the city politic

Why Bill de Blasio Is Acting Like a 2020 Candidate

He’s not saying he won’t. Photo: Michael Brochstein/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

In the past week, Bill de Blasio has been on The View, where Whoopi Goldberg berated him for putting too many bike lanes in the city. He’s been on Morning Joe, where the hosts needled him about his recent star turn on The Simpsons and where he talked up his new plan to provide universal health care to New Yorkers. A new push to provide paid time off to every working New Yorker was first leaked to the decidedly not-local Washington Post, which the next day ran an op-ed from the mayor titled “Yes, Democrats Can Deliver on Big, Progressive Ideas,” in which the mayor ran through his accomplishments, knocked his detractors, bashed moderates by name for urging Democrats to trim their progressive sails, and urged liberals to “refuse to listen to what centrists tell us is realistic.”

So it hardly seemed surprising that the mayor got a prime slot on Jake Tapper’s Sunday show on CNN and, when asked, declined to rule out a run for president in 2020, and then declined again when he at last took questions last week from the daily reporters who cover him.

“We’re in an ever-changing environment and I was trying to be honest, I’m simply not ruling it out,” he said at an event announcing the expansion of ferry service in the city, adding that it was notable that a bunch of other mayors were being talked about as legitimate 2020 presidential contenders. “The world has changed.”

It wasn’t an announcement of a candidacy; it wasn’t really even a dip of the toe into presidential waters. But the fact that Mayor Bill de Blasio was not saying no to a presidential campaign in 2020 stunned even some of his closest friends and oldest advisers. Locally, there are at least two senators — Kirsten Gillibrand and Cory Booker — as well as former mayor Mike Bloomberg who have already been building campaign infrastructure. De Blasio remains plagued by a crisis at NYCHA, an increase in homelessness, and the conviction of a top donor, and has consistently had local approval ratings in the low 40s.

And de Blasio still hasn’t salvaged his reputation from his last foray in presidential politics. In 2015, the mayor tried to position himself as the arbiter of progressivism for the Democratic field, but the effort blew up on launch. Most of the candidates ignored him, and the voters followed suit. In the end, Hillary Clinton, who gave the mayor his start in big-time politics when she tapped him as campaign manager for her first Senate run, shunted him to lowly midafternoon speaking slot at the Democratic convention.

“There is a ‘There he goes again’ aspect to all of this, for sure,” said one longtime labor ally of the mayor’s.

But supporters of the mayor say that he is right, that the world is different now. Back in 2015, Democrats were stumbling to find a way forward. Was it Obama-like conciliation, Clinton-like managerial competence, or burn the system down, as Bernie Sanders advocated?

This time around it is hard to find a Democrat with a serious shot at the presidency who doesn’t support what the mayor pushed for then, including a $15-an-hour minimum wage, universal pre-K, more progressive taxes, and greater worker protections.

“It’s Bill de Blasio’s Democratic Party in 2020,” said one source close to the mayor, who, like others interviewed for this story, asked for anonymity to avoid jeopardizing existing relationships at City Hall. “The question is whether or not he can catch up to it.”

If de Blasio were to run, his supporters say he would have a story to tell, one that beats most of the other three dozen contenders in the race. “If the primary campaign is decided by who has the most substantive progressive accomplishments, de Blasio beats all comers,” said one Democratic strategist, citing the rollout of universal pre-K, police reforms, paid sick leave, a higher minimum wage, and an aggressive affordable-housing plan all the while presiding over a booming city that is reaching unheard of levels of public safety. “He can point to real tangible successes that all of these other senators and members of Congress and half of the governors could only dream of.”

You would never know it from the treatment he gets in the New York City media, with whom de Blasio has been at war for the past six years, or among the chattering class, who resent his long midday trips to the gym and apparent disregard for their concerns, but there is a way in which he actually fits nicely into the crosscurrents of the emerging Democratic field.

Not only is he an unapologetic progressive, but in a party that prizes diversity, he can point to his multiracial family. And unlike candidates from the heartland, de Blasio at least knows the kind of people in New York who can bankroll a national campaign. And years of jousting with the New York City press have given him a kind of media training that candidates who walk through the halls of the Senate with a cell phone pressed against their ear or made a career sitting in on the Sunday shows lack.

But he’s not running.

At least that is what people who know him well say. De Blasio has made no effort to lay the groundwork for a run, and in a field bursting at the seams with qualified contenders, staffers and fundraisers are going quick. The ongoing business of running the city would keep de Blasio away from the early primary states. With so many top-tier candidates saying so many of the same things, he would have trouble garnering much air time.

But by declining to rule out a run, de Blasio at least keeps open the possibility of a candidacy as the field develops. “Who knows what the field looks like two or four or six months from now,” said one person close to City Hall. “I think if the dynamic shifts he could take a closer look at it.”

Floating his name allows de Blasio to gauge what kind of reaction the national media and Democratic power brokers have to him. The fact that he’s done Morning Joe and State of the Union and The View and some real estate in the Washington Post op-ed page isn’t a bad start, and if glossy magazine profiles and a spot as a guest on Pod Save America follow, it will mean that there is more of a hunger for de Blasio out there than many in New York may realize.

“If you are Bill de Blasio, you are looking down the barrel of term limits, there is no natural next step for you, you have a bully pulpit and you run a city that can be a laboratory of progressive ideas,” said one ally. “There is no reason in the world why you shouldn’t put your name out there and see if you get any traction. If you are polling at 1 or 2 percent five months from now, you can just as easily step away.”

This is something of an odd moment in the political cycle, locally and nationally. Democratic presidential candidates are being minted by the day, the state’s junior senator among them. Chuck Schumer is waging a daily battle with the White House. Andrew Cuomo is wrestling with a new restive Democratic majority in Albany. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is tap-dancing across the universe.

“Everyone is making their move right now,” said one political operative close to the mayor. “Everyone wants to be relevant. If you are going to carve out your own real estate, now is the time to do it.”

People who criticize de Blasio for being more interested in national politics than the local scene aren’t wrong. This is someone who went to New Hampshire to stump on behalf of John Edwards in 2004, back when he was in his first term as a city councilmember, went to Iowa for Hillary Clinton in 2008, and used his relatively ceremonial perch as New York City’s public advocate to advocate on behalf of nationwide good government reform efforts. De Blasio likes to talk about politics in moral terms — while his critics find the tendency sanctimonious and enraging, there’s no question that it’s better suited for the ideological battles of national politics than for the practical necessities of city politics.

De Blasio, in his blood, is a political operative. He painstakingly and skillfully plotted his path from Brooklyn school board to Gracie Mansion. He has won a primary and two general elections by landslides. And now that he is in the presidential conversation, people close to him say that they see him as energized and as focused as he has been since he won the mayoral primary in 2013. Going on national television to talk about universal health care, education, labor rights, and the Democratic Party’s lack of a backbone is Bill de Blasio in his element.

“Is he running for president? No way. It’s crazy,” said one former aide. “But he has done the impossible thing, which is rise from the dead to make himself relevant again in the national conversation. He is going to keep doing this for as long as he can.”

Why Bill de Blasio Is Acting Like a 2020 Candidate