He should have been a contender. As backbenchers and prattling senators piled into the 2020 race for president, Bill de Blasio entered as the manager of the nation’s largest city, overseeing a police force the size of a small army, a school system that had more children in it than the entire population of seven different states, and the successful response to not one but two infectious-disease outbreaks.
He had created early-childhood-education programs that served more than 100,000 children under 5 each year, given paid family leave and higher wages to city workers, added or preserved 165,000 units of affordable housing, granted greater access to health care for the poor, imposed fair-scheduling requirements for fast-food workers, and kept the annual increases on rent-regulated apartments to a minimum.
De Blasio had won election twice, the first Democratic mayor to do so in 32 years, in the face of warnings that his election would herald a return to New York’s dark past: crime rising, followed by people leaving, followed by businesses leaving, followed by higher taxes to pay for their absence, followed by more people leaving.
None of that happened. He ended stop and frisk, and crime fell. He told rich people they could move away for all he cared, and more came. He raised wages, and businesses flooded into the city. The New York City budget under de Blasio has grown from $77 billion to more than $100 billion, not because he increased any taxes on the rich (he tried to, but Andrew Cuomo wouldn’t allow it) but because his tenure was defined by extraordinary economic growth — growth that has, arguably, lessened rather than widened the city’s yawning inequality. For all of us who have spent the past eight years grumbling about de Blasio, which, to be clear, is all of us, we have gotten to live in a city that is as safe, prosperous, and fair as any most of us have ever known.
“I would go to these parties and I would have to tell people, ‘Look, everything is okay!’ ” says Alicia Glen, a former Goldman Sachs executive who served five years as deputy mayor for housing and economic development. “The Chardonnay is still flowing! The lawns are getting mowed! We are trying to build a better and fairer city. Just because you don’t like the guy and he isn’t one of us, at the end of the day it is actually okay.”
Yet de Blasio remains remarkably unpopular. His presidential campaign lasted all of four months. In June, an NY1 poll showed that just 37 percent of voters approved of the job he is doing in New York. This past year saw a mayoral campaign in which nearly every contender said they would not even accept his endorsement. The eventual winner, Eric Adams, was supported by de Blasio even as he railed against the state of the city, describing a metropolis that had fallen into disorder and decay while the man in charge was asleep at the switch.
It is hard to remember now, but in 2013, when de Blasio was first elected, his campaign became a cause. The de Blasios were the picture of a new, diverse city, a family that came with its own signature dance move, the “smackdown,” which involved looping your arm around your head, licking your palm, and thwacking it to the floor. Two years after protesters camped out in Zuccotti Park and made “the 99 percent” a part of the national discourse, de Blasio took up their mantle with his message of “a tale of two cities,” a dig at the incumbent, Mike Bloomberg, who called New York City a “luxury product” and said he wanted every billionaire to live here. De Blasio was endorsed by The Nation and Russell Simmons and Jeffrey Sachs and won easily.
His victory heralded a new kind of politics, the first time a coalition of Black and brown working-class voters and college-educated progressives had come together to pick a mayor. He was the first out-and-out liberal to lead New York City since at least John Lindsay in the 1960s. Looking back on de Blasio’s two terms in office, it’s clear his mayoralty was always about more than one man, an experiment in progressive governance. But thanks to the extraordinary flaws of de Blasio the person, we may not see its like again for some time.
Some 20 months into the job, de Blasio had already set his sights elsewhere. He decided to make a play in the 2016 presidential race, gathering a group of left-wing lawmakers and celebrities like Susan Sarandon to launch a progressive answer to Newt Gingrich’s “Contract With America” and forcing the candidates to attend his forums and sign on to his agenda if they wanted his support. The problem was that no one really knew who de Blasio was or why they should seek his endorsement, and the mayor of New York City was left to traipse through the winter streets of Iowa alone.
“It really is the greatest job in the world,” says Howard Wolfson, a de Blasio friend during their days on Hillary Clinton’s Senate campaign in 2000 who later went to work for Bloomberg. “And it never really seemed like he was enjoying it. He seemed miserable and like he was always searching for something else to do.”
Current and former staffers told me that was not really the case, saying de Blasio would text and call at all hours of the night and on weekends with a constant barrage of questions and queries. “Bring me stuff and things,” he would tell them, demanding data and actionable plans. “We have to completely rethink this,” the emails often began.
“He wouldn’t leave me alone,” recalls one former staffer. “He never stopped thinking about this stuff. I’m not saying he was an early riser, but the moment he woke up, he would be like a bat out of hell. Before you’d get to work, everyone would have ten emails that would destroy your morning.”
For some politicians, this kind of pressure can create an esprit de corps among the staff. (Eight years after he left office, good luck getting a former Bloomberg staffer to even whisper a bad word about their old boss.) But the day-to-day grind of working under de Blasio mostly left staffers embittered.
“He was just so brutally mean to people,” recalls one agency head. “I can’t stand the man.”
“An arrogant ass,” says another adviser.
“Really, really hard to take,” says a third. “Constantly being lectured and patronized.”
If Bloomberg’s approach was to hire the best people and then trust that they would get the job done, de Blasio increasingly withdrew to a smaller and smaller circle of City Hall advisers. Consider the difference in response, for example, between the Ebola and Legionnaires’ disease outbreaks of his first term, which were handled competently by professional staff, and the early days of the COVID outbreak, when de Blasio sparred with his health advisers and took to recommending movies and restaurants as the pandemic was bearing down on New York City.
“He is a Little League coach; that is the thing you have to remember,” one former top aide recalls. “That’s how he treats the press, and that’s how he treats his staff. He has to coach everyone around him and tell them how to do their job.”
De Blasio is a savvier strategist than he is often given credit for, someone capable of seeing the whole field and playing out a large universe of possibilities. But he was frequently racked with an inability to make a decision — “tortured with his own internal politics,” in the words of one former aide. And at age 60, he is still uncertain about exactly what kind of person he wants to be.
At the height of the George Floyd protests last summer, when staffers urged him to respond forcefully to police nearly mowing down protesters with a car, de Blasio resisted, telling his team, “You need to acknowledge that your worldview is a privileged one.” “This was always the problem,” recalls one former top deputy. “He tried to paint himself as a working-class Brooklyn guy, and it was a complete fraud.” At the same time, de Blasio sees himself as someone fully committed to the cause of social justice. “He tries to make people around him feel like they are beneath him, that they aren’t woke to what he is woke to because of his family,” adds another.
But the center of gravity of what it means to be a progressive has changed since de Blasio licked his palm and did the smackdown back in 2013. It is now less Park Slope and more Bushwick, more Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and less, well, Bill de Blasio. His defenders like to say that the scorn he engenders comes from white elites offended at his multiracial family. But this ignores the fact that de Blasio’s numbers with Black and brown voters are below those of nearly every other prominent elected official in the state — and around a dozen points below those of scandal-scarred Cuomo.
It also underscores how poorly he has fared with the progressives who powered his rise. Over and over, as the city’s activist class made demands on the de Blasio administration — for closing Rikers Island, moving homeless men out of an Upper West Side hotel used as a shelter, ending selective admissions in New York City schools, and, more recently, allowing noncitizen voting — de Blasio came around late. Every time a new issue popped up, aides say, de Blasio would dig in, saying he refused to buckle to pressure, then demanding to meet with the group’s leaders (even though the leaders often didn’t exist) before eventually caving. In November, dozens of taxi drivers went on a hunger strike in front of City Hall to get leaders to help them retire their debts from the city-regulated medallions they had bought. It ended only when Chuck Schumer, hardly a dyed-in-the-wool socialist, intervened. “What kind of fucking progressive lets taxi drivers sit out there and starve?” asks a former staffer.
“I am not going to pray on the altar of the secular elites and the New York Times,” de Blasio would say. That phrase, secular elites, is one de Blasio uses often. “He thinks Orthodox Jews are the real New Yorkers,” says one former aide. Many described de Blasio as stuck in the 1990s, constantly searching for ways to triangulate issues in a city made up of disparate ethnic enclaves. “There are a lot of people who went to work for him who thought they were going to work for Bernie Sanders,” says one staffer. “And they found out they were working for Bill Clinton.”
Central to de Blasio’s political world is a belief that the white working class can be swung back to the Democratic column with an agenda that focuses on their economic needs. Never mind that those remaining areas of New York City that are filled with cops and firefighters have a special loathing for de Blasio. He remained scarred by his experience as a staffer in the Dinkins administration, when a throng of drunken cops swarmed the streets of lower Manhattan, yelling racial slurs at the sitting mayor and threatening to unleash chaos on the city. But he was also hyperaware of the need to keep the crime rate from spiraling out of control. “He had this obsession with being a progressive but that law-enforcement types would still like him,” recalls one staffer. “He thought always that there was a third way between being a progressive and being a cop Democrat, and he should have just picked one or the other.”
Some of his aides have suggested to me that the mayor actually gets the median New York voter in a way most of his critics do not, and it’s why he can be so slow to move. New Yorkers want incremental progress, not a revolution. As calls to “defund the police” swept the country, de Blasio quietly lobbied the City Council not to cut the police budget. De Blasio’s aides believe to this day that the police’s antipathy was fomented by Cuomo. The former governor’s aides deny this, but Cassie Moreno, an ex–deputy press secretary, says she was surprised to find that part of her job consisted of transcribing de Blasio’s interviews and press conferences and forwarding the transcripts up the chain of command. “I had never heard of a communications job where your role was to monitor everything some other elected official said,” she says.
When the 2021 race got under way, de Blasio backed, in Adams, the pro-police, pro-charter-school, pro-real-estate candidate in the field. De Blasio aides cringed as Adams then ran against him, painting the city as poorly managed and descending into chaos while the man who presided over that city nodded along in agreement.
De Blasio is surely doing that in part because he is likely going to run for governor, and, ever the strategist, he wants Adams’s voters. But it is remarkable that he has to cater to Adams at all. Eight years in office, with near-universal name recognition, the mayor trails virtually everyone in the race for governor, even Jumaane Williams, who holds de Blasio’s old post as public advocate.
So perhaps that is how the dream of a great liberal city ends: a former Republican in City Hall who defeated a slew of more progressive opponents and was supported by the guy who had once urged the Democratic Party to move left.
Eight years ago, New Yorkers said they wanted a fairer, more equitable, more just city. Many still do. And in a way, that is the story of the de Blasio years. We got what we wanted. The voters of New York City liked what Bill de Blasio did. In the end, they just didn’t like him.