The idea of Congressman Bill de Blasio is now an infuriating notion for the broad number of people on the left and the right who would like to see the irksome former mayor disappear from public life altogether. Perhaps no one has been so plainly and irritatingly interested in a national perch as de Blasio — from his very first days as mayor, he was casting his eyes elsewhere, and eventually mounted a presidential bid no one cared about.
Now he’s in the open race for the newly drawn 10th District in Manhattan and Brooklyn, which ropes in some of the most exclusive and storied real estate in America: Tribeca, Chinatown, Soho, Brooklyn Heights, and de Blasio’s Park Slope home are all in the district. As a city councilman in the 2000s, de Blasio represented a large chunk of the Brooklyn portion of the district, and he was popular then in those neighborhoods, using his post to springboard to public advocate and then mayor. If anything, de Blasio has maintained a stubborn allegiance to his old turf, racing repeatedly in a city-chauffeured SUV from Gracie Mansion to the Park Slope Y to complete his non-intensive workouts.
Can de Blasio win the August 23 Democratic primary? Even with the number of white liberals who revile him, maybe. Unlike last year’s city election, there is no ranked-choice voting in House races — a narrow plurality will be enough. And there will be a bevy of candidates to split the vote, with less name recognition than him, such as Assemblymembers Yuh-Line Niou of Manhattan and Jo Anne Simon of Brooklyn, who will probably be strong fundraisers. Carlina Rivera, a Lower East Side city councilwoman, is likely to run. Daniel Goldman, the veteran federal prosecutor who led the first round of House impeachment hearings against Donald Trump, will probably enter too.
One of the top contenders, Representative Mondaire Jones, is jumping from Rockland and northern Westchester County to run for a seat he has no extant ties to, hoping his record as a young progressive in Congress is enough to win over well-wired voters who’d probably prefer he primary the more conservative Sean Patrick Maloney. Jones can accuse de Blasio of a brazen bid for relevance; de Blasio, in turn, can ask Jones when he last visited Prospect Park or dined at Bar Toto.
No House primary in New York City has been this wide open in a long time. Incumbent-free elections are exceedingly rare. And if seats do open up, viable front-runners emerge quickly, out-raising the field and swallowing up the lion’s share of endorsements. A decade ago, in the last redistricting cycle, Hakeem Jeffries and Grace Meng won open primaries by large margins. Jones, de Blasio, or someone else could theoretically do the same, but it doesn’t appear anyone is well positioned to easily zoom past their rivals.
De Blasio’s run for Congress is absurd not because of his eight-year record, which is stronger than it looks, but merely because the former mayor of the largest city in America should have better things to do. He held one of the most powerful and glamorous political jobs in America, overseeing hundreds of thousands of city employees and a municipal budget that neared $100 billion. For eight years, he commanded enormous and consequential city agencies, making executive decisions on education, housing, transportation, and a host of other matters. His predecessors — Michael Bloomberg, Rudy Giuliani, David Dinkins, or almost anyone — wouldn’t have dreamed of aspiring to be one of 435 lawmakers after running City Hall. The idea would have been laughable.
For the other candidates in the race desperate for a promotion or political survival, a campaign in the 10th District makes sense. Why not go to Congress, where the prestige is real and the salary nears $200,000? Democrats, following the likely loss of their majorities in the midterms, will be impotent in Washington come 2023, but that won’t stop a savvy House member from racking up Twitter followers, landing MSNBC spots, and opining on whatever strikes their fancy. There’s a long tradition of congressmen running for mayor in New York: Ed Koch and John Lindsay rose from the House, and Anthony Weiner might have if he hadn’t been embroiled in so many sexting scandals. Power in the seniority-driven House is mostly limited to voting however Nancy Pelosi wants you to vote and firing off stronglycworded press releases. For the young up-and-comers, it’s easy enough to bide time until something better comes along.
There is a certain hollowness to de Blasio’s quest, a casting about for relevancy he really shouldn’t need. De Blasio made many mistakes of both the style and substance variety, whether it was his petty feuds with the press or his failure to dramatically reform the NYPD as promised. He could not tame the homelessness crisis. His response to the pandemic, in the early days, was tragically lacking.
Yet de Blasio, unlike most mayors, significantly expanded the social safety net in a way that will long outlast him. The universal pre-K program he championed is now a national model. No current or future mayor — Eric Adams or anyone else — would dare undercut it. In time, the program will expand to cover younger children. Pundits can roll their eyes (“What else did he do?”), but standing up a massive pre-K expansion in a short amount of time was an impressive feat that made a difference in the lives of many thousands of New York families.
Beyond pre-K, there were other de Blasio initiatives that mattered. He signed into law the bill guaranteeing paid sick days to all workers in the city; for more than a decade, Bloomberg wouldn’t entertain the notion. In partnership with the City Council, he guaranteed lawyers for low-income tenants in housing court. He refused, despite pressure from his allies and donors in the real-estate industry, to allow the Rent Guidelines Board to significantly hike rents on rent-stabilized tenants.
This is far more than any other of his rivals could claim to have done. A more self-aware de Blasio would be spending his later years burnishing his legacy and advocating for a particular issue that mattered to him, such as universal pre-K. He could be the face for a national program that Joe Biden, in theory, wants to implement. He could speak out more on the challenges of leading a city. Instead, he’ll enter into another campaign, where he’s both most comfortable and most useless. This is his fate, and ours.