Sarah Holder is a staff writer at CityLab covering local policy, housing, labor, and technology.
With Bill de Blasio’s 2020 bid, there are multiple sitting mayors in the crowded Democratic primary. How does NYC’s candidate compare to Pete Buttigieg?
New York City mayor Bill de Blasio announced a Democratic bid for the presidency on Thursday.
He’s not the only one who thinks he can make the leap from City Hall to the White House. In a broad field of candidates who have been mayor at one point in their lives—Cory Booker ran Newark, Bernie Sanders ran Burlington, Julian Castro ran San Antonio, John Hickenlooper ran Denver—de Blasio joins another major presidential player who is currently leading at the local level, and has never held a higher office: South Bend mayor Pete Buttigieg. (Miramar, Florida mayor Wayne Messam is also running, but has not qualified for the debate stage.)
So how do their mayoral records prepare them to lead the country?
These two candidates are not necessarily the most popular of the 20-plus Democratic potentials. But we’re looking at de Blasio and Buttigieg specifically because a sitting mayor has never become president, meaning no one has ever won on the merits of their city politics alone.
If one has a chance, Edward Isaac-Dovere reported in The Atlantic, de Blasio thinks it “should be him,” —after all, he’s the one running a city of millions, and who has the progressive record to back it up. But remember: It’s Buttigieg who, so far, has had the surprise surge.
Here are the fast facts.
De Blasio: New York City has a population of 8.6 million, as of 2017; and a 2019 operating budget of more than $90 billion. That comes out to about $10,700 per capita.
Buttigieg: South Bend, Indiana has a population just over 100,000, as of 2017; and a 2019 operating budget of $386 million. That comes out to about $3,800 per capita.
De Blasio: After early-career stints in Maryland and Nicaragua, de Blasio moved back to New York, where he was born. There, he served as the regional director of the Department of Housing and Urban Development under Bill Clinton in 1997, and went on to run Hillary Clinton’s Senate campaign in 2001. Then, he proceeded to climb the ladder of New York City politics rung by rung, starting with a spot on the city council from 2001 to 2009. The next year, he became the third Public Advocate for the city until 2014. In that office, de Blasio was a vocal critic of then-mayor Michael Bloomberg, lambasting him for his record on education and charter schools; and also started a blog tracking the city’s worst landlords. In 2014, de Blasio became mayor after a landslide victory, and won a second term in 2017.
Buttigieg: Buttigieg is younger—a millennial mayor!—so his resumé is more condensed. But he’s rattled it off enough times on the campaign trail for reporters to memorize: He got a degree at Harvard, then jumped across the pond to be a Rhodes Scholar, then jumped back to work as a consultant at McKinsey. In 2010, he launched a failed bid for Indiana State Treasurer, and by 2011, Buttigieg was back in South Bend, running successfully for mayor without a lick of local governance experience. He left mid-term to serve in Afghanistan in 2014, only to come back in 2015 to win a second tour in office. Buttigieg’s biggest national splash came when he ran for the chair of the Democratic National Convention in 2017. He dropped out before the votes were tallied, but had already made a national impression as a rising star. He also wrote a best-selling book.
De Blasio: He can credibly say that in his tenure, New York City has proposed or instituted several landmark progressive initiatives. In 2014, de Blasio created universal Pre-K, expanding access to free, full-day school for all 4-year-olds in the city; and in 2017, he introduced universal school lunches, guaranteeing all public school attendees in the city two free meals a day if they need it.
This year, he put forth a proposal that would make NYC the first city in the country to mandate paid sick leave from private employers; expanded free health coverage to all who need it, including undocumented immigrants. And NYC passed a landmark climate bill that aims to cut the city’s carbon footprint in part by addressing the energy performance of buildings.
Under de Blasio’s city council, New York City has also passed the first and only minimum wage for ride-hail drivers; and one of the few city-wide freelance worker protection laws. And despite de Blasio’s early protests, New York City will become the first city to implement congestion pricing after a March vote.
Buttigieg: In broad strokes, Buttigieg’s best-known achievement has been turning around the down-on-its-luck city of South Bend. He invested $25 million in redesigning the city’s streets to be “smarter”: adding roundabouts, changing one-ways into two-ways, and building pedestrian-friendly sidewalks to make the downtown more attractive. To beautify the city, fight crime, and find more room for affordable development, Buttigieg vowed to clear 1,000 vacant homes in the city in his first 1,000 days in office. He delivered, and then some, demolishing 60 percent of the 1,122 properties slated for revitalization, and rehabbing the others. Based on these efforts, he’s credited with attracting an estimated $90 million in downtown investment.
Buttigieg’s other biggest push was preparing South Bend for the proverbial “future of work,” and using data to transform the city into a “Silicon Prairie.” He attracted new startups, launched a resource center for minority entrepreneurs, and is piloting a “Lifelong Learning system,” funded by the charitable arms of Google and Walmart and run by the Drucker Institute (though it hasn’t yet started accepting students). On the site of the old Studebaker auto manufacturing plant, he helped develop the burgeoning technology hub, Ignition Park.
Scandals and controversies
De Blasio: Since his first term, de Blasio has been embroiled in fundraising scandals, which have so far wicked off him like water. (See: this alleged “pay-to-play” scheme with a local real-estate developer who had donated $100,000 to his campaign.)
The most recent allegation coincides with his presidential run. After the city closed a $173 million contract to buy 17 buildings and develop them into affordable housing, the New York Times reported that the lawyer for the landlords at the center of the deal had donated $5,000 to de Blasio’s campaign fund, the Fairness PAC, and had encouraged others to donate, too. Both the mayor and the lawyer said the real estate transaction wasn’t related to the donations.
Buttigieg: The tensest period in Buttigieg’s tenure came in his first year in office. After discovering that a black police chief in the South Bend Police Department had obtained secret recordings of other white officers, Buttigieg demoted the chief. But the tapes contained what the chief later alleged was racist rhetoric and Buttigieg denied requests to release the tapes publicly, saying it would violate federal wiretapping law.
The chief alleged he was demoted based on race, and the city reached a settlement with both the chief and other officers involved in the dispute, closing one chapter of the case. But a lawsuit for the release of the tapes is still pending and complaints of racial blind spots have continued to plague Buttigieg’s term in office: Law enforcement has stayed disproportionately white for the duration of his tenure, and multiple police officers have filed complaints against the police force, alleging discrimination.
What’s more, a year after the chief’s demotion, Buttigieg gave a State of the City speech in which he invoked the term “All Lives Matter” to defuse the tension between the police and the public. He later said he did not know that the phrase was most often used as an affront to the Black Lives Matter movement, and that he no longer uses it today.
De Blasio: In his 2017 State of the City Address, de Blasio promised to address the homelessness problem in the city, saying his administration would open 90 homeless shelters in five years. By the first month of 2018, he’d only opened 10—half of what he’d promised in 2017 alone. By October, he’d opened 16. De Blasio has made greater strides on building affordable housing: Of the 300,000 total units of housing de Blasio planned to build in a decade, 5 percent of them are intended to be affordable (a number some NYC activists want doubled). This January, de Blasio announced that in 2018, a record 34,000-plus affordable units were created or preserved by the city.
But overall, homelessness has grown. Despite a small dip in 2016, point-in-time numbers reached nearly 80,000 in 2018, after almost doubling in the last decade and growing by 33 percent since de Blasio took office in 2016.
What about building paths out of poverty? Also in his 2017 State of the City speech, de Blasio promised he’d create 100,000 jobs in the next decade, with salaries of $50,000 or more. After Amazon’s bait-and-switch—pulling what could have been a 25,000-job expansion after local pushback—“it’s unclear exactly how many of those ‘good-paying jobs’ have been created because the city has not been keeping track,” according to the New York Times.
A historic, $250-million-a-year mental health initiative, ThriveNYC, pushed by de Blasio and his wife, Chirlane McCray, was touted as “revolutionary” upon its launch. But a recent hearing on the program revealed that only $30 million of the annual spending is dedicated to those with “serious” mental illness issues, and critics say it spreads resources too thin.
Buttigieg: Though Buttigieg has marketed himself as dramatically turning around a down-on-its-luck city, the tide hasn’t lifted all boats: South Bend African Americans and Hispanics have an unemployment rate almost twice as high as white residents, according to a 2017 report from Prosperity Now.
His technocratic vision hasn’t yet turned employment prospects around fully, either. Though the city has an official unemployment rate of about four percent, three census tracts have rates almost four times as high: all majority black. And the Drucker Institute estimates that ”10,000 South Bend residents are no longer in the workforce and that many others are vulnerable to future displacement.” Of those working, about half are in sales or food preparation and service, and another more than 20,000 are in manufacturing and transportation fields. In all, reports the New Republic, less than two percent of South Bend workers are employed in tech.
Noteworthy critiques/pain points
De Blasio: The man loves his car. Many days each week, he “takes a 12-mile chauffeured ride—usually in the back of an SUV, security detail in tow—from his residence on the Upper East Side to exercise in his old Brooklyn neighborhood,” writes Laura Bliss, a habit many New Yorkers see as out of touch, wasteful, and emblematic of a broader “disdain for transit.”
On criminal justice, de Blasio’s plans have been progressive, but critics say he’s fallen short of delivering: Despite ending solitary confinement policies for inmates under 22, a New York Times investigation found that more New York City inmates were sent to upstate prisons (where solitary is legal) starting in 2015 than before de Blasio took office.
Buttigieg: His development work has had uneven effects on white and minority residents of the city: During Buttigieg’s 1,000 vacant homes renewal project, homeowners like current South Bend councilmember Regina Williams-Preston recalled having whole properties bulldozed over late fees. “They’ll say they were targeting vacant homes, but they didn’t really understand the community,” she told the Indy Star.
Though he’s dazzled many with his intelligence, political analysts and writers have noted that women candidates are showered with far fewer accolades for similar eloquence; and that his smarts amount to little more than “meaningless erudition.”
And Buttigieg, too, has been off on the campaign trail and absent from South Bend.
Both mayors can boast expanding economies under their tenures, but South Bend has had the more dramatic growth. The distressed Rust Belt city saw its median income rise 28 percent, poverty fall 28 percent, and unemployment fall by 55 percent under Buttigieg’s tenure—all better than the national average for cities during his tenure.
De Blasio’s New York has also grown, but more modestly. Under his watch, the Big Apple’s median income rose 15 percent while poverty fell 14 percent and unemployment 22 percent. Unlike South Bend, whose economic stats all outpace the national average for cities, New York’s improvements in poverty and unemployment are actually below average for cities during de Blasio’s tenure.
Racial income inequality
The two cities both have fairly high levels of racial income inequality that got larger over their mayors’ tenures. But Buttigieg’s South Bend saw a larger bump. When he took office in 2012, South Bend’s median white resident earned about twice as much as its median black resident. In 2017, that gap had widened to 2.3 times.
New York City had a similar racial income gap as South Bend when de Blasio took over in 2014, with the median white resident earning 1.95 times the median black resident. As of 2017, that had ticked up to about 2 times. That’s a 4 percent increase in New York City’s racial income gap, compared to 14 percent growth in South Bend’s.
Buttigieg was elected mayor of a shrinking city, and his efforts since 2012 haven’t changed that. South Bend’s population declined from 100,000 residents when Buttigieg took office to 96,000 in 2017. The 3.8 percent decrease is a continuation of a shrinking trend that dates back to around the year 2000. The city also lost housing units during Buttigieg’s tenure.
New York City, in contrast, has grown under de Blasio, from 8.5 million to 8.6 million residents, amounting to growth of 1.5 percent. The housing-stressed city also added 1.7 percent more housing units. But both these trends were slower than the typical American city, which saw 2.2 percent more people and 2.4 percent more housing units during the years of de Blasio’s tenure.