America’s Mayor: The Sequel

Illustration by André Carrilho

Bill de Blasio was late. This time it wasn’t his fault. State legislators lined up to shake hands and pose for photos with New York’s newest political star before allowing De Blasio to start his testimony. Then they wanted to share his televised spotlight, quizzing the mayor about his pre-K tax-the-rich plans until his appearance before Albany’s budget committees stretched nearly two and a half hours. Finally De Blasio was sent off, to a waiting pack of reporters, with a teasing farewell from Denny Farrell, the rascally octogenarian Democratic assemblyman.

“There’s a whole bunch of people waiting for you,” Farrell said with a sly chuckle.

“Are they friendly people?” De Blasio replied with a goofy heh heh heh.

In mid-December, in Washington, a group of fellow mayors-elect had let De Blasio take the lead in speaking to the press after a White House meeting with President Barack Obama. Now, in Albany, the mayor’s next meeting was an additional—if far more complicated—ratification of his soaring political stature. Governor ­Andrew Cuomo, instead of letting De Blasio come and go from his home turf without comment, had suddenly scheduled a joint press conference, ostensibly to advertise their common desire to save Brooklyn hospitals. The mayor, when he spoke, was careful to defer to the governor. But as the two sat elbow to elbow, grinning and backslapping with sincere affection, it was easy to wonder just whose show this really was.

In some ways it’s wildly out of proportion: By virtue of running and winning as the left-most candidate in a Democratic primary in a overwhelmingly Democratic city, Bill de Blasio has become a national figure. But politics is as much hype and art as it is science. And so De Blasio is now a beacon to liberals across the country. Which is why his local skirmish with Cuomo is about much more than how to fund prekindergarten expansion. It’s about competing visions of the Democratic Party, and it’s a foreshadowing of a tension that could shape the 2016 presidential primaries.

Some of the De Blasio effect is standard political flattery, the kind of thing that happens whenever a candidate wins an upset on a big stage. In New Orleans, two challengers to incumbent Mitch Landrieu peddled a “tale of two cities” (they lost anyway). Seattle’s new mayor, Ed Murray, is assembling an “income inequality committee” and pushing for a $15 minimum wage. The Newark City Council just passed a bill mandating paid sick leave; similar legislation is gaining ground in California, Massachusetts, Nebraska, Oregon, and Vermont. De Blasio fellow travelers are even turning up in red states: Republican governors in Alabama, Indiana, and New Mexico, in their 2014 State of the State speeches, trumpeted initiatives to spend more money on prekindergarten.

Were they all inspired by De Blasio? No. And De Blasio himself is as much egg as he is chicken, cannily capitalizing on a trend whose roots are in the 2008 financial meltdown, Occupy Wall Street, and the rise of Elizabeth Warren. Something was already happening out there. The question, especially for national Democrats, is how wide and deep the shift is and will be. Certainly the left is investing great hope in its new hero. “Bill de Blasio is now seen as the flagship for a potential urban-policy enlightenment,” says Adam Green, a co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, the ­million-member group that was a key early fund-raiser for Warren. “If he is ­successful at making New York benefit everyday, working-class people, that could have huge ripple effects, very quickly, across the nation.”

A significant indicator will come this fall, as Democrats try to hold on to their U.S. Senate majority. John Del Cecato, the De Blasio media strategist who crafted the famous “Dante” ad, is working on one of the more intriguing races, and his candidate is another populist from Brooklyn—Brooklyn, Iowa. Bruce Braley, currently a Democratic congressman, is running for the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by Tom Harkin, and the race will turn on Iowa-centric issues. But Braley will provide an interesting test of how progressive themes play in the heartland.

Top national Democrats dismiss the idea that De Blasio’s priorities are now driving the political agenda. “We’re still focused on economic fairness and opportunity for the middle class,” one strategist says. The executive director of the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee, Guy Cecil, points out that every contest has its own dynamics, and that the specifics of De Blasio’s playbook aren’t readily ­transferable. “In most of our races, it’s not necessarily about creating balance by raising taxes in the way that De Blasio is doing it,” Cecil says. “The prescription for the problem isn’t the same.” Instead, he stresses traditional Democratic political talismans like preserving Medicare and Social Security. Yet Cecil says that De ­Blasio’s message is very much in sync with what’s happening nationally. “I do think, overall, there is a common theme about people who are at or near the poverty line, and those who are squarely in the middle class, are getting the raw end of the deal,” Cecil says. Where De Blasio harped on affordable housing, he says, Senate candidates are highlighting “pocket­book issues” like college loans that resonate with target constituencies, like Latino voters. “I don’t know that an ­election in New York City is having any impact on this conversation, as much as it might be reflecting where the larger country is,” Cecil says, “which is that we are seeing the stock market rise, and we’re seeing business starting to grow, and GDP starting to improve—and at the same time there are a lot of Americans who in their daily lives are not seeing the benefit.”

Cecil’s reading of the landscape is important not just for Democratic Senate candidates this year, but because he’s likely to be on the short list to run Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential bid, if she indeed runs. At this point she’s the prohibitive favorite to become the nominee—though that was true at the same point in the run-up to 2008, before most people saw Barack Obama coming. “I assume there will be a primary challenge from the left, for sure,” Howard Dean says—though he also says it won’t be by him: “There are a lot of pragmatic progressives, and I’m one of them, who are supporting her.” Dean campaigned for De Blasio last year, and he says that what happens at City Hall will have ramifications far beyond the city. “Two progressive mayors—Bill and Eric Garcetti, in Los Angeles—don’t make a landslide toward progressivism. But I do think progressivism in general is gaining the ascendancy in this country,” Dean says. “Bill has to be mayor first, and he has to do a good job, and I think he will. But what he does is very important to the progressive movement. The rap on the progressive movement—mostly from the Wall Street types—is they can’t run anything, they can’t balance the budget. That’s not true. We’ve done a much better job than the Republicans of balancing the budget. Look at Bill Clinton.”

Andrew Cuomo learned a great deal in the service of the Great Triangulator, and he is hardly the only Democrat who believes that talk of a drastic shift to the left is overstated, particularly considering that De Blasio’s “mandate” was delivered by a thin slice of the electorate. Cuomo genuinely respects De Blasio and wants him to succeed as mayor. But he has staked his governing approach and his political career on being a centrist, at least by New York standards, and for four years Cuomo has mostly been a welcome force for budgetary sanity. Now, though, he’s navigating a change in the political wind. “Jeff Klein was never thought of as lefty, but he’s pretending to be one now,” a Cuomo adviser says of the Democrat who has set himself up as a power broker in the State Senate. “Klein, De Blasio, Eric Schneiderman, and Shelly Silver being allied weirds out Cuomo. He wants to be Mr. Moderate, and these guys are pulling him down the path of the ultraliberal stuff.” Cuomo’s reaction is also, as with most every­thing involving the governor, tied to the psychodrama of being the son of Mario Cuomo, a man whose high-minded rhetoric made him a hero of the left; Andrew is determined to make his mark with deeds, not words. Cuomo’s camp scoffs at De Blasio’s moralizing lefty tone, the mayor’s talk of being on a “sacred mission.” “He acts as if income inequality is a higher purpose,” a Cuomo ally says. “ ‘We’re not talking about filling potholes. We’re talking about social justice.’ Bill’s been a pragmatist his whole career. You don’t ­really think he’s changed, right?”

The substance and politics of the next few months are crucial for the mayor. Resolving his pre-K battle with Cuomo will help define whether fighting for a tax increase on the wealthy is a good Democratic gambit. Yet it’s De Blasio’s high-stakes negotiations with labor unions that will be even more telling. Shifting city government’s values to the left won’t matter if De Blasio can’t get the dollars and cents right and ends up becoming a spendthrift captive of the old Democratic interest groups. But if De Blasio succeeds, his brand of progressivism will gain credibility, and the mayor will become a valued validator for liberals suspicious of HRC ’16. And if somehow Hillary doesn’t run, Cuomo could find his friendship with De Blasio especially useful.

E-mail: chris_smith@nymag.com.

America’s Mayor: The Sequel