The bad blood was bubbling up from day one, or even before. It was there when Mike Bloomberg sat unsmiling on the dais in front of City Hall on the day when Bill de Blasio was sworn in, a day his successor presided over a ceremony in which speaker after speaker assailed Bloomberg’s economic stewardship of “the plantation called New York,” as one pastor called it, a city “where decrepit homeless shelters and housing developments stand in the neglected shadow of gleaming multimillion-dollar condos” and in which the new mayor himself promised to undue Bloomberg’s stop and frisk practices and “protect the dignity and rights of young men of color.”
For his part, Bloomberg had told New York a few months before Election Day that de Blasio’s campaign for mayor was “class warfare and racist,” since de Blasio was “using his [bi-racial] family to gain support.”
In the years since, Mayor de Blasio has continued to take shots at his predecessor, and talked openly about undoing much of Bloomberg’s legacy, while complaining that he was being unfairly judged following in the footsteps of someone who “was one of the richest people on earth.” Meanwhile a former top aide to Bloomberg, Bradley Tusk, cast about for a primary challenger to run against de Blasio in 2017.
The two have mostly kept a respectful distance from one another, however, until now. With Bloomberg actively pursuing the presidency, and de Blasio still smarting from a bid that crashed on the launchpad six months ago — and, crucially, supporting Bernie Sanders — they have been engaged in an open-air online feud over who was a better New York City mayor.
As Bloomberg attempted to recast his record to better appeal to a Democratic electorate at last week’s South Carolina debate, de Blasio served as a one-man fact-checking operation.
“Yes, PLEASE ask NYC teachers how @MikeBloomberg treated them,” he tweeted when Bloomberg talked up his education record. “You will get an earful. He attacked and denigrated our educators and their union. He blamed teachers and treated THEM as the problem, instead of the solution they really are. I have spent 6 yrs healing + fixing what he broke.”
Or, when Bloomberg tried to explain his sudden reversal on stop and frisk, and credited his administration with ending the practice, de Blasio wrote, “As the guy who actually ended the Stop + Frisk policy + settled the lawsuit + sent Bloomberg’s police commissioner packing, let me answer that question: YES, stop and frisk was racist! And @MikeBloomberg stood by it til last year. If he weren’t running for Pres, no apology.”
De Blasio even found fellow feeling with the other billionaire onstage, tweeting during the debate’s second hour: “.@TomSteyer is right: you can’t beat a Republican with another Republican. @MikeBloomberg , if you wanted to run for President as a Democrat one day, you shouldn’t have abandoned our party when it was convenient for your political career. U bought the Republican label, u own it.”
De Blasio even made an appearance on Sean Hannity’s nighttime show on Fox News, where, following the host’s direction, he gutted Bloomberg.
“Thank you for playing that for your millions of viewers,” de Blasio said after Hannity showed a clip of Bloomberg defending stop and frisk in stark terms. “Because now more people are going to see who Mike Bloomberg really is.”
“This guy has no common touch. No connection to people,” de Blasio added. “You’ve got millions of viewers who are working Americans, everyday people … But when you watch Michael Bloomberg on that debate stage, he’s got no clue what everyday people are going through.”
The most eye-popping Bloomberg-camp response has come from Stu Loeser, the billionaire’s longtime attack dog of a spokesman.
“You work fewer than 30 hours a week, how bad could the mess be?” he wrote in response to one of de Blasio’s tweets. “Few public officials anywhere are as innovative and clever as @BilldeBlasio is when it comes to repeated efforts at money laundering.”
Earlier this week, when de Blasio tweeted about Bloomberg’s CNN town hall, some eight hours after it ran (at four in the morning), he argued, “There is a special narcissism to billionaires. They can’t see like the rest of us. Here’s what actually happened, @MikeBloomberg : I called for an end to your broken policies, got elected + changed them” (de Blasio later explained that he was up early due to some medication he is taking as he recovers from knee surgery). Loeser wrote back, “So either @CNN replayed @MikeBloomberg’s town hall overnight or a thin-skinned New Yorker who routinely tries to delegitimize any media that covers him critically is watching @TiVo in his (our) executive mansion.”
The war of words has been robust enough that it has led some New York political watchers to wonder if Bloomberg really would prefer to be running for his old job rather than the presidency.
Not so, says Loeser, who said he is responding to de Blasio’s taunts without his boss’ knowledge or direction.
“It is no secret that Bill de Blasio prefers national politics to his job, which is not only the second hardest job in American politics but also the second best job in American politics,” said Loeser in an interview. “If he is going to go out and try to reintroduce himself to national voters in defense of Bernie Sanders then we are going to have to go out and tell the truth about Bill de Blasio.”
The onslaught has mystified Mayor de Blasio’s aides and advisors, who saw the hyper-disciplined Bloomberg team as unwilling to take their bait over the last five years.
“I think maybe they snapped. And sometimes you snap when people are telling the truth about you,” said Rebecca Kirszner Katz, a former top de Blasio aide. “I think de Blasio enjoys this, and let’s face it, de Blasio’s messaging is much closer to where Democratic voters are than Mike Bloomberg is. He is now a Bernie Sanders surrogate and he can speak from experience about how Bloomberg was wrong.”
But the back-and-forth has also turned one portion of the 2020 presidential race into a side-by-side comparison about who managed the city better. Although Bloomberg consistently had better approval ratings during his time in office than de Blasio, there is a way in which de Blasio’s tenure serves as an ongoing rebuke. Bloomberg said that crime would go up if stop and frisk ended. It ended, and crime dropped. Bloomberg vetoed a law that would have mandated paid sick leave, saying it would cripple the city’s economy; de Blasio signed the bill into law and the city economy flourished. Bloomberg opposed raising the city’s minimum wage to $15 an hour; de Blasio made it mandatory for all city workers and it is now state law.
“By that same measure Bill de Blasio could argue that only working a few hours a day is a good thing, since the less time he spends as mayor the better off we are,” Loeser said in response.
“When you cite data that shows the city is being well-run, I would argue that it is not because of our part-time mayor but because of the career public servants who go from administration to administration and who spent their formative years in public service under a mayor who supported them and asked them to solve some of the biggest problems facing our city in new and innovative ways.”
The hostilities have left many unwilling to get involved in an internecine fight as the party decides who is best to take on Trump.
Gale Brewer, the Manhattan borough president who is close to both mayors, credited Bloomberg over bike lanes, the smoking ban, taking on sugary drinks, and other less recognized public health measures like banning two types of heating oil that greatly increased the city’s soot pollution, while she praised de Blasio for picking up the cause of “human rights” issues like economic justice and police reform.
“I am like most old people I know,” she said. “I just want to get rid of Donald Trump and I don’t care how we do that.”