Kriston Capps is a staff writer for CityLab covering housing, architecture, and politics. He previously worked as a senior editor for Architect magazine.
The New York mayor succeeded in uniting the left and right in mocking him. But here’s the thing: De Blasio's record as a progressive leader is actually strong.
New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio took his presidential campaign off life support on September 20, ending its prolonged and utterly uneventful illness. “It’s clearly not my time,” the mayor told the hosts of Morning Joe on Friday. “I’ve contributed all I can to this primary election.”
But it wasn’t over for de Blasio yet. The mayor’s biggest impact on the 2020 election arrived the moment his campaign ended: the roast. New Yorkers dunked on him. The Federal Election Commission appeared to dunk on him. The NPR pledge drive definitely dunked on him. Fellow New Yorker and would-be opponent President Donald Trump—viciously, gleefully—dunked on him.
The mayor’s exit from the Democratic Party primary prompted undisguised delight among New Yorkers. Both tabloids eulogized his presidential bid with snark; the Post even printed an obituary. Everyone and their mother took to social media to skewer his fumbling campaign. Bodega Boys hosts Desus and Mero didn’t have to slam de Blasio because they already produced the segment declaring his campaign over in June.
“How is New York City one of the most swaggered out cities in the country and we have the most swaggerless mayor?” Desus asks in that segment. More in sadness than in anger, Mero replies, “Fam.”
Even more gruesome were the numbers. Only 6,700 people donated to de Blasio’s campaign, which is 5 percent of the threshold to join the debate in September (and 0.08 percent of the population of New York City). That’s fewer than the number of people who took selfies with Senator Elizabeth Warren in Washington Square Park last week (probably). That’s fewer than the number of people standing in line for Dominique Ansel Bakery right now.
Famously, back in May, de Blasio’s net favorability rating hit the upside-down: More voters disliked him than liked him, giving him a rating of -1. That is not only a number below zero, it’s a rating well below those of such also-flopped candidates as Tim Ryan, Seth Moulton, and Steve Bullock. This abysmal performance was typical.
So what is it about de Blasio that New Yorkers love to hate? Does it really come down to the notion that he’s an unredeemable herb?
For sure, de Blasio did drop a groundhog to its death. He is a Red Sox fan. He also professed his love of ska in public. People make fun of the way he eats pizza. Then there’s the controversy about his gym preference and the hired SUV he takes to get there, the details of which are more exhausting than a vigorous run.
Like other candidates, de Blasio had no edge to win the nomination. But here’s the thing: Unlike most of the whats-his-faces who have already bowed out of the race, de Blasio actually has an impressive record of accomplishments in his city.
In Reclaiming Gotham, Juan González recounts the mayor’s accomplishments as an effective progressive leader. They read like agenda items on a front-runner’s platform: a $15 minimum wage for city workers, mandatory paid sick leave, and universal pre-K and after-school care. De Blasio’s Pre-K for All program led to a more than 250 percent increase in children enrolled from 2013 to 2015, with most of that growth centered in low-income and majority-immigrant neighborhoods, according to the Urban Institute. While it’s still early to register the long-term health effects, in a short time, universal pre-K has led to improved hearing treatments (1 percent more likely), vision diagnoses (2–3 percent), and infection disease screenings and immunizations (4–6 percent)—to say nothing of the cost savings and new opportunities for parents.
Those are the kinds of pocket-book issues that are clearly registering with Democratic voters, as Warren’s surge in the polls shows. And de Blasio’s record as mayor demonstrates experience implementing progressive fixes for a broad and diverse population.
As the mayor of New York City, he is the elected executive of nearly 9 million people, a leader with more constituents than 38 states and several socialist Scandinavian nations. The tension between New York City and state governments is deeply threaded into the history of U.S. presidential politics, and while de Blasio didn’t make a noteworthy case in light of that history, to say that his record does not qualify him for the job is to diminish his office, which is at least the equal of almost any governor or senator and arguably more important as an incubator for progressive policies.
He hasn’t solved the city’s housing crisis or fixed the subway. But if those are the measures by which New Yorkers judge their mayor, then Mayor Michael Bloomberg should be the most reviled man across all five boroughs. It’s up to voters to decide how much credit (or blame) they want to assign the mayor for these conditions, and arguably, under de Blasio, the city has seen somewhat slower rent hikes and expanded renter protections. But it’s clear by the vast gulf in reputation between de Blasio and Bloomberg that New Yorkers abide by some other metric.
Talk about out of touch—Bloomberg drank beer over ice!
Neither de Blasio’s achievements nor his failures totally explains his sub-zero reception with voters. De Blasio’s campaign failed to raise any single accomplishment or policy issue as a standard the way that (say) Washington Governor Jay Inslee did with climate justice. Nor did de Blasio elevate his stature among his constituents in advance of his future career interests. Consider the enormous crowd that showed up to cheer for Warren in the mayor’s backyard. De Blasio succeeded in uniting the dirtbag left and pro-Trump right in mocking him. Only in New York!
Police violence was the only issue that de Blasio effectively raised with his campaign—and it wasn’t by leading. In August, the New York City Police Department fired Daniel Pantaleo, the officer who held Eric Garner in a fatal chokehold as he cried, “I can’t breathe.” Critics have accused the mayor of dragging his feet for years. His indecision led to his only stand-out moment in the Democratic presidential debates, in July, when the other candidates dog-piled on him for not dismissing the officer. Unfortunately, this episode has not made police reform a bigger issue for the party.
As NY1‘s Grace Rauh notes, after de Blasio announced his departure on Morning Joe and spoke with local reporters, the mayor took the subway to the climate march (and not a hired SUV). Maybe it speaks to a desire to try to win back the city’s support. The best way to do that might be to hit the road again: From the dilapidated subway system to the antiquated property tax code, the city’s problems need fixes at the state level. With his quixotic adventures in South Carolina and Iowa behind him, maybe de Blasio can spend his time more productively in Albany.
De Blasio’s critics are reacting to his latest misfortune as if he has just resigned from office. Instead, he’ll be showing up to work tomorrow and every day for the next two-and-a-half years. His Oval Office aspirations thwarted, his dreams of publishing his own why-I’m-leaving-New-York essay dashed, de Blasio is back at his desk job. “You’ll be seeing a lot more over the next two years, three months and 11 days,” he told reporters outside Gracie Mansion. Hear me out: That might not be such a bad thing.