee, Fairness PAC.)
"There is plenty of money in this city, it's just in the wrong hands," the mayor said in a speech earlier this year (a favorite line of his, which also opened his campaign video.) "You deserve a city that gives you the share of prosperity that you've earned. Life in the fairest big city in America should never feel impossible.”
Hamstrung by the state legislature in many arenas, from taxation to traffic cameras, there is only so much the mayor of New York City can to do shift the balance of income inequality. So is de Blasio doing enough?
The mayor’s universal pre-K initiative has been so successful, the city is now applying the same model to three-year-olds. De Blasio’s goal to build and preserve 300,000 total units of affordable housing by 2026 is an expansion of his previous pledge, and it is literally changing the landscape of the city.
His administration also extended paid sick leave, paid for attorneys to help tenants fight evictions and immigrants fight deportation, and created a new transportation network through city-subsidized ferries. Arrests for petty crimes have plummeted, as the mayor has gradually acknowledged how profoundly unfair it is to have a marijuana charge or an open container ticket follow you through life.
But those pre-K students are still sent into one of the most segregated school systems in the country. Almost half of New York City households are rent-burdened, meaning at least 30 percent of their annual income goes to rent, and the share of seniors and single-parent households in the city who are severely rent-burdened, with half of their income going to rent, has increased under the mayor’s watch. New York City has an appalling number of homeless residents, as the de Blasio administration has tried several different approaches with very modest success.
And the mayor’s ambitious housing plan largely relies on enticing developers to build affordable housing to accompany market-rate housing, with the belief that increasing supply across the board will have a trickle-down effect for renters of all incomes. Critics say this is a recipe for displacement, and the fact that the administration has continued to set the bar higher is also a sign of how moderate the goals were in the first place.
Assuming you’re lucky enough to win a spot in a new building through the city’s affordable housing lottery, you have to be lucky enough to afford it. A renter earning the required minimum of $42,000/year who snags a $1,168/month studio in Crown Heights is immediately rent-burdened.
The picture may be bleaker for bodega owners and small businesses, who see astronomical rent increases but are left out of Albany’s rent regulation battles. Commercial rent control legislation like the kind seen in postwar New York City has remained a third rail for the mayor and the City Council.
Meanwhile, the mayor believes that people jumping the turnstile have money on them, immigrant delivery cyclists on electric bikes should just find another way to deliver the food that his constituents demand be brought to their doorsteps, and that New Yorkers should just accept a mayor who solicits donations from individuals with business before the government.
To stress how fair he has made New York, the mayor has recently begun telling the public that his administration has made sure that all New Yorkers have access to health care. That assertion features prominently in his campaign announcement, with footage of him unveiling a new "NYC Care" card and declaring, "This has never existed anywhere else in this country: Fully comprehensive guaranteed health care."
While the de Blasio administration has expanded coverage options for the city’s 600,000 uninsured residents, the public hospital system has always provided them with care, long before this mayor took office.
So why would the mayor now want to create the impression that he has created some kind of universal health care system here in New York City?
He oversees the “Safest Big City in America.”
We can argue about what constitutes a big city, but the mayor’s go-to superlative is broadly true. New York City’s murder rate fell to a 50-year-low last year, and the decades-long drop in overall crime that began in the early 1990s has continued apace under de Blasio.
But if the bad old days are firmly behind us, de Blasio’s New York is hardly a shining beacon of egalitarian public safety.
The NYPD has continued to disproportionately target people of color for fare beating and marijuana possession, justifying the enforcement disparities with flimsy excuses—gamely parroted by the Mayor’s Office—that crumble under scrutiny. While illegal police stops have been reined in (largely before Mayor de Blasio took office), the city’s shadowy gang database has grown more than 70 percent under his administration. The cop who killed Eric Garner, on video, has collected a city paycheck for the last five years and did not face a disciplinary trial until this week.
By most accounts, de Blasio learned early the consequences of crossing the NYPD—very public funeral snubbings, in his case—and ever since he has been altogether unwilling to stand up to the police force he once campaigned on reforming.
But the biggest stain on the mayor’s public health resume may be the lead paint crisis in New York City Public Housing. After a federal probe determined that NYCHA had been falsely certifying lead inspections (a lie that began under Mayor Michael Bloomberg, and continued for years afterward), de Blasio repeatedly misled the public about the scale of the crisis. Despite his adamant insistence that no harm was done, we’ve since learned that more than 1,000 kids were lead poisoned in city-owned buildings since 2012. The de Blasio-appointed chairwoman of NYCHA was forced to resign, and a federal monitor now has partial oversight of the housing authority. Following another winter of chronic heating outages, the authority is expected to finally complete proper lead inspections at 135,000 units this spring.
New York may be safer, but safer for whom?
(Ed Reed/Mayoral Photography Office)
He drives to the gym every day, just like you, America.
De Blasio’s driving habits—specifically, his insistence on taking a fleet of SUVs on an 11 mile trip to the gym every single weekday—have long been a favorite hobby horse for his critics. Some would have you believe that we’ve been too harsh as a city on our executive’s cross-borough workout regimen. Others might argue that the mayor’s refusal to find a closer gym, his snide dismissal of the suggestion as “cheap symbolism” while in the same breath urging others to change their own habits and turn off some lights at City Hall for the good of the planet, sums up de Blasio’s leadership strategy when it comes to transportation and climate change. Your mileage may vary (his is 20 to the gallon on city streets).
This past Earth Day, the mayor announced that New York City would get its own Green New Deal (hmmm) in the form of a goal to make the city carbon neutral by 2050. The previous month, he signed an executive order to reduce the size of the city’s vehicle fleet, which had swelled nearly 20 percent on his watch. His lawsuits against oil and gas companies for perpetrating climate change were dismissed last year (it wasn’t all cheap symbolism—at the press conference where he announced those lawsuits, reporters discovered that his administration hadn’t been keeping track of how many internal sexual harassment complaints they received, which led to a string of stories on the issue, culminating in a report about how the city hired people who had been fired for harassment before, including a top mayoral aide).
So the gym motorcade may be the least of his transit problems. While the mayor does not control the subway—that would be his nemesis, thrice-elected Governor Andrew Cuomo—he has faced plenty of blowback for his two signature transportation initiatives: a developer-funded street car proposal called the Brooklyn-Queens Connector that, barring a de Blasio presidency, is unlikely to break ground anytime soon; and NYC Ferry, a costly system of new boat routes seen by some as catering to tourists and the wealthy at the expense of less sexy, more efficient forms of mass transit.
In fairness, the mayor has recently taken an interest in resuscitating the city’s ailing bus system. But the fact that he is so clearly more invested in his personal ferry project, a system that carries less people in a year than even the least used bus routes, has been a never-ending source of frustration for transit advocates.
The city’s fast-growing cycling community also has mixed feelings about the mayor, whose tendency to side with fellow drivers in high-profile street battles can undermine his Vision Zero successes. In a city where less than half of households own cars, the mayor’s windshield perspective—so firmly set that de Blasio elected to film a good chunk of his campaign announcement from the backseat of an SUV—sticks out, and not in a good way; though in the real America, that might be a different story.
(Benjamin Kanter/Mayoral Photo Office)
He’s got one big thing in common with Trump.
Like many White House-aspiring Democrats, de Blasio has positioned himself as the left’s antidote to Trump. But the two have at least a few surface-level traits in common. The majority of New Yorkers don’t want either of them to be president, for example. And both arrived in Manhattan only to be shunned by the city’s upper crust, and sometimes Governor Cuomo.
But the main thing they share is a burning contempt for the media, and a near-pathological inability to handle negative coverage. While Trump stands on a level of his own, de Blasio was pulling from the same press-bashing playbook long before it became the bedrock of a presidency. Shared tactics include refusing to take questions from certain journalists at briefings, rooting on the demise of newspapers, and leaning on ad hominem attacks to erode trust in stories deemed politically inconvenient (“Don’t believe what you read in DNAinfo,” the mayor told one constituent, after the website correctly reported that the city was exploring new jail sites to replace Rikers Island).
The public got to see how de Blasio’s private feelings matched his public rhetoric after reporters successfully sued for the release of private conversations he’d had with a group of lobbyists and public relations specialists. Thousands of pages of emails show a hypersensitive mayor almost singularly obsessed with the media, at various times cheering for the bankruptcy of the city’s tabloids, and raging at the
“failing” “totally fucked up” New York Times for not accepting his op-ed. As a whole, he summarized, “the news media is pitiful and it’s sad for our city and nation.”
Asked about his Trumpian relationship to the press on WNYC’s Brian Lehrer, the mayor has framed his badmouthing as a “progressive, left-wing critique of the media”—a defense somewhat blunted by the sheer diversity of his scolding. So the comparison has stuck around, and when he was asked a similar question by a Bronx Chronicle reporter earlier this week, he responded in classic de Blasio fashion.
“No, no, no, wait, whoa—boy, apples and oranges, my friend,” he said. “My mind has exploded.”
Then the mayor left the podium, refusing to answer further questions about a swirling ethics scandal in which he was cleared of charges following a two-year investigation, but still found to have violated conflicts of interest guidelines and the spirit of the law. Apples and oranges, totally.
(Rob Bennett for the Office of Mayor Bill de Blasio)
We’re not sure what he's thinking, either.
If you ask him about his candidacy, and sometimes if you don’t ask him at all, de Blasio will weave a stirring tale of a longshot dreamer who defied the elites and the media to become mayor of New York City. He has won every election he has run in, all ten of them. But does the dude really believe he could be president of the United States? Does he seriously not see how this is going to end?
We don’t know. What windows there are into de Blasio’s private thinking reveal a man consistent in his belief that he is destined for higher office. Since his earliest days as mayor, he has maintained a desire to flee New York City for the true halls of power, once declaring to his closest advisors, without a hint of irony: “Ohio is the center of the universe and I love it there.” On more recent trips, he has appeared to genuinely enjoy the mechanical motions of politicking, pressing the flesh with a handful of New Hampshirites or gleefully flailing to gospel music in South Carolina as if the last five years never happened.
Even if those trips “generated virtually no interest” among voters, the mayor seems to be having more fun cosplaying as a candidate than he’s ever had leading a city of eight million people. It's hard to know if that comes from a place of sincere 2020 ambition, or whether there are other factors at play here—a chance to soak up cash for his federal PAC, to simply raise his national profile beyond a lame duck mayor, or just a midlife crisis.
The mayor has a solid two and a half years left to lead New York City, to get things done with the benefit of experience and without the pressure of reelection. And there is still much to be done. If strengthening his ties to the national party, raising money, and making powerful friends during a likely hopeless run for president is how he’d rather spend his foreseeable future, then that’s all you really need to know about Bill de Blasio.