Put aside the polls. Ignore the fundraising numbers. Forget what you think you know about this 2020 Democratic presidential primary and just imagine what motivates someone to keep running when people are already speculating about what will happen when you suspend your campaign.
For New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, who spent last weekend campaigning in New Hampshire and returns to the Granite State tonight for more campaigning, there’s no reason to stop believing. And de Blasio fervently believes he has the right message (“Working People First”) at the right moment, and his accomplishments—or his commitments—here in New York City provide compelling proof.
— Brigid Bergin (@brigidbergin) August 17, 2019
Still, that doesn’t change some uncomfortable facts about de Blasio’s life on the campaign trail. His events draw just a handful of curious onlookers. As he marched at the back of a local parade with just three staffers from the city, throngs of supporters for Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders and even Tulsi Gabbard all marched ahead of him. While he argues that primary voters are undecided and every retail interaction is an opportunity to persuade them, he is also banking on a viral moment to help his campaign take off.
This weekend, we sat down with the mayor (twice) to find out what he’s thinking about his campaign, how he shaped his message, why he thinks he’s the right person for the job and what it all means for people here at home. (This interview has been condensed and edited for length.)
I have noticed that your messaging has been slightly changed from that first weekend. I haven't heard any "Con Don" references. Why did you drop that?
Well, as you heard at the end of my remarks, I say it a different way now. I put it in the context of being a New Yorker and knowing his tricks and knowing how to take him on, which a lot of people say they get and appreciate: that they do want someone tough to stand up against Trump and they want someone who's not going to be thrown off by Trump. Look, I found that that message resonated with a lot of people. But you know to some extent as I tried different things I just found other things worked better.
There was a lot of buzz on Twitter that in Spanish the word meant condom. Was that part of the rationale?
No, you are literally the first person I've heard that from, literally.
At this point you know there's been a lot of talk about this next debate. Last week you said that you're just not there yet when it comes to qualifying. Does that make the October debate essential?
You know my history of campaigns. I've been an underdog many times and I have had the blessing of moving forward at the right time. You know, gaining momentum at the right moment and I think this is an essential point. Voters are going to make their decisions in the final weeks and the goal is to peak, you know, right at the point when people are deciding and have that kind of momentum. And that's what happened to me in 2013. That's what happened to me in 2009.
My sense is that the debates are very important but they're not the driving force, and we see that from the polling numbers...I think the town hall meetings have been a huge X factor for some candidates. I'm thrilled I'm finally getting my chance on Sunday, August 25th.
So you are committed to doing this through February? You are going to stick at this until the first voters go and cast their ballots? What are the thresholds that you feel like you need to meet in order to keep doing this?
So I honestly believe it's like any other election that I've been in. I start with the knowledge that I believe I have something to offer that's different from other candidates...What a powerful differentiator to say I've got these ideas I actually put them into action on a big scale. People really care about that. So I know I have a message that resonates. I know I have experience that validates my message. I also know that I would need a lot more name recognition. I need people to know what I'm about a lot better. I need a lot more resources. I need a lot more grassroots supporters.
I understand there's a whole lot more to that has to be built, but I wouldn't be doing this if I didn't think that there was a pathway. And I think the difference in today's politics even from 10 years ago is that we're seeing extraordinary surges take place just on the strength of individual moments and the power of social media.
I don't think it's easy by any stretch, and I'm not saying there is some perfect magic formula. I think some of this has to be divined by doing it but bluntly I've felt that in other campaigns as well...So, my view is you keep going so long as you have something to say and people are listening and there's the ability to keep going...and that moment, that game-changing moment, it could happen in an hour for all you know. We don't get to know that and that's been true previously in political history.
I mean I think you could bring a lot of key elections down to one decisive moment, one especially unexpected moment. But I think in the age of social media that's on steroids. It can happen much more quickly and deeply...You could have a moment and within days, everybody knows about it and it's changed the dynamic. Again, you can't pray for it or bet on it. It only happens in a sense if it's meant to be.
But my job is to get out there and sort of make my own luck.
Here’s how the speech wraps. People still mill about the bookstore in the background pic.twitter.com/yAkhZCWi7S
— Brigid Bergin (@brigidbergin) August 18, 2019
Yeah. And I don't pretend to have walked a mile in anyone else's shoes. And I think representation means that everyone is represented. If someone says, 'Hey, I'd really like to have the first woman president or the first Latino president' or whatever it may be, I respect that and I honor that. But I also think we have to ask a more central question first, which is, our democracy is threatened, our country is faced with an extraordinary inequality crisis—the worst in a century—where we have an existential threat of global warming. Right now, the question is who can lead us in that context and build the coalition we need to win to be able to address those issues.
Now, it's not a minor matter that I represent the most diverse place on Earth. And I've actually been able to help heal the social fabric of the most diverse place on Earth.
And if you talk to people in black and Latino communities they say policing is different, that they are treated differently. If you talk to people in Muslim communities they say they are treated differently. We've been able to actually change the dynamics. A lot of people who felt marginalized, left out pushed aside feel more respect. Talk to folks in the LGBT community. There are so many examples. We're going to do that in this whole country. And I've actually done it.
Since early in your administration you have had a fraught relationship with some members of the NYPD. Why do you think that is?
Well, I would say if there's been a fraught relationship it's been with the main police union, the PBA. And I think you can go back for half a century or more and see that anyone who attempted progressive change in New York City had the same fraught relationship.
I think there's been a reality in this city for a long, long time that if you wanted to go at fundamental police reform there was going to be a very coherent effort to stop it, led by the PBA and amplified by conservative media voices. I was not shocked by that, even though I came in saying let's get rid of stop and frisk, which actually officers want to get rid of. They thought it was bad for them.
You didn't get rid of it. You reduced the unconstitutional use of it.
First of all we got rid of the unconstitutional policy. The policy was a frontal, purposeful overuse. That's gone. The number of stops now is minuscule compared to what they are and they're based on specific indicators, not a broad-brush use of a policy so it's totally a different reality.
The PBA put out a video last week in response to the suicides within the department and some of the efforts by the administration to offer some support. One of the quotes from Pat Lynch was ‘you only show up when we're dead.’ In the same vein though has the administration done enough to support the mental health of this department?
We clearly have more to do, but again that kind of comment is purely political and divisive and it is meant to strengthen his political hand in his political career. It has nothing to do with actually trying to be a leader of a labor union or to help the people of New York City. It's that very discourse that we have to end in this city. There's too many enablers, there are too many people who buy into that kind of dialogue that just holds our city back. Again, two thousand more officers on patrol retraining the entire police force, additional protective gear, additional technology, you know tremendous leadership in the police department.
You know, anyone with eyes to see would say this has been the administration that's done a lot to support police officers in their work, and by the way they've responded in kind by making this the safest big city in America consistently. So officers are motivated to do their job and there's a huge number of people who want to join the police force. So that kind of comment is demagogic and horrifying and divisive.
The fact is that this suicide crisis in the last weeks—we've seen something we did not see in previous years and we've all been trying to respond. And what I've said to Commissioner O'Neill is any resource he needs he'll have them. We've tried to send the right messages about it. You know there's no shame in coming forward with a problem and whatever it's going to take we're going to do. I announced this last few days that we're going to change the city health care plans approach to therapy to make sure that more providers take it. We're going to make sure that's clear to officers that if they have to have medication for a mental health problem that that's not going to compromise their career.
But the point is what you want from a leader is once a problem is identified and a solution is identified, they doing something about it. Every solution that's been brought to me by the commissioner I've said yes to, and I've said whatever it takes we'll find the resources.
The next day, de Blasio wanted to sit down one more time to talk about what he described as a dissonance when it comes to his presidential bid. He begins the conversation unprompted.
When someone runs for office, any office, you're going to go out and talk to people and hear their concerns and address them...And there's been almost an element of surprise in a lot of the media questioning now, maybe because mayors of New York City have rarely run for president. But I think that what I'm kind of always a little surprised by is this notion is historic that anyone who runs for higher office is going to go somewhere else to do it, by definition, and that is normal and healthy in a democratic system. Unless we're going to say that mayors and governors are not allowed to ever run for anything higher because of their day jobs, which means in effect we're saying only legislators can run for executive office at the highest level or only people outside government. There's some contradiction to the idea that folks who actually have the most executive experience should somehow not be seen as rightfully in a race for an executive office.
New Yorkers, we are a self-centered, center of the universe kind of people. To voters who just reelected you by a tremendous margin, I think that is where some folks are like, 'well hey we just put our confidence in this individual to steward our city for the next four years. But it seems like he doesn't want to be here, that he's happier when he's out there.'
Well, I don't accept that for a moment because they put confidence in me to act on a whole host of things I've been acting on...I think there has to be an understanding that the work is getting done and the agenda is being moved, which I am absolutely devoted to, but I also have said that a lot of what we need to fix in New York can't be done just by us. It has to involve the federal government, and my voice in this discussion I can tell is having an impact, is pushing for the kinds of changes that would really benefit New York and the whole country.
For more, listen to reporter Brigid Bergin's discuss the mayor's 2020 run with Jami Floyd on WNYC: