just asking questions

Bill de Blasio on Post-Mayoral Life and His Biggest Regrets (Groundhog Included)

Photo: Sean Rayford/Getty Images

This article was featured in One Great Story, New York’s reading recommendation newsletter. Sign up here to get it nightly.

When I met up with Bill de Blasio recently at a coffee shop in Park Slope, the ex-mayor had just returned from two weeks in Italy but was energetic despite the jet lag. He cracked jokes, chatted up supporters on the sidewalk and café staff (who knew him well; the place is around the corner from his house), and seemed far more at ease than he often did while in office. Before we spoke, de Blasio told me he wouldn’t comment directly on the policies of his successor, Eric Adams. But during our wide-ranging conversation, he was candid about his own time in office, reflecting on his blunders and successes, his sometimes fraught relationship with the police, and the perils of Gracie Mansion, among other things. He also had some choice words about the groundhog incident.

It’s been a year and a half since you left Gracie Mansion. Does it feel like a blur that you were ever mayor in the first place? 
It’s a great question. It simultaneously feels like a story about another place and time and extremely present. The lack of stress is breathtaking and appealing. And that feeling of, “Well, it’s nice to not have that responsibility at this moment.” But also, I’ve obviously been involved in city issues for so long, you never up and check out from them fully. I feel connected, and I talk to people all the time, and members of my team all the time. And I’m a citizen — I feel the life of the city very deeply. So it’s a weird mix. Obviously, like anyone who’s been in government, I watch with empathy while my successor and his team have to deal with really extraordinary challenges. And I feel for them. But I will tell you that term limits are a glorious thing, because I don’t think I could have gotten through leading during COVID if I had to worry about reelection. I think there was something wonderful about being able to throw myself at the finish line, in a good way.

During the last few months of your tenure, you loosened up to a very noticeable degree. Has that carried over to your civilian life? 
Yeah. I think, at first, there was a pretty amazing disorientation when you go from being right in the middle of everything and with a massive team and a totally structured life to all of that going away. I think it takes quite a while to adjust, and I didn’t really see that coming. But as I have adjusted, I feel a tremendous sense of freedom and a lot of joy, a lot of enjoyment in life and in kind of getting back to my roots. Even the Congressional race.

The Congressional race obviously didn’t work, but it was really wonderful to be back in the neighborhood and focused locally and connecting with people.

And I love it here. The mayoralty is, obviously, a bubble, and it has beautiful elements, but it can be very alienating and very limiting. I think if I had understood in the beginning what I understand now, I could have approached it a lot better. But what I really appreciate — and I started to feel it in 2021 especially — was keying into the people more than the problems or more than the institutions, keying into the culture of the city more, just the things that I’ve always loved, and getting back to that. Getting back to those roots. And it was a very joyous time despite the challenges. Because we had an incredibly unified team, which I didn’t always have. We had cracked the code on some things at least. I know I struggled with some things earlier that I figured out later. That felt great. We had a very aggressive attitude, which was wonderful, including on things like vaccine mandates.

What do you do all day now?
I was teaching a course at NYU during the semester that just ended, and they always seemed to have another panel discussion or guest lecture they wanted me to do. Plus office hours with students. It’s my alma mater, so I feel a really strong connection. I was also down at American University — they have an Institute of Politics and Policy, and I did a number of appearances there throughout the spring. And then I was doing some consulting, mostly with Harvard’s Graduate School of Education, which is working on a project to promote early childhood education around the country, one of my true loves in terms of policy. And I’ve been continuing to speak on things I care about. I’ve been working a lot on artificial-intelligence issues lately, even though I’m the farthest thing from a technologist — more the abject lack of democracy and oversight.

Do you ever feel like — for instance, with the wildfire-smoke situation — that you want to jump back in and be in charge again?
No, I feel I want to be in public service again one day, in some form. But no, I resist that feeling, because one of the things that is very, very obvious when you do the work is that what you know inside is entirely different than what you know outside.

What do you mean by that?
The information loop inside is unbelievable. I never blame anyone outside for being critical or basing their viewpoint on what they know, but when you are inside, you have such a wealth of information. One of the challenges in the executive branch is you have so many cross-pressures, but also information that doesn’t conveniently fit together into easy decisions or easy statements or easy actions. And so when I look at any particular situation, the first thing I feel is empathy for leaders — for Biden, for Adams, for everyone, because it’s so much harder and more complex than people realize.

You’ve been in elected office almost all of your adult life. After that unsuccessful run for Congress last year, are you done with campaigns?
I said afterwards that I got the memo that people are tired of me, and it took me a while to register it, but now I got it. So elective office is not the goal. The goal is public service of some other kind.

You don’t want to run for office again, you think? Ever?
I don’t see it. But there are a lot of ways to serve.

I was reading a Politico article that came out around the end of your mayoralty, and the theme was lessons you’d learned over your eight years. There was a lot about how you didn’t communicate very well, that you didn’t convey that you felt connected to the city and interested in the job. Because you were seen often as a sort of remote figure, except right at the end.
I wasn’t at the beginning too, which is how I got there. I mean, that’s the irony. That’s the part that pisses me off the most.

Did you just refuse to hear all the criticism that you were out of touch?
I think it was a combination of factors. At times, I was stubborn. I thought I was right about something or I thought I was being misunderstood, and rather than saying, “Okay, well let’s meet people halfway,” I kind of dug in. That was a mistake. I think sometimes you feel you’re being treated unfairly and you’re right, and sometimes … By the end of the first term, we had historically low crime and a historically high number of jobs, and still there seemed to be a daily incessant drumbeat of critique. I’m like, “Hold on now. What are the ground rules here?” Because that just didn’t make sense to me. But I now can say from a position of more openness — I would still say to you with a whole heart that I don’t think some of the critique was fair, but maybe there should have been less worrying about that, and more just meeting people where they were and trying to answer with love, not frustration, and with openness.

Also, I think sometimes I have very strong views. And I can preach, and preaching can be good, but preaching can be preachy. If you want to fight inequality, particularly income inequality — like, amen. Preach. That’s a good thing. But if it seemed to people like it’s condescending or being professorial or something, that was not the intention. And certainly that was not how people received it originally back in 2012 and 2013. So therefore it’s kind of hard for me to blame someone else. People received my truth and validated it in 2013, and then a lot of people felt less connected to it. That has to be on me, at least in large part.

I realize now, self-critically — and I wrote this last year sort of as a message of solidarity with Biden — that you can’t mistake policy for politics. You can’t mistake policy for emotion. I’m very proud of our policies, but I wish I had balanced things better, and if I had balanced things better, it actually would’ve allowed me to do more. And there’s an element of naïveté there. There’s an element of stubbornness. There’s an element of, “Hey, guess what? It’s not always a fair world.” But also I think of the isolation that can happen. I really didn’t like Gracie Mansion at all. I wish I had never gone.

You could have stayed at your house here.
It would’ve been very hard. The logistics were overwhelming. First of all, my poor neighbors would’ve hated me every time there was a protest. The NYPD did not like it one bit on a security level. But I wish I had stayed, because my neighborhood was sort of the wellspring. People have said to me, including when I was in Italy, they’re like, “Where did you get the idea on early childhood education?” And I’m like, “Because we couldn’t find a place for our kids to go to pre-K,” and our neighbors were all dealing with the same problem.

Park Slope is obviously not representative of every neighborhood in New York City. It was more about being connected to public schools, being connected to the little league, going to the supermarket, going to the park. Those were all grounding realities for me, but they also opened up a lot of dialogue in addition to everything I did publicly.

It’s like when a celebrity gets too big and they can’t possibly understand what’s happening with normal people anymore.
Right. And then even the Y, regardless of the jokes about it — the Y was another place where I just talked to people. I understood, going back to my time with Dinkins as a staffer and even my very different time with Hillary as a staffer, how isolating this stuff can be. But I didn’t come up with the right tools to compensate, and now I could picture what that would have been much better. And I think if I could have stayed more connected to people, it would’ve helped immensely.

Now, all this stuff takes time and energy. Part of the problem is the time thing is stupid — it’s just stupid. It’s overwhelming. Certain commentators would love to comment on what they perceived to be my work ethic. And I would try to say gently, “You wake up at 6:00 or 6:30 in the morning and you look at your first email and you don’t stop until 11:00 or 12:00 at night, and that’s essentially every day, and it doesn’t end.” And if you go on vacation, it’s not really that different.

And I think what I struggled with was that the time and energy dynamics feel so challenging, even before you get into reactivity and crisis, that rather than realizing I had to set a different predicate of how much we could actually do, or, how many battles we should take on, I tried to do a lot of things. And I think I would have been better served by taking it down a few notches and spending more time with people and in neighborhoods. I think it would’ve just been a better outcome all around.

On the topic of pre-K, which was your defining initiative — how do you feel about the way it’s been implemented?
We have the strongest, toughest press corp in America, and 20 different potential oversight entities between federal, state, city, elected officials, and appointed officials. And for years we developed pre-K and 3-K, and literally no one ever had a meaningful complaint or problem.

I’m sure a few programs could have been better. A few didn’t ultimately succeed. But for something of that scale, the fact that all the people who would have loved to find a problem couldn’t find one — that’s all the affirmation you need in life. But most especially, just talking to parents across the demographic spectrum, it was really striking to me the intensity of feeling from almost opposite people in different parts of the city, saying the exact same thing. That made it very clear to me why things were working.

I was reading that there have been funding problems, which surprised me because I thought the program was universally beloved.
It is beloved. It continues to be beloved. It will be beloved.

How are you feeling about the city overall right now? I know many metrics, like the murder rate, are improving, but nonetheless, it’s been a turbulent period after 2020. As it has been for a lot of cities.
I think there’s a tale of two cities, to coin a phrase. The tale of two cities in this case is perception and reality. Of course we have real problems, and some of them obviously got worse during COVID. We still have extreme inequality that has to be addressed. COVID set back some of the better efforts to address inequality, but it did not set them back permanently, and thank God. The stimulus and all the other Biden actions are fantastic counterweights, obviously, in terms of particularly getting people out of poverty. So we took a big hit, but we also got a big helping hand. On the central question of can we create a more equal city, I’m still absolutely confident it is possible, and obviously we proved how much can be done. Look, I’m going to just express raw faith and optimism. I really feel it. Punch whatever holes you want in it. This is what I feel.

So noting that there’s still a massive inequality challenge, when I look at everything else, I am not overawed by the problems. I talked to my police leadership in ‘21 about when they thought things would normalize. And they pretty much said with assurance that in 2022 and 2023, you could expect these numbers to come back down. And they are coming back down.

The COVID reality was so aberrant, both in the way it spurred gun violence and emotion and fear, but also the ridiculous absence of the court system, which was one of the greatest frustrations I felt, and the NYPD felt. We kept saying it, and it felt like we were in some weird cave somewhere trying to tell the world that we were all being screwed by the state of New York. And that really hurt for a long time.

Can you elaborate?
The court system was shut down much more and much longer than most other institutions in society, and I made a very public issue of it. And I was not happy with the lack of interest from stakeholders in this topic, which was the fact that there was so little accountability and consequence in our criminal justice system without our courts functioning.

The NYPD were beside themselves. I agreed with them entirely, and we made it very public. And I felt like this is one where I’m not putting it on me now. This is a structural problem, where the people duly elected and duly appointed to protect the city were saying, “The State of New York is putting us in danger,” and we could not get people interested in that. And that pissed me off royally.

And this was a Cuomo problem. 
He could have fixed it in a minute by just ordering them back, and they didn’t. But that said, with the normalization, I think we’re going to see a steady decline in violence because the tools that were developed from Bratton in ‘94 to today actually work. I think you’ll see a steady decline in violence. I think the job dynamics are self evidenced. We’re around 4.3 million jobs right now. That’s more than when I came into office, and I took it up to 4.7 million. It’s going to get there again. We need more international travel in terms of tourism and in terms of some of the business travel, and that’s obviously steadily increasing. And that’s kind of one of the missing links in our job picture.

So I know there’s a huge number of people struggling. There’s long COVID, there’s all sorts of issues. But I think the central reality … Hold on.

[The interview was briefly interrupted by an ambulance blaring down the street.]

If we could teach New Yorkers to get out of the way of ambulances, it would really be a wonderful day.

Some etiquette lessons for New Yorkers would be nice generally. It should be a crime to play cell phone videos out loud on the subway.
I’m with you on that one. I think we need a loud cell-phone video police force specifically.

That was your biggest failure.
I know. Dammit.

There’s a trend of people leaving cities like New York, San Francisco, D.C., because the housing prices have become too crazy. There’s more talent dispersing to places like Austin and Miami.
Yes, and rapidly replaced by other talent. The humorous thing is my dear friends on the right were saying, “Oh, the millionaires are leaving,” and so I asked OMB to do analysis, and they came back and said, “It’s true. There are some millionaires leaving. Oh, by the way, we produced another 10,000.” It’s unbelievable. We produced like 10,000 more millionaires between 2021 and 2022. And that’s because of the stock market and everything else.

But the opportunity dynamics here are so powerful that there’s always a replacement dynamic. Which is not to belittle honest conversations about taxation levels and regional realities. I also have predicted very publicly that the Florida thing is about to boomerang, because DeSantis has created such a hostile environment that a lot of people going there are not going to want to stay there.

So look, I think New York’s future is very strong, very bright. We are a beautiful people and we are a cynical people, and we are an emotional and opinionated people. I sometimes wish I could say to my beloved fellow residents, “Take it down a notch. Take a little more time to see the good,” but on the other hand, the good comes from that hyper energy.

You were talking about the police. I want to go back to that topic a little bit, which was obviously one of the more turbulent aspects of your tenure. You butted heads with them in 2014 after the murders of two officers, and—
Well, be careful with “them,” respectfully. There are three categories. There’s the police leadership, who are very important in this equation. There’s the rank and file, 35,000 individuals — extremely diverse, both in terms of demographics and viewpoint. And then there are five police unions, all of which are kind of different. So I want to show respect when people say “they,” and I also want to say from my heart that there is not a single “they.”

But your tone about the police Establishment — let’s put it that way — changed after the 2014 crisis. Fast-forward several years, and in 2020, cops are driving cars into protesters and you’re defending them reflexively, it felt like to me.
And I appreciate all the ideas in there, and you have a right to them. I just disagree. And I know it became a media norm to say somehow I changed after 2014. I just disagree. I think I failed to communicate. I’ll always say that’s on me, but on a substantive level, this is where certain themes take over uncritically. And I honestly would ask people to dig a little deeper.

If you look at what we said we were going to do, I came in to reform the NYPD. I believe that from 2014 through 2021, we made a constant series of reforms. But I also said, “I have to prove to the world that a progressive set of reforms could come with safety,” and I by and large think we did that. The dynamics around the death of Eric Garner were incredibly complicated, including the federal dynamics, which we never honestly figured out how to navigate. And obviously COVID and then the protests coming out of the murder of George Floyd were incredibly complicated. That was not three-dimensional chess. That was many, many more dimensions, and we all were overwhelmed.

It felt a bit like you were closing ranks.
I should have — and I said this in the video I did after the Department of Investigation report, and I thought the DOI report was fantastic — I should have communicated in an entirely different manner. But I also feel like I was trying to say from the heart that there was a kind of violence going on that was real. It was not made up. It was happening all over the country. I was talking to fellow mayors, everyone was seeing it. It was something we had not seen before. I’m not talking about the looting. We’ve seen looting, not a lot in recent decades, but we’ve seen it before. There was some other organized effort. It was small, but very, very problematic. And that created a world of problems for us, here and around the country. It happened. We didn’t assume it.

We all went into the protests assuming the classic reality of recent protests in New York, where there are protest organizers and ground rules. And the NYPD, despite its imperfections, still generally has known how to give space for protests, historically. We ended up dealing with something extraordinarily different, and then we ended up having a reality where there were dangers to everyone, including to officers. I vividly remember on the second or third night, talking to my head of community affairs, Marco Carrión, from the Bronx, who lived his life in the city, was streetwise, and respected the cops — came from the community. And he was in Fort Greene Park and was describing to me what was going on.

He said, “There’s a bunch of people surrounding a police van and they’re smashing the windows with skateboards and stuff.” And he said, “I’m really worried about this. This looks really dangerous for everyone.” A lot of people in the media, a lot of people in the city saw the moment of the murder of George Floyd as a seminal moment for social change and legal change in America, and I agree. But the problem when you’re running a city is there’s more than one thing happening at once. And we were seeing this real threat to officers — tangible, documented. We were also seeing officers who were doing the wrong thing to protesters, not by any means most, but a small number.

Yes, a lot of their conduct caught on tape as well. It was unambiguous.
Unambiguous. But the problem is I don’t think the whole story was being told. I would not have reacted the way I did if I had not sensed that there was a real danger on all sides. I said this very publicly, but if anyone had died, it was a whole different reality. And literally, we had to take a series of steps to make sure no one died. Now, I would argue to you, since unfortunately people did die in other cities, that notwithstanding my many failings, the central success was a very intentional anti-death policy that worked, and kept the place from really going up in flames one way or another.

I don’t feel that there was an honest enough discussion about that scenario. If you look at that video, that very bad moment, I think we have to be honest and open that everyone could have done better. Because the typical protester was peaceful, wanted social change, and I agreed with them. But there was an element among the protesters that wanted confrontation with the police and worked very hard to have confrontation, including physical confrontation. There was an element among the police that were undisciplined and inappropriate.

The vast majority of people on both sides, if you call them sides, actually did the right thing. And in the end, restraint won the day. And I don’t blame anyone who wants to critique any of the specific moments, but I really feel there was a lack of depth in discussing just how complicated the situation was. And I think it would be better if we were honest about it, because it might happen again and it’d be better if we learned from it.

How do you think about your 2020 run for president now, looking back at that?
I want to let you know it didn’t work.

I thought you were president.
Yeah, I know. Where’s the Secret Service? I’m surprised they’ve left me out here with you.

It was a mistake. I think my values were the right values, and I think I had something to offer, but it was not right on a variety of levels. And I think I got into a place of just extreme stubbornness and tunnel vision. I learned an immense amount, and I learned some things that proved to be very valuable and necessary, even in the next immediate chapter, which was COVID. It was not without value, but it didn’t make sense.

I was going back to a Times Magazine profile of you in the midst of all that, where the writer observed that according to aides, the farther away you got from New York, the more relaxed you seemed. Did that ring true to you? That you just were sick of it being here after a while?
I don’t think it’s as simple as that, because every day here in those times offered the possibility of something wonderful too. I think it’s true to say it was striking how in pretty much every place else, they saw things here that it seemed weren’t as clearly seen here.

Now, that’s a human phenomenon. But I did appreciate, when I talked about Pre-K for All, or I talked about neighborhood policing or I talked about doing more on mental health, in a lot of places they were like, “Oh my God, that’s unbelievable. We wish we had that here.” And so there was certainly some sense of, “Okay, I feel like I’m being seen,” that I didn’t always feel in my own homeland.

But I do think it gets back to the earlier point that I unfortunately set a trap for myself of not figuring out how not to avoid getting caught up in some of the negativity. And I think now I understand there was a very different way to do things where I might not have felt the negativity the same way. And that’s on me.

On a lighter but more tragic note, do you have any regrets about dropping the groundhog in 2014?
Yeah. 100 percent. I’m like, “Don’t make me hold a fucking groundhog.” I mean, what the hell? Let me tell you exactly what happened.

I go there and it’s seven in the morning, which means my motor skills are not at their best. I put on these gloves, and they’re like, “Here’s a groundhog,” I’m like, “What the fuck?” I’m like, “Don’t you have a little more coaching to go with this or whatever?” It was idiocy. Why would you want an elected official to hold a groundhog? I don’t know anything about holding groundhogs. So the whole thing is just insane. There’s an original sin here. Don’t hand someone a groundhog, right?

That sounds like the name of a children’s book. 
Only trained groundhog holders. And do you squeeze it really tight? I mean, what do you do? So I’m like, talk about a lack of advance work.

Lastly, you don’t want to comment directly on Eric Adams, but do you have any reaction to the Onion article from during the 2021 campaign, titled “De Blasio: ‘Well, Well, Well, Not So Easy to Find a Mayor That Doesn’t Suck Shit, Huh?’”
Oh yeah. Famous headline. Many people have referred to it. I think it’s very funny that in the last year and a half of all the headlines that might possibly be of interest, this is the one that people have commented on most. It comes from the Onion. I’m like, “You do realize that’s satire, right?” If you’re getting your news from the Onion, you need to question yourself a little bit, even though I love the Onion.

No, look, I think the bottom line is, being mayor of New York City is one of the toughest jobs in politics and government. It’s one of the best jobs in politics and government. It’s beyond human comprehension, including for all of us who have done it, and I think everyone learns quickly. I don’t know if you ever saw the television show Roots way back or read about it or anything.

I’m certainly familiar with it, but I’ve never actually seen it.
You should at some point. Although its production values are a little dated. But it’s a beautiful story and it’s very powerful. But the reason I say it is there’s a famous, famous moment where the protagonist, Kunta Kinte, is born and his father, in Africa, holds him up to the stars and says, “Behold, the only thing greater than yourself,” which is a very beautiful line.

So I think whatever your ego, whatever your abilities, you become mayor of New York City, there’s a variation of this, “Behold, the only thing greater than yourself.” That job is bigger than anyone and no one has ever figured out how to do it perfectly, with the possible exception of Fiorello La Guardia. And it is humbling as all hell. It is. And I feel very blessed to have had it, and I feel very humbled, and I feel I wish I knew then what I know now.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Bill de Blasio on His Biggest Regrets (Groundhog Included)