The dozens of stuffed animals are not Mayor Bill de Blasio’s decorating touch. But they are entirely appropriate to the mood. The mayor had come to an elementary school in Ridgewood, Queens, to promote enrollment in expanded pre-kindergarten after winning funding for it in Albany. Then de Blasio borrows the P.S. 239 parent coordinator’s office, where he is surrounded by plushy bears and cats, to continue trying to soften his relationship with the political press.
More intriguing, though — and more important as the mayor nears his 100th day in office — is what de Blasio has to say about his relationships with everyone from Mets fans to rich New Yorkers to Andrew Cuomo. After three months of bruising negotiations over pre-K, are de Blasio and the governor still friends? “Of course!” the mayor replies amiably, reaching for a mini brownie.
He does, however, push back on the Cuomo camp’s contention that de Blasio could have declared victory in January or February, gaining the same $300 million and sparing himself the charter schools debacle and plummeting poll numbers.
“I obviously don’t want to do inside baseball,” de Blasio says, taking off his suit jacket, rolling up his sleeves, and reclining on a small green sectional couch. “The original thing that was on the table was $100 million for the whole state. It was obvious to me we had to keep the energy level high and the focus level high, and the proof is in the pudding. The end of the process is when we had the guarantees, and only at the end.”
Near the end, though, the mayor stumbled into giving up some control over the city’s charter schools. “Clearly we didn’t articulate, in the beginning, the fact that of course we were going to accommodate those 194 kids [at a displaced Harlem charter school],” he says. “So it was an important lesson about not assuming and being very clear and very proactive in what we say to the public … I think we could have done a better job of explaining what the negatives for some of those co-locations would have been, particularly the one [that] would have negatively affected special-education kids.”
A second possible lesson could be the political potency of the city’s wealthy, who dumped millions of dollars into a pro-charter ad campaign. For 12 years, Mike Bloomberg enlisted his brethren in the business and civic elite to do everything from underwriting parks to lobbying Washington for hurricane recovery money. Does de Blasio need to better engage the one percent — not just for the city’s benefit, but in self-defense?
“I think it’s very important. There’s so much history in this city of people who have done well being incredibly charitable and civic-minded,” the mayor says. ”We had a lot of folks from different industries, some folks who happen to be wealthy who were very active in getting the pre-K and after-school done. We’re going to take that example and deepen it. That being said, my template, which I came up with in political life, was about organizing the people writ large. Bloomberg and I are very different in that sense. I think he saw the public process, the political process, through the prism of elites. I see it through the prism of the grassroots. I’ll work with anyone. But I think the wellspring of social progress comes from the grassroots.”
With pre-K and charters dominating the conversation, there’s been little attention to de Blasio’s fuzzier agenda for the million-plus kids already attending conventional public schools. “We’re going to focus on teacher retention, which I think is a huge difference-maker, because we’re hemorrhaging quality teachers,” he says. “Why is Finland so wonderful? Because teachers are incredibly well prepared, and they do it as a lifelong career. That’s where I’m trying to move us, and I think we can get there.”
In the shorter run, though, de Blasio claims he knows “a lot” about how to fix failing schools — and he even offers some kind words about his predecessor’s efforts on that front. “Pre-Bloomberg, we started to see some progress in turning around schools. During the Bloomberg years, we definitely saw some progress with some individual school turnarounds,” de Blasio says. “We know a lot about what a quality principal can do. We have not cracked the code as well on how to do teacher training consistently.”
Some of those issues are tangled up in the high-stakes talks over a new teachers’ union contract — one of the 152 labor deals de Blasio is trying to cut. Scott Stringer, the city comptroller, recently said it’s crucial to the city’s budget that the contracts be settled by June 30, the end of the fiscal year.
“Well, I think he’s expressing the ideal, which is, we’d like to get it done quickly, and we’d like to get it done in a way that informs the budget process,” de Blasio says cautiously. “But it’s obviously incredibly complicated, and there’s a lot on the line, and we want to get it right. So the conversations over the last weeks have been quite good, and substantive, and collegial. But it’s impossible at this moment to determine whether it’s enough to get us done by that point.”
Also a work-in-progress is de Blasio’s adjustment to life as mayor. Some parts of his greatly elevated public role are fun — mostly. The day before his elementary-school visit, the mayor had been in another part of Queens, throwing out the ceremonial first pitch before the Mets’ home opener.
“Being in the dugout was amazing. Going up the steps, which I had envisioned myself doing so many times, and the first few seconds, were very nice,” he says, with a laugh. “Then I started experiencing the booing. Of course it was not a surprise. Any elected official is going to get that. But it was a lot! You’re in the middle of this giant circle and there’s tens of thousands of people — I was surprised at the sheer feeling of it. The volume. Then I tried to focus on Travis d’Arnaud, my batterymate, who was totally a bro. Very encouraging, did a very nice re-framing of the pitch. It was very cool.”
Throwing a single pitch, however, is easier than dodging the dozens aimed at him in City Hall. De Blasio’s four years in the building as a low-level staffer to Mayor David Dinkins provided some preparation, but he admits that three months of being in charge has changed his perspective.
“I cannot tell you there’s one particular thing that’s surprising or different,” he says. “I think the sheer math of the job — the number of items that come, and the speed with which they come up — is something that would surprise anyone. Intellectually, I’ve been around New York City public life for a quarter century. But when you do it, it’s the sheer intensity of it. It’s something you have to get used to.”
He stands up, fortifies himself with a brownie, and heads past the stuffed animals and toward the door. “The good news is, you get used to it pretty damn quick.”