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Bill de Blasio’s Embarrassing Quest for National Fame

With New York City facing one crisis after another, the mayor is testing the waters for a White House run. Who is he kidding?

Giovanni Marino/Getty Images

It’s rare for The New York Post to understate a story in a headline, but late Sunday, the tabloid posted a piece titled “De Blasio speaks to crowd of only 20 people in New Hampshire.” The reality was even bleaker. Of the 20 people, fourteen were on the panel being hosted by the New York City mayor about mental health. Just six people sat in the audience, not counting the few reporters who were there out of professional duty.

De Blasio is used to small crowds outside of his home city. Despite having visited Iowa four times since his election in 2014, he spoke to another paltry audience in Sioux City last month, this time telling around two dozen people that he thinks “this is a country waiting to be unified.” By whom? De Blasio didn’t say. But if a politician visits a primary state and talks about the need for unity, they almost certainly think they’re the one who can bring Americans together.

“I’ve been clear I’m certainly not ruling out a run for the presidency,” he said in Iowa last month. “I’ve also said that as a progressive, as someone who believes that we need to change this country—we need to change the Democratic Party—I am going to go all around this country talking about the changes I think we need.”

It increasingly seems that no one is listening. Even ostensible allies are urging de Blasio to concentrate on his day job. One former aide told Politico that for de Blasio to even consider a 2020 bid is “fucking insane.” After all, being the mayor of over eight million people is difficult enough. “N.Y.C. is at an inflection point,” one former ally said, “and the chief executive should focus on his responsibility to guide the city through what are likely to be difficult times.” De Blasio’s own wife has said it’s “not the right time” for a presidential campaign.

But de Blasio persists in his flirtation with national politics, apparently in the belief that he has more than a non-existent chance of besting an enormous Democratic field that contains many politicians who are more widely known and more popular. Instead of ushering in a new progressive golden age in one of America’s most liberal cities, de Blasio’s administration is mired in controversy and incompetence—and yet the mayor continues in his hopeless, self-defeating quest to graduate from a bit player to a leading figure on the national stage.

De Blasio began to build his brand the moment he became mayor. In the spring 2015, he journeyed down the Acela corridor to unveil a new project: Progressive Agenda. It was, to some extent, a continuation of the “Tale of Two Cities” message that catapulted him to the mayorship in an upset over the establishment favorite, and City Council Speaker at the time, Christine Quinn. The project, which focused on pressing issues like income inequality and voting rights, was big on promises, short on details, and ultimately a dud. As a Politico autopsy from 2018 revealed, the effort cost $860,000 and accomplished almost nothing: “No public debates, a couple of events, including one that failed spectacularly, and no upside for a mayor singularly obsessed with becoming a national liberal leader.”

The event that “failed spectacularly” was a 2015 Iowa forum on income inequality meant to cast de Blasio as a national kingmaker. It was canceled due to lack of interest from the candidates, which de Blasio tried to spin thus: “This is a long-run project—this is going to be years and years of effort, and we’re going to keep trying new strategies until we find the ones that we think work best.” De Blasio instead ended up canvassing for a Clinton campaign that didn’t want him around. Not long after Super Tuesday, the Progressive Agenda was quietly shuttered. Its former website now consists of clickbait articles like “Understanding riddles and all you need to know about them” and “How to choose the best grinder.”

The project is a metaphor for de Blasio’s time as mayor. On the one hand, he has consistently been on the right side of Democratic Party history, pushing ideas like income inequality years before they hit the mainstream. But the mayor’s desperation for greater glory has tarnished his brand instead, and often kneecapped him as the leader of America’s largest city.

The mayor and his allies point to a slate of accomplishments to make their case: universal pre-K, paid sick leave, police reform. Though no one would confuse the awkward de Blasio with Cicero, he often waxes poetic about his “historic” and “transcendent” successes. His friends, more often than not cloaked by anonymity, point to them as a sign that he deserves a shot at the presidency.

“If the primary campaign is decided by who has the most substantive progressive accomplishments, de Blasio beats all comers,” one Democratic strategist told New York magazine earlier this year. “He can point to real tangible successes that all of these other senators and members of Congress and half of the governors could only dream of.” Another was even more direct: “It’s Bill de Blasio’s Democratic Party in 2020. The question is whether or not he can catch up to it.”

If it’s de Blasio’s party now, the Democrats are in deep shit.

Corruption and bribery scandals have hounded de Blasio’s administration over the past few years. In January, two donors pleaded guilty to serious violations, including using political contributions to gain favorable treatment from City Hall. Prosecutors declined to bring charges against de Blasio, though the then-acting U.S. attorney Joon Kim admonished the mayor, citing “several circumstances” in which the mayor “made or directed inquiries to relevant city agencies” on behalf of donors seeking “official favors… after which the mayor made or directed inquiries to relevant city agencies on behalf of those donors.” The mayor has racked up $2.6 million in taxpayer-funded legal fees.

New York City’s serious housing and infrastructure problems continue to worsen. Although de Blasio has pushed affordable housing over the years, homelessness continues to skyrocket. NYCHA, the city’s public housing, is in shambles. “Apartments lose heat in the winter,” The New York Times reported in December. “Buildings are bedeviled with leaks, mold and lead paint. Entire housing developments are overrun with rats.” The city’s public transportation, meanwhile, is an overcrowded, underfunded nightmare. While de Blasio shares the blame with New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, these urgent crises certainly don’t benefit from the mayor’s spending valuable time and energy on a national fishing expedition.

In his most recent major debacle, de Blasio embraced Amazon’s plan to open a campus in Queens with the help of considerable city and state subsidies. It’s telling that Blasio and Cuomo, who barely conceal their contempt for one another, were in agreement on the deal: They were equally out of touch with Democratic sentiment, both across the country and locally. When Amazon pulled out rather than resolve its differences with community leaders and activists, de Blasio abruptly tried to get on the right side of the issue. “A group of very powerful people, the ultimate members of the 1 percent, got together in a boardroom in Seattle and made a very arbitrary decision,” he told Chuck Todd on Meet The Press, adding that the company “couldn’t handle the heat in the kitchen.” De Blasio most recently hinted that it was Jeff Bezos’s high-profile divorce that caused Amazon to turn tail.

Given this charmless flip-flopping, it’s hard to see the rank-and-file across the country falling for him. His approval rating among New Yorkers is in the low 40s, which, should he decide to run, would earn him the dubious distinction of being perhaps the least-liked Democrat in the field. But perhaps that explains his tours through New Hampshire, Iowa, and, soon, South Carolina. Stirring speculation about a presidential run may be his way of reviving his image—or at least auditioning for a job in a future Democratic administration. Let’s just hope he’s not the next secretary of housing or transportation.