“Is there some kind of party going on here? Why is everybody here?” said Mayor Bill de Blasio, after walking down the back steps of Gracie Mansion with his wife, Chirlane McCray, by his side and surveying a throng of reporters and cameras camped out on his back lawn.
This was no party, and de Blasio knew damn well why the media had come: to dance on the grave of someone they had all said had no business running for president.
As it turned out, the New York City media was right, and the mayor ended his long-shot bid for the Democratic nomination eight months after he had first floated his name as a potential candidate on CNN.
De Blasio had a story to tell — of presiding over the nation’s largest city with a budget larger than 46 U.S. states, a police force the size of a small army, of keeping crime down and the economy humming, while implementing universal pre-K and reforming police practices and increasing wages. And when his campaign described the broad outlines of this story in internal polls, Democratic voters responded affirmatively, telling de Blasio’s pollsters that this was the kind of candidate they would consider for the Democratic nomination.
When they met the actual Bill de Blasio, however, the guy who tried to bait President Trump with a goofy “Con Don” hashtag, who could be scoldy and sanctimonious and who seemed to approach his day job with a scowl, it was another story. And in the public polls that show who is up and who is down, de Blasio was consistently down, unable to rise above one percent.
Part of the problem was that de Blasio was never much able to make his case to the actual voters. His presidential campaign was a part-time affair, with a bare-bones staff, even in the early primary states. It raised only a million dollars, a fraction of what most of his competitors have on hand. Instead of Iowa town halls or New Hampshire backyard meet and greets, the mayor mostly ran his campaign on cable television — his staff would alert reporters to his upcoming TV hits as if they were bona fide campaign events — and at the Democratic cattle calls where voters and candidates would gather en masse.
Politics is de Blasio’s element, and the former political operative proved to be good on the stump, where he could talk about the kind of national and global and even moral issues that he couldn’t in New York, about income inequality and soaking the rich and driving a stake into the heart of the Republican Party. And he was good on cable too, where his occasional battles with Fox News hosts like Sean Hannity became appointment viewing — especially because he was one the few Democrats with the desire or the need for that kind of airtime.
De Blasio’s best chance to break out was in the debates, and although he made an impression going after Joe Biden and Beto O’Rourke, with donations pouring in (on a relative scale, anyway) afterward, it wasn’t enough to vault de Blasio out of the bottom tier of candidates. He did not make the cutoff for the third debate, and it was looking unlikely that he would be able to reach either the polling or fundraising thresholds required to make the fourth debate next month.
His team was hopeful that after the September debate they would make it to the October one, but as the days rolled by, it became clear that it wasn’t going to happen.
“No one had to say anything. We all knew it,” said Steve Jarding, a senior adviser to the campaign. “The donors just weren’t coming. Time was becoming the enemy.”
“Every day that passed it got tougher,” he told the press at Gracie Mansion. “We were watching the polling to see if anything was moving and it just wasn’t moving. I think you have to make decisions based on the facts and sometimes it is just not your time. And that is okay.”
The mayor blamed his failure to launch on the fact that he got in so late, not announcing until May. He blamed business in Albany and the need to finish the city budget on time, but that doesn’t explain why de Blasio 2020 was such a haphazard affair, one that seemed to suffer from a lack of strategic thinking. Aides and advisers say that the mayor believed that the improvised approach that got him elected against all odds in 2013 would work on the national stage, but it was not enough to overcome those half-dozen or so top contenders who had been doing the grunt work in the early primary states for months before de Blasio showed up expecting to be given a hearing.
The whole campaign was in many ways a chance for de Blasio to get a hearing of the kind he doesn’t really get in New York among its press corps, which has long since grown tired of him. De Blasio believes himself to be a consequential figure on the national stage, one who presaged much of the liberal energy now sweeping the party. The city’s media is broadly disinclined to share that perspective.
And now he will return to run a city he spent the last several months trying to get away from and a job to which his commitment has seemed shaky almost from the day he started. At the press conference at Gracie, he said that he was committed to expanding pre-K to 3-year-olds, to mandating paid vacation time for city residents, and to starting an environmental policy to rival the Green New Deal. Afterward, the mayor took the subway down to City Hall for the Climate March — the first time he has ridden the MTA so publicly in months. On Twitter he wished the Yankees well in the Major League Baseball playoffs, despite being an avowed (and contrarian) Red Sox fan.
“It’s going to be a very aggressive next two years, three months, and 11 days,” the mayor said, as if he were staring at a countdown clock on the wall.
Meanwhile, talk has turned to what is next for the mayor once his term in office ends. Running the DNC or some kind of progressive activist think tank remains one possibility. Heading a national labor union remains another. There was talk among some advisers of a statewide run, if the opportunity presented itself. And of course, should Trump win reelection next year, there is always 2024.