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Bill de Blasio Tries to Find Someone, Somewhere, Who Wants to Vote for Him

Bill de Blasio. Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images

By the time the mayor of New York City arrives at the Williams Chapel AME Church in Orangeburg, South Carolina, for the second official trip of his nascent presidential run, most of the raucous New York press corps is staying home. Only a single reporter from NY1 and his camerawoman stand outside, amid a trio of retired NYPD officers who live in South Carolina and carry signs saying MAYOR DE BLASIO IS NO FRIEND OF LABOR and WE DON’T GIVE A DARN HOW BILL DE BLASIO DID IT UP NORTH.

Inside, de Blasio receives an endorsement, his first, from the Orangeburg mayor and lays out his case for why he, the 24th Democrat and sixth* white straight man in a row to declare a run for president, deserves their vote, having brought paid sick leave, higher wages, and universal prekindergarten to New York. “And when we put forward a nominee who has actually done things for working people,” he says, “working people are going to believe again!” He gets the kind of enthusiastic reception you’d never see at home, where he remains dogged by questions big and small: from violating ethics rules at his nonprofit; to his gym routine; to missing a 9/11 memorial commemoration; to rooting for the Red Sox; to his absence from City Hall; to the way he eats pizza.

Afterward, in the church basement, the mayor holds a press conference with just three reporters present; an aide pointedly ignores the one from New York to call on one with the Times and Democrat, a 7,000-circulation local newspaper, who asks the mayor to expound on the virtues of visiting South Carolina.

De Blasio would avoid the city press corps entirely if he could. The relations between them are way past repair, with reporters in New York finding him self-righteous, smug, with an inflated sense of his own importance, and he finding them in thrall to their corporate masters, in search of political gossip and cheap jokes about groundhogs.

But the derision the city’s press has for de Blasio has seeped upward into the wider culture. “De Blasio PAC Spends $30 Million on Ads Urging Candidate Not to Embarrass Self by Running,” read a recent headline in The Onion. After noting that the mayor was polling at zero percent in New Hampshire, Stephen Colbert cracked, “He has nowhere to go but home.” Even Lloyd Blankfein piled on, tweeting, “On the bright side, if DeB gets elected prez, we New Yorkers will lose his undivided attention a year ahead of schedule.”

De Blasio seems validated by their contempt, as if it proves he’s a fighter. Never before has a New York mayor so studiously avoided so much of the city’s life — balking at attending the Met Gala, opening day at Yankee Stadium, and fund-raisers for museums and libraries. Mike Bloomberg dined with the city’s press barons, who agreed to back his bid for a third term; de Blasio shows up in city rooms to complain to editors about his coverage.

“I can’t speak to the commentators and the pundits and what motivates them and why they pump up one person and make fun of another,” he says, sitting down at a plastic table with his wife, Chirlane McCray, by his side after the press conference. “Look, I took over from one of the richest people on earth. We sought to govern on behalf of working people, and that is different.”

In a crowded primary, the national political press matters more than ever, as it sparks a feedback loop from cable greenrooms to Iowa coffee shops. Candidates toiling in the single digits in national polls, which is to say almost all of them, are desperate for coverage.

Not de Blasio. His team resisted an interview, wanting to avoid another story filled with snark and process. He is practically alone among 2020 contenders in not having gotten the kind of magazine profile that presages a run for president, one of the few who hasn’t been on Pod Save America or Desus & Mero or other places where the real campaign is being run.

He says he doesn’t need to, that he can win this thing going from church to church and from Snapchat feed to Instagram Live video. (Beto O’Rourke’s drop in the polls shows that’s probably wishful thinking.)

“Something has changed in the way we communicate. The rule book has been thrown out the window,” he says. “Bernie showed that in 2016, and I know how to engage that new world. I am a child of that revolution.”

But if the early de Blasio 2020 effort were an emoji, it would be the face-palm. The mayor held a de facto campaign kickoff in the lobby of Trump Tower, which was nearly drowned out by pro-Trump protesters who rode unceasingly up and down the escalators behind him holding signs that read worst mayor ever. He went negative on Joe Biden’s support for the anti-abortion Hyde Amendment, but somehow he managed to mangle even that, confusing the good and evil characters from the Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

De Blasio has crept up to one percent in the polls since he announced, pushing him slightly above the morass of anonymous white guys running. The people close to him say the mayor really believes he has a chance to win — or at least as good a chance as anyone else’s.

“I look at this field, and no one is busting out,” said Steve Jarding, the mayor’s senior adviser for the race, who met de Blasio for the first time only a few months ago. “The media in New York City, as I see it, they don’t like a lot of their politicians and they beat the hell out of them, but you tell most people that the economic elite don’t like him, that he wants to take money out of their pockets and send little kids to school, I think most people will like him for that.”

His critics, though, go beyond the media. De Blasio entered this race with an anemic 36 percent approval rating among New York City voters. Among voters with a college degree, his numbers are even worse: Just 16 percent of voters across the state with a college degree approve of the job he is doing, numbers worse than Donald Trump’s. Most of his longtime aides and associates have deserted him, believing this presidential bid to be doomed. “Can you imagine how uninterested in the job he is going to be when he comes in 21st in the Iowa caucuses and drops out?” asked one Democratic operative. “Every politician in town is going to be running him down. It is going to be a disaster.”

There has been consistent theme to de Blasio’s tenure that he is bored with the job, that he sees himself less as a mayor than as a national leader for the progressive movement. This explains the lack of attention to detail and his almost immediate foray into national politics upon winning reelection. De Blasio disputes that characterization. “I find it entirely soul-satisfying to be mayor,” he said, even as he concedes, “Is it fun like, ‘Go to the movies’ fun? Like ‘go to the beach’ fun? No, it is not that kind of fun. It is way too tough and too serious and too relentless to be that kind of traditional fun.”

What would a President de Blasio be like? His website is entirely devoid of policy positions, and when I ask what his top priorities would be, he sounds taken aback. “I will only say to you that I have to, over the weeks and months ahead, put together all the policy papers and the real, honest answer to that question, which is a really important question to answer and I don’t want to do it halfway today,” he says, before eventually landing on changing labor laws to make it easier to unionize.

“I am from a new time. New politics, new realities,” he says. “As we do this, it does not feel difficult. It feels natural to us. We are speaking our truth.”

*This figure has been updated.

*This article appears in the June 10, 2019, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!

De Blasio Tries to Find Someone Who Wants to Vote for Him