On November 2, nearly two years to the day after he ascended to the stage at his election party to the tune of Lorde’s “Royals,” Mayor Bill de Blasio received a dismal reality check. A Marist College poll pegged his approval rating at 38 percent, a new low, and nearly half of those surveyed said he did not deserve reelection. The mayor’s advisers, coming off what they all called a “tough summer,” looked ahead to a chilly winter. Most troublingly, the poll found that 55 percent of New Yorkers thought the city was moving in the wrong direction — the most pessimistic such figure in at least a decade.
That night, de Blasio — who is not much for the social circuit — nonetheless put on a cheery face as he welcomed a group of political elders to Gracie Mansion to celebrate a noble failure. It was the 50th anniversary of the election of Mayor John Lindsay, another progressive reformer with national ambitions. Lindsay brought a talented cohort of young people into government in the 1960s, many of whom remain influential today, but he is perhaps best remembered for his inability to manage the unruly city.
In his speech, de Blasio referenced the “tough moment” that confronted Lindsay, summoning the distant memory of a city torn asunder by crime, strikes, deficits, and racial unrest. “He epitomized the belief that government could provide an active set of solutions,” de Blasio said. “All he did to create affordable housing, all he did to provide leadership on an urban agenda in Washington. So it’s important to remember … that certain people write the history, sometimes more accurately, sometimes less so.”
De Blasio gestured toward his own first boss in city government, Mayor David Dinkins, who was seated at a table next to the stage. “It’s very clear that some people did profound things, and then those contributions were not accurately reflected in the history,” he said. “We know of Mayor Dinkins’s extraordinary contributions to the safety of the city. We know of Mayor Lindsay’s extraordinary contributions to harmony and to the possibility of a city where everyone really could live together. It’s important to honor that history. Whether it is the conventional wisdom or not, it is the truth.”
The subtext was lost on no one in the audience. “Everyone thought that it was transparently him talking about himself,” says George Arzt, a veteran political consultant. “In effect, he was saying, ‘I’m doing a lot better than you think.’ ”
As de Blasio’s term approaches its midpoint, there is a palpable sense — around the city and inside City Hall — that his mayoralty is imperiled. Though he was swept into office by a vastly ambitious promise to fight economic inequality, the mayor’s problem appears to be more related to small-bore mechanics. Polls suggest New Yorkers just don’t think the city is functioning well. The raving vagrant on the street corner; the delivery truck blocking the box; the interminably delayed subway: None of these urban nuisances is new, and none is fully—or even mostly — within the mayor’s control. Yet New Yorkers have a finely calibrated quality-of-life barometer, and when it drops, they blame City Hall.
The perception is maddening to the mayor and his advisers because it is untethered from quantitative measurements of New York’s well-being. The economy is thriving, crime remains low. But the nature of the problem is more atmospheric. It’s the turnstile jumper, the turd on the sidewalk. The other day, I saw a squeegee man at work near the entrance to the Holland Tunnel and exchanged arch glances with other passersby: #DeBlasiosNewYork.
De Blasio thinks voters elected him to do big things and that he has succeeded in advancing his agenda in a variety of areas, be it by pressuring developers to build more affordable housing, ending polarizing police practices like stop and frisk, or sending tens of thousands of children to pre-K. He sees himself as his own best political strategist. “I question what the public polling is bringing back,” he told me, adding that he is reassured by the anecdotal evidence he gathers. He believes that small gripes won’t ultimately outweigh his real accomplishments. In September, he told the Daily News editorial board “I’m more interested in being the education mayor, the affordable-housing mayor, than the pothole mayor.” That statement caused cringes inside City Hall. Fairly or not, a litany of petty uproars — over late sleeping and tardiness; over his forays around the country to position himself as a progressive-thought leader; over his sniping with Governor Andrew Cuomo — have begun to coalesce into a deadly critique: The mayor can’t manage.
“It all leads to a perception — at a minimum — that the administration is not as engaged in the running of the city as it should be and in some areas has lost control,” says Hakeem Jeffries, a Brooklyn congressman who has lately emerged as a vocal critic of the mayor. “It’s not clear to me that this perception is a reality, and the mayor has at least a year to turn things around—first with respect to perception, and also to address real substantive concerns in areas like affordable housing and the homelessness crisis.”
History offers at least one bit of encouragement to de Blasio: Bloomberg, who initially raised taxes and alienated voters with his highhanded manner, registered similarly low approval ratings at this juncture. So did Rudy Giuliani, who battled several school chancellors early on. Both won second terms easily. But for de Blasio to recover his balance, he will have to demonstrate that in addition to relishing his office, he is actually doing his job. For a mayor, filling potholes is performance art.
The pothole isn’t just a rhetorical symbol — each one is a bone-jarring reality and thus quantifiable. According to the Mayor’s Management Report, an annual compendium of city data, the Department of Transportation repaired 460,493 potholes last year, a 78 percent increase over Bloomberg’s last year in office. When I brought up the “pothole mayor” line with de Blasio, he immediately said he regretted his phrasing. “Of course we need to make government work on a host of levels,” he said. “We do it, in fact. We’ve had stunning success in filling and repaving potholes.”
As he traveled between public events in the Bronx and Queens, the mayor had stopped off for a Friday lunch at Bar Toto, an Italian restaurant in Park Slope that is a half-block from his family home.
“The Brooklyn burger?” the waiter asked. De Blasio pantomimed an agonized consideration of cholesterol, then smiled and assented to his regular order. He had bigger things to worry about than his heart. Cuomo was persistently needling him on quality-of-life issues; potential primary rivals were acting conspicuously like candidates (including Jeffries, though he insists he’s not running). His mutually disdainful relationship with the City Hall press corps, which has taken to calling him “de Blah-Blah-Blah,” was making it difficult for him to advance his message. That morning, Politico New York had published a story about community resistance that threatened to endanger de Blasio’s plan to rezone the city to promote taller buildings with more affordable housing. The mayor told me that “a certain overhang of history” had contributed to the opposition.
“It’s understandable,” de Blasio said, “that after 20 years of pro-developer policies that did not produce affordable housing sufficiently, that didn’t protect existing affordable housing, that didn’t protect people from being harassed and evicted — of course, it’s logical people should have a chip on their shoulder and set a high bar. And it’s my job to work through that and prove through actions that this is profoundly different.”
“Profoundly different” is a de Blasio refrain. He often talks of his mayoralty in transformative terms. He’s the first Democrat to occupy the office in a generation and the first mayor in memory who ran a campaign on issues of social justice and income inequality. “We are devoted to the substantive work, to the product,” de Blasio told me, “in a way that is different from the traditions of the city.” For all their bluster, Bloomberg, Giuliani, and even Ed Koch — who revitalized the mayoralty in the wake of the ’70s fiscal crisis — were, in their distinctive ways, technocrats, primarily concerned with rationalizing the unwieldy mechanisms of municipal government. (Hence Koch’s famous customer-service question: “How’m I doin’?”) Their enemy was disorder. De Blasio, by contrast, wants to reorder things. He doesn’t just want to run a better government; he wants to make the whole city more equitable.
Among the mayor and his advisers, it is an article of faith that this administration represents a vast, voiceless mass of citizens, and they often talk as if they take the fears of the jittery segment as a form of validation. “The folks who are in opposition have made themselves quite clear, many doing it through their money,” de Blasio said. “Whether it’s some of the unions who have tangled with me, or whether it’s some of the companies or hedge-fund folks, or whatever it is, they’ve said very clearly what they disagree with me on — and it is ideological. For them, I am a disruptive force.”
De Blasio is right: Powerful interests are threatened by his agenda. But he has also frustrated many people who agree with him. “I really thought that he would get the politics right and that would set the stage to get the policy work done,” says Columbia University professor Ester Fuchs, a former Bloomberg adviser who was initially supportive of de Blasio. “But I don’t think the operational nuts and bolts of the city interest him, and that’s a problem.” Allies privately worry he is squandering his movement’s governing opportunity. The complaints are often contradictory. He is too stubbornly ideological; he folds too easily. He is out of touch and in denial; he is too reactive to daily headlines. He is a micromanager, obsessed with minutiae; he is too distracted by his national crusading. The common thread, however, is a concern that, for some reason, the mayor has little interest in playing his role as the city has come to expect.
The job demands a daunting number of competencies: There’s daily management responsibility, the legacy-building policy component, and then there’s leadership, which requires the political instinct — the ability to project at least the illusion of constant command. The last area has given de Blasio the most trouble. Many in the professional political class — even some close to de Blasio — are perplexed, in part because his own formative experience was as a political operative. They cite an incident in August, when de Blasio declined to interrupt a mid-morning gym session in Park Slope to rush to the scene of a firefighter’s shooting on Staten Island. He’s made similar unforced errors in political battles, whether over regulating Uber or forbidding painted desnudas from walking around Times Square. “Their really big challenge is not any one thing,” says one Democratic political consultant. “It is the perception that he can be pushed around, he can be bullied, he can be cowed.” Another operative, groping for an analysis, exclaims: “He’s just weak!”
The odd thing, of course, is that in the mayoral race, it was de Blasio who understood the politics of contemporary New York better than anyone. He remains convinced of his superior understanding of the city. “The public discourse is shaped by a small group of people who don’t necessarily connect to the lives of everyday New Yorkers,” he told me. But even de Blasio’s stalwarts, while defending his performance as mayor, concede that he has often been an incompetent politician. “Part of the dynamic, which is weird,” says one consultant who is friendly with the mayor, “is you’d think a guy with his background would do great on the politics and communication and probably not so great on the governance. It’s the reverse, it’s the complete reverse.”
One morning, I was having breakfast in Soho with some of de Blasio’s advisers when Mike Bloomberg happened to stroll by with a daughter and grandchild. “Speak of the devil,” one of the mayor’s people said.
No matter what they do, they can’t escape the stark comparison to their predecessor, who over 12 years retooled municipal government to a degree that even his political antagonists credit. Bloomberg believed that numbers were the starting point on the path to enlightened policy, and he hung a huge monitor that streamed statistics above the bullpen where he and his aides worked at City Hall. He may have been extremely unpopular at times, and less than empathetic, but no one ever worried he was losing control of the city.
“Bloomberg was data-driven, politically agnostic, and always looking for new ideas,” says Kathryn Wylde, president of the Partnership for New York City, the business group. “De Blasio starts from a set of principles that he’s trying to achieve and is looking for people and programs that advance them.”
Confidants of the mayor prefer to describe him as “intuitive.” He likes to start a discussion by stating his ideal course of action, challenging his aides to tell him why it isn’t possible. “This is a guy who can take a complex problem with 16 different threads, and he will explore each one and break down the pros and cons,” says Bill Lipton, director of the Working Families Party in New York. De Blasio has experience in managing campaign organizations, and his administration bears some resemblance to one. It is furiously engaged in achieving its political priorities, always scrambling from crisis to crisis.
Bloomberg was a systems thinker who delegated a great deal of authority to agency commissioners. De Blasio’s aides proudly say they have a different philosophy. Authority is centralized, with decisions running through a cluster of advisers at City Hall. “We have developed in our team a very forceful approach,” de Blasio told me. “And a lot of times, I personally lead that approach.”
De Blasio often stays up late into the night, firing off emails to his deputies, but matters outside the mayor’s immediate focus can get bottlenecked for weeks or months. “I talk to lots of people in various places in the administration,” says one prominent business executive who has been financially supportive of the mayor. “Everyone says they don’t care about data as much and decisions are much more political. They’re not tracking things the way they used to, and that is pretty pervasive. They are not getting enough done, decisions drag, they don’t delegate outside of City Hall.” On the other hand, he adds, it is hard to pinpoint an area where this managerial style has had tangible negative impacts. “Two years ago, I had businesspeople coming to me, practically worried that we were going to be hunting squirrels for food in Central Park,” he says. “That’s not happening.”
Statistically, there is scant evidence to support the notion that the city is slumping into chaos. Murders were up slightly from last year’s historic low, but the incidence of major felonies was down. The number of fires increased, but fatalities dropped, and in June, the city recorded its first month on record without a single civilian fire death. The Sanitation Department picked up 10,000 tons of trash per day last year, and more than 92 percent of streets and sidewalks were rated as clean. The Police Department handed out about 30 percent more speeding tickets, in keeping with the administration’s Vision Zero strategy, and pedestrian fatalities declined by roughly 10 percent. Fiscally, the city is in excellent health. Tax revenues are gushing, and de Blasio has mostly managed to resolve a long-lingering standoff with the municipal unions, negotiating reasonable contracts.
De Blasio’s aides find it more than a little ironic that this mountain of impressive data is ignored by so many of the data fetishists. And they scoff at Bloomberg’s reputation for aloof competence, pointing to many areas — the contract situation, the public-housing authority, Rikers Island — where he left them messes. “The prior administration picked the data it wanted to focus on,” says Steve Banks, commissioner of the city’s Human Resources Administration. Banks embodies the philosophical divergence between de Blasio and Bloomberg. As the chief attorney at the Legal Aid Society, he would battle the Bloomberg administration on behalf of indigent clients. When he took over the agency he used to sue, he commissioned a study into what he described as a practice of “churning” poor people through the welfare system by specious denials of aid. “If the person sitting across the table is a statistic and not a flesh-and-blood person,” he says, “you can conclude that your numbers look great, but your solutions may not actually have a positive impact on human beings.”
“Data doesn’t mean anything except as a vehicle to achieve something, and the question is what you want to achieve,” Anthony Shorris, the first deputy mayor, who oversees the city’s operations, told me. Sitting in his office at City Hall, Shorris showed me an app on his phone that contains regularly updated performance metrics for government services. “You can put it on the wall or you can put it in your pocket,” Shorris said. “I choose to put it in my pocket.” Data is “just a tool,” Shorris said. The important thing is the end that it is being applied to: the cause of social equity. The goal is to “drive it through all the parts of the government.”
As a practical matter, that has meant dealing not with numbers but with human beings — specifically the workforce. “There’s an enormous amount of civil-service machinery that had to be refocused,” Shorris said. That’s putting it politely. One outsider who has worked with the administration as a consultant describes deep mistrust between City Hall and the municipal bureaucracy. “You can replace the top layer, that’s great,” he says. “But there are a lot of people under that who have done things for their entire career and are used to working under Giuliani and Bloomberg.” Numerous current and recently departed city employees, representing an array of agencies, told me of internal upheaval that far surpasses the customary turnover that accompanies an electoral transition.
“They want to strip the DOE of all things that smell of Bloomberg,” one midlevel Department of Education employee told me in September. Shortly afterward, she quit.
The ideological shift has been most dramatically felt in the areas, like education, where the mayor has sought to make a strong personal imprint. At the DOE, which previously underwent radical changes under Bloomberg’s chancellor Joel Klein, “there was an overnight shift in terms of managerial tone,” says one recently departed high-level official. “I was surprised at how many decisions the mayor was personally involved with, frankly,” the former official adds. “That was a marked distinction.”
After wooing other candidates, de Blasio gave the chancellor job to someone he knew well: Carmen Fariña, a DOE veteran who had taken retirement after losing out in internal battles during the Klein era. Where Bloomberg battled teachers over performance standards, Fariña talks of celebrating their work. Where Bloomberg decentralized the system’s management structure, giving principals autonomy, Fariña reimposed the hierarchy of regional school districts headed by superintendents. Where Bloomberg had championed charter schools, de Blasio immediately picked a politically damaging fight with Eva Moskowitz of the Success Academy network.
Addressing a departmental meeting early on, Shorris said the mayor was opposed to practices like giving schools grades based on standardized-test scores and suggested that anyone who felt otherwise should find another job. “I want people who aren’t going to doubt me,” Fariña told me, citing a lesson from a popular management handbook. “You’ve got to get the right people on the bus and the wrong people off the bus.” Around one-fifth of the department’s central-office employees left during the year and a half after de Blasio took office. Those who have remained describe a highly politicized internal culture. “They spend time debating the pros and cons of everything,” says one employee. “It’s ideological, not operational.”
The new regime has particularly sought to purge the notion that schools should be managed like businesses with numerical bottom lines. Fariña, who came up through the ranks as a teacher, principal, and superintendent, has devised a more holistic framework to assess schools. It is represented as a series of concentric circles, with one labeled trust surrounding everything. That seemed amorphous, so I asked Fariña — who usually visits six schools a week — how she could tell a good one from a bad one. She said she deliberately avoids checking test scores beforehand.
“No. 1, I look for a welcoming lobby,” she said. “Is there evidence that the school has pride, that there are bulletin boards that have kids’ work on them?” Word about the chancellor’s aesthetic eye has filtered downward. “Fucking bulletin boards!” says an acquaintance of mine who taught math at a Brooklyn high school. She told me that last year she was barraged with emails from the principal reminding teachers to keep their boards well decorated, lest they fail a central-office pop test. This is a microcosmic illustration of a problem with reforming bureaucracies: It is difficult to remove one set of perverse incentives without creating new ones.
Constituencies that were marginalized under Bloomberg, however, have welcomed the new guiding philosophy. At a November town-hall meeting on education in Queens, de Blasio talked of the “need to run schools as schools and not corporations,” and one teacher after another came up to microphones to thank him. He has been more attentive to parents and community groups and has resisted taking the contentious step of closing failing schools. But de Blasio’s largest gift to parents, by far, has been his successful push to offer universal prekindergarten. During the campaign, many ridiculed his promise. “It was presumed to be too ambitious, out of reach, too complicated,” de Blasio told me. “We had the audacity to try it.”
De Blasio was deeply immersed in the implementation effort. “The biggest challenge progressives face in governing is this idea — this assumption — that we don’t know what we’re doing, we don’t know how to execute,” says Richard Buery, the deputy mayor who oversaw the pre-K rollout. After the program received approval in Albany in March 2014, the administration had only around five months to get it up and running for the next school year, which meant hiring new teachers, recruiting students, and finding classrooms, many of them at private preschools that had to be vetted.
De Blasio ordered his aides to set up a campaign-style war room, nicknamed the Launch Pad. The Mayor’s Office of Data Analytics — a Bloomberg-era creation — was redirected to serve the mission. Programmers hastily cobbled together a database of families with eligible children, called Briana, after a girl who appeared in an ad for the initiative. Using the database, a multilingual community-outreach team fanned out from the Launch Pad space near City Hall. This year, pre-K reached full expansion and now enrolls more kids than the entire Boston school system. “A year and a half later, look where we are,” Buery said. “Not a perfect program, but we delivered on our promise: nearly 69,000 4-year-olds in quality, safe pre-K programs. No scandal, no craziness.
“And this thing that everybody said was impossible and ridiculed,” Buery said, making a shrugging gesture, “now it’s like … Eh.”
Whatever you think of the mayor, you have to sympathize a little. He gives a huge new entitlement to working families, and what was everybody talking about as this school year began? Desnudas. “That’s a killer, to have a couple of ladies not well dressed in Times Square,” Shorris said sarcastically. “That should be the issue we go down on.” This has become a recurring theme of de Blasio’s mayoralty: He wants to march forward with his progressive agenda, but he keeps getting waylaid by the costumed characters.
For all of de Blasio’s sweeping declarations, the mayor of New York can only do so much to address structural inequalities, and nowhere is the distance between his posture and his power greater than on the issue of homelessness. The population of people in shelters hit record levels during the latter years of Bloomberg, and a homeless girl who had been profiled in the New York Times was given a prominent seat at de Blasio’s inauguration. After he took office, the watchword of the new regime was compassion. Deputy Mayor Lilliam Barrios-Paoli, a former nun, resolved to end what she described as a heartless approach designed to squeeze people out of the system. Staffers at the Department of Homeless Services joked that the deputy mayor’s new policies amounted to giving out hugs.
Then the humane approach ran into political reality. For months, for reasons no one can completely explain, the number of people sleeping on the streets increased noticeably, inspiring merciless coverage in the tabloids. At first, de Blasio dismissed the phenomenon as a media creation. But even he now concedes it isn’t imaginary.
“The situation was changing before our eyes,” de Blasio told me. “That’s where I’m self-critical. I should have started communicating that to people immediately: that the chickens had come home to roost in terms of the economic disruption that had occurred over the years.” He places the blame for the crisis on the forces he has been fighting everywhere: wage stagnation, rent increases, and Albany, which he has accused of being stingy with aid. Governor Cuomo has returned fire. His office recently issued a statement claiming de Blasio “can’t manage the homeless crisis” and announcing that the governor would be unveiling his own plan in January.
Cuomo’s allies call de Blasio a naïve leftist who doesn’t know how to get things done; the mayor’s defenders say the governor is a politician without scruples who cares only about protecting his power. De Blasio has complained that Albany is the place where his plans go to die, only to be rebuked in the papers by an anonymous “Cuomo administration official” — often believed to be Cuomo himself. (One example: “What we’re dealing with is a mayor who is universally acknowledged to be bumbling and incompetent.”) This summer, de Blasio took the unusual step of venting his anger in public, telling NY1 that “if someone disagrees with [the governor] openly, some kind of revenge or vendetta follows.”
The feud makes for delicious gossip. It has also had real consequences for the city’s most destitute. Advocates for the homeless say the Cuomo administration has hamstrung the city’s efforts to revive a program the governor cut in 2011 that gave shelter residents transitional rent vouchers. Cuomo has also resisted de Blasio’s calls for a major increase in supportive housing for people with drug problems and mental illness. Cuomo’s aides counter that his administration has offered ample resources, including $81 million for rent vouchers, which the city has not put to effective use. “A billion dollars a year, just in one area, is not chump change,” says a state official.
De Blasio has implicitly acknowledged management problems at the Department of Homeless Services, as both Barrios-Paoli and the agency commissioner have resigned under pressure. But at least some of the agency’s dysfunction traces back to the mayor’s office. As late as last winter, sources inside and outside government told me, de Blasio was less preoccupied with the overburdened shelter system — which has drawn repeated rebukes from the city comptroller — than with the political threat from protests against proposed shelters in Rockaway Beach, Elmhurst, and other communities. He called an informal halt to all expansion, ordering DHS to examine whether its siting practices were inequitably concentrated in certain neighborhoods. “That was the mayor himself,” says a former DHS official. “He couldn’t take the pushback.”
“I don’t think the decision to try and make sense of shelter siting affected capacity on any given day,” de Blasio told me. That is technically true, because when there is no room in shelters, the city has put the homeless in hotel rooms, at enormous expense. (It currently rents around 1,100 rooms a night.) Since the summer, though, de Blasio has become fully engaged, personally handling the city’s response. He recently unveiled a rapid-response system called Home-Stat, designed to track the hard-to-reach segment of people on the streets, and has been hauling landlords into City Hall to lobby them to take the city’s new rental vouchers.
It’s ironic that it required a political emergency to draw de Blasio’s full attention, considering he campaigned as the champion of the poorest New Yorkers. All along, though, he has been far more concerned with what he calls a “core mission” — affordable housing — that he sees as the long-term solution. “We have to fundamentally address the affordable-housing crisis,” de Blasio said. “That’s how I believe I should be defined when it’s all done.” He has promised to build or preserve 200,000 units of affordable housing, and he displays a photo of the Normandy invasion in his office to evoke mobilization on a historic scale. Last year, according to the administration’s figures, around 20,000 units went into the pipeline, about 25 percent more than projected under the mayor’s ten-year plan.
“We’re getting shit done,” says Alicia Glen, the deputy mayor for housing and economic development. All of the city government’s resources have been deployed to serve the effort: zoning incentives, tax breaks, subsidies, land deals. The day I visited her at City Hall, she was finalizing a secret negotiation with the Blackstone Group, the world’s largest private-equity firm, which was seeking to purchase Stuyvesant Town and Peter Cooper Village. Glen was determined to extract concessions. “What could be more important than us putting a stake in the ground and saying that we are not going to stand by and just let this asset trade completely freely in the open market?” Glen said.
In return for political assurances and some $225 million in city subsidies, Blackstone offered to keep around 5,000 apartments — about half the complex — stabilized for the next 20 years. Most of the units would be reserved for households making up to 165 percent of the city’s median income, which means a family of three earning $128,000 a year could get a two-bedroom for $3,200 a month. That is still an unreasonably high rent for much of the city’s population. Many advocates express dismay that a lot of de Blasio’s policy is focused on the middle and working class, rather than the very poor. Glen, a blunt-spoken former Goldman Sachs executive, has rolled over such complaints.
“I think that what was really amazing about it — and, let’s be honest, angered some people — is that we said to the world, this is not just about how hard it is for low-income people to get quality housing in New York City,” she told me. “It’s also fundamentally about the ability for everyone to live in New York.”
One glorious October morning, de Blasio made his way to Stuyvesant Town to announce Blackstone’s purchase. Older residents cracked their windows and peered down onto a crowded courtyard to warily size up the mayor’s deal. “Your future is now secure; you will be able to afford your housing for the long haul,” de Blasio said. For a moment, the mayor got to savor the taste of victory: 5,000 units, more points on the board. Just hours later, though, a cop was killed in Harlem. The next morning, a haggard de Blasio was briefing reporters about the front-page tragedy.
The event summoned memories of the lowest point of de Blasio’s mayoralty, last December, when two police officers were assassinated and rank-and-file officers turned their backs on him at a funeral. This time, he was able to maintain control, seizing on the fact that the accused shooter had been diverted out of an overcrowded jail system. He struck a tough tone — “I’m a humanitarian, but I can also tell you some people are irredeemable” — while renewing a long-standing call for bail reform. It was a commanding performance, and the mayor’s aides took heart. Lately, de Blasio has been trying to take the initiative through his actions and to ignore the daily desnudas. He has curtailed the custom of holding free-for-all press conferences. “I have a job to do,” he told reporters. “Much more important than giving the answers to the questions is actually doing the work.”
Instead, he’s been taking his message to voters directly via events like town-hall meetings. His first one, in October, was about housing. De Blasio appeared loose and confident as he paced the floor of a school gym in Washington Heights, his sleeves rolled up, addressing everyday laments about predatory landlords, local gentrification, and disputes with indifferent city bureaucracies. Sean Collins, a 29-year-old who had just lost a job at La Guardia airport, asked how young men like him could avoid becoming homeless.
“The goal is that you never have to consider a homeless shelter,” de Blasio replied, touting his affordable-housing plan. “I’m not going to lie to you, it’s not all here now. We’ll take a full ten years to build it, but every year there will be more and more.”
Collins told me he later heard from city employees, who were trying — unsuccessfully so far — to figure out a way to help. Banks, the welfare commissioner, says that he often hears from his boss after people approach him with pleas for assistance. “This is a mayor who understands the humanity and pulse of the city, who is reaching out to me about particular New Yorkers,” he told me. For better or worse, de Blasio often gets fixated on individual anecdotes. “I wouldn’t say there’s been a move away from data,” says Laura Santucci, his former chief of staff, “but is the mayor oriented toward what’s behind those numbers: What is the story, who is the person? Yes.”
Some of de Blasio’s advisers wish he were more content to play this role, the municipal mechanic, but as his troubles have worsened, he has often acted as if he wished to escape by transcending his job. He launched a national group called the Progressive Agenda and sought to play an influential role in the presidential race, withholding his endorsement from Hillary Clinton for months. He announced plans to hold a forum in Iowa over the misgivings of some advisers. Although the forum was eventually canceled, and it emerged that no candidates had accepted his invitation, de Blasio insists it wasn’t a mistake. He continues to believe that he has a larger mission.
Cuomo’s hostility stems, at least in part, from de Blasio’s attempts to punch above his weight in statewide politics. “What I think that he underestimated was the fact that being the mayor is also about managing relationships with other people who have power,” says Ken Fisher, a former City Council member who is now a lawyer and lobbyist. Cuomo has found ways to remind the mayor that he is at his mercy — or lack thereof — on a number of fronts, from transportation (Cuomo forced the city to increase its contribution to the MTA’s capital budget) to education (he has warned that de Blasio must prove himself to retain mayoral control of schools this year) to housing (he balked at the mayor’s proposal to reform a real-estate-tax break to create more affordable housing, adding a complicating provision that has left development plans in limbo).
When I asked de Blasio if he stood by his comments about the governor’s penchant for revenge, the mayor grimaced. “When I want to amend a statement, I’ll amend a statement,” he said. “But I have nothing to amend.” (Dani Lever, a Cuomo spokesperson, retorts: “Yes, we all know the refrain. Everyone is to blame but themselves.”) De Blasio’s loyalists draw invisible lines to connect a constellation of enemies. “They are so against the mayor’s political agenda that they are willing to be intellectually dishonest with the public to undermine his term,” says Peter Ragone, a top adviser to de Blasio during his campaign and first year in office. “And we know who ‘they’ are. It’s Andrew Cuomo, the hedge-fund crowd, and the heads of two of the police unions. There you go. And they’ve got a lot of money and make a lot of noise, and the tabloids gleefully play along. I hate to be simplistic about it, but that’s just, like, so objectively true.” He called this supposed cabal the “dirty triangle.”
De Blasio was more restrained. “It’s not for me to try to blend it together,” he said. “I can only say that where there has been opposition, it has been very well documented, and I’m very comfortable with how we deal with it. I think in the past, the assumption was that if there was a certain kind of pressure, a mayor would bend to it. We have a different view. And it doesn’t matter what the polls say or the conventional wisdom says. History so far has validated the notion of sticking to your guns.”
De Blasio would rather be validated by reelection, though. He still enjoys a base of support within the Democratic Party, and he has no declared challenger, for now. In his unlikely first campaign, he defeated his rivals by presenting himself as a different kind of leader, appealing to a city that had grown tired of an order imposed from above by a coldly calculating billionaire. So he has held firm in his own conception of what the public wants him to be as mayor.
In November, de Blasio held an event at a Times Square facility for the formerly homeless to announce a new 15,000-unit supportive housing program, intended to fill the gap caused by the failure to reach a cost-sharing agreement with Cuomo. During a question-and-answer session with the press, he diverted from local concerns to address the global controversy over Syrian refugees, attacking the Republican presidential candidates for inciting nativism and fears of terrorism. The mayor held up a color printout of the boy who washed up dead on a Turkish beach last summer. “This,” he said gravely, “is the cost of not bringing in people who are innocent victims of a humanitarian crisis.”
Afterward, the mayor walked down Eighth Avenue, where a black SUV was waiting to convey him to his next appointment, an interview about Syria on CNN. But he decided to improvise. “We doing this?” he said to his aides, and then he ducked into the entrance to the subway. The trailing press peeled off, and soon the mayor found himself on the uptown platform with a small security detail. He stood silently amid the midday crowd, his neck craned downward toward his phone. When the train arrived, the mayor grabbed a pole with his spokeswoman, Karen Hinton, and rode to Columbus Circle. Riders seemed to recognize de Blasio, but not one tried to talk to him.
“The mayor of New York is just looking at his phone,” a middle-aged woman remarked aloud. “Don’t you find that a little strange?”
When I asked the mayor how he could win back an increasingly dismissive public, he replied, “Well, I did used to be a political operative.” De Blasio believes that political acumen is his core competency, even as many of his defeats trace back to this stubborn confidence in his own understanding of the electorate. “People care about material reality,” he continued. “If their lives are made better, nothing moves them more.” But as a political mind, de Blasio should know that caricature can be more powerful than material reality. If he is to convince a skeptical public that he’s not the man they think he is, he may first have to accept that he’s also misjudged himself.
*This article appears in the December 28, 2015 issue of New York Magazine.