Outside the Park Slope Food Co-op, a bastion for liberal politics and cheap organic produce, news that neighborhood resident and former Mayor Bill de Blasio was now running for Congress drew mostly sighs and grimaces over the weekend.
“I think it’s an ego move, and I think it’s very silly,” said Cass Vanini, a 50-year-old video editor and co-op member who lives a block away from de Blasio. “He’s got to be one of the most unpopular ex-mayors.”
Vanini, who is white, expressed a desire for more diverse representation.
“I’ve seen a lot of white men in power for a long time,” he said.
However, he did not rule out voting for de Blasio.
“But he has an uphill battle,” he warned.
As de Blasio mounts his political return — driven by his pursuit of a newly carved out seat in the 10th Congressional District — interviews with self-identifying Democrats in Park Slope suggested he may struggle to win over those who have traditionally supported his political career.
The neighborhood is among those in the district that includes Lower Manhattan and parts of Brooklyn. Although he performed relatively well with voters in the district during the 2013 primary, his relationships with many of those communities have since frayed.
I think it’s an ego move, and I think it’s very silly. He’s got to be one of the most unpopular ex-mayors.
Appraisals of the ex-mayor’s legacy have been mixed. He has been praised for progressive policy achievements, led by the creation of universal pre-K. Most recently, his vaccination initiatives were credited with increasing the city’s immunization rates. Despite the latter, his approval ratings in his last year fell below 40%.
But less than six months out of office, memories of his missteps remain fresh in New Yorkers’ minds. Many voters interviewed in the district blamed him for the city’s ongoing struggles with homelessness and crime.
Back in 2020, progressives heavily criticized him for what they saw as his refusal to rein in aggressive policing during the murder of George Floyd.
His doomed presidential run in 2019 turned off many New Yorkers, who came to view him as a career politician with veering ambitions.
The administration’s decision to build a new jail in Manhattan’s Chinatown, and contentious rezonings in Soho and Noho, have made him particularly despised by some in those two communities.
And he will also likely face questions about unpaid legal fees, ethics violations, and a city investigation that determined he abused his security detail during his presidential campaign.
“The perception is he left City Hall with a lot of political scar tissue,” said Bruce Gyory, a Democratic strategist. “But the question is whether voters will see him as an experienced advocate on urban issues who they'd want to send to Congress.”
Face off with candidates of color
Among those challenging the 61-year old de Blasio are two younger progressive lawmakers: Rep. Mondaire Jones, who is Black and openly gay, and Yuh-Line Niou, an Asian American state Assembly member. Both are in their 30s.
Jones, who announced his bid on Saturday, abandoned his reelection campaign in Westchester County after his Democratic colleague, Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney said he would run for that seat. Although he has no ties to the 10th District, he has an immediate fundraising advantage with nearly $3 million in a campaign account.
In announcing his run, Jones noted that the district — which includes Greenwich Village — is the birthplace of the gay rights movement.
Niou — whose assembly district in Lower Manhattan heavily overlaps with the 10th District — also announced her candidacy on Saturday. She was joined in Manhattan’s Chinatown by the actress Cynthia Nixon, a former gubernatorial candidate and de Blasio supporter.
Other individuals may enter the race. City Councilmember Carlina Rivera, a Latina lawmaker who represents the East Village, announced late last week that she was exploring a run and has opened a federal campaign account. Maud Maron, an attorney who is the president of an elected parent council in Manhattan and a frequent critic of the public school’s diversity curriculum, told Gothamist she was planning to file the necessary paperwork this week.
On Monday, the Daily News reported that Elizabeth Holtzman — a former district attorney, city comptroller and congresswoman — was also mulling a run. At 80, she would be the oldest candidate in the race.
Amid the ongoing clamor by progressives for more diverse lawmakers, some political observers argue that the stage is set for a candidate of color to win. The latest contest will likely test voters’ attitude toward race, gender and age in an area that has historically been led by older white representatives.
“I think in a Black Lives Matter era, all things being equal, white progressive voters might want to support a dynamic progressive person of color,” John Mollenkopf, the director of the Center for Urban Research at the Graduate Center of CUNY, said.
In an interview with Gothamist, de Blasio argued that his 12 years in citywide office — four as public advocate and eight as mayor — afforded him deep connections in the district. The former political strategist said he intends to leverage his relationships to help him mount a campaign quickly. Under normal elections, campaigns last for several months. In the case of the 10th District, candidates have just two months to make the case for voters before going to the polls on August 23rd.
“I have run and won in elections like this, literally in the same exact turf,” he said. “There's a lot of people in the 10th Congressional District who have voted for me multiple times already.”
The reconfigured 10th District encompasses a diverse set of neighborhoods — liberal swaths of brownstone Brooklyn; wealthy pockets of Lower Manhattan like the West Village and Tribeca; working-class Black, Asian and Latino voters in the Lower East Side, Sunset Park, Red Hook and Gowanus, and a slice of Borough Park, which is home to many Orthodox residents.
Voter turnout in the district is relatively high. During the June 2021 mayoral primary, 38.2% of registered Democrats in the district voted, compared to the citywide average of 28.3%, according to Mollenkopf’s analysis.
An overwhelming majority of those voters — more than 82.8% — lived on blocks where the majority or plurality of voting age residents were white, according to data that relied on the 2020 census count.
I think in a Black Lives Matter era, all things being equal, white progressive voters might want to support a dynamic progressive person of color.
Nearly 9% of the vote came from majority or plurality Hispanic neighborhoods, while 7.8% of the turnout was from Asian neighborhoods. While the share of those voters are small, Mollenkopf said they could serve as swing voters in a tight race.
Carlos Menchaca, the former progressive councilmember who represented Sunset Park and Red Hook for eight years, said he has already been approached by several candidates seeking his endorsement but declined to identify them.
He said he expects to play a role alongside other residents in pressing the candidates to address a range of long-standing neighborhood issues, including the development and federal clean-up of the waterfront, funding for public housing and transit infrastructure.
“This is about the neighborhood coming together and deciding what it wants first,” he said.
De Blasio, the underdog?
Although in the minority, some in the district offered up a more forgiving view of de Blasio.
Standing on line outside the Park Slope Food Co-op, Heidi Teuscher, a 57-year-old artist argued that de Blasio grappled with complex challenges.
"I think he's a compassionate person. I think he cares," she said.
Another shopper who declined to offer his name over privacy concerns described being New York City's mayor as "an undoable job." In his estimation, de Blasio "did worse than some, better than others.”
"He's a smart guy," he said, before sympathetically adding, "And he needs a job. He's renovating his house."
At a playground in Tribeca, the hottest day of the year so far drew hordes of parents — white-collar professionals in finance, public relations, and architecture — who lazed on benches as their children played.
Among them, Eric Andrus, 60, said he would “definitely” vote for de Blasio. He explained that he had a connection to the former mayor: the two worked together in the Dinkins administration.
De Blasio, he said, was “someone who knows all the different needs of the city and can advocate and fight for them.”
Others at the playground could not have disagreed more.
“Never, never!” cried Renata Batista, a Financial District resident who said she voted for de Blasio as mayor in 2013 and 2017 but was turned off by what she saw as the unraveling of the city during the pandemic.
“I’m done with him,” she said.
Despite the strong chorus of detractors, some have cautioned against underestimating de Blasio in a race where he will likely enjoy the most name recognition. Joseph Viterriti, a political scientist at Hunter College who wrote a book about the former mayor, pointed to his successful track record in city elections.
“He was a long shot for City Council, he was a long shot for public advocate, he was a long shot for mayor,” Viterriti said.
He then added: “It would be really ironic if he lost this one.”