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Why on Earth Does Bill de Blasio Want to Be a Congressman?

There are better things for the former New York City mayor to do.

Andrew Burton/Getty Images

Bill de Blasio is back. After retreating into relative quietude since leaving office earlier this year, the former New York City mayor announced that he would be throwing his hat in the ring to represent New York’s newly drawn 10th district. This new district emerged from special master Jonathan Cervas’s ministrations with new boundaries that seemed tempting to de Blasio—it comprises much of lower Manhattan, as well as Brooklyn’s Park Slope, which he represented as a city councilman before becoming public advocate and then mayor. It will be an intensely competitive race; 17th district incumbent Mondaire Jones has already announced that he will seek reelection in the 10th.

De Blasio likely views the opportunity as a way of getting his name back out there and, perhaps, rehabilitating his image. His stock may have been improved, at least in some corners, by the fact that his successor, Eric Adams, is deranged and has none of his predecessor’s policy acumen. But is Congress the right venue? Historically, Gracie Mansion has been a dead end; the last such politician to serve in Washington, D.C., was Ardolph Kline, who was elected to the House of Representatives in 1921, eight years after serving as the acting Mayor of New York City for a handful of months in 1913.

De Blasio has long pined for national office. There may not have been a more pathetic display in American politics in recent memory than Bill de Blasio’s nasty, brutish, and short 2020 presidential campaign, unless you count the similarly brief and equally humiliating exploit of his predecessor, Michael Bloomberg. De Blasio’s wife declared that the timing of her husband’s endeavor was “not exactly right.”

Others were far less gentle. One former aide vented to Politico that the campaign was “fucking insane.” At one New Hampshire pit stop, de Blasio spoke to 20 people—14 of whom were on a panel he was hosting. Ultimately, de Blasio dropped out of the race in September 2019, five months before caucusgoers in Iowa took to their local high school gyms. But the damage was done—de Blasio’s gambit was a public embarrassment. He ended his presidential campaign the same way he had spent most of his second term as mayor of New York City: as a joke.

It’s understandable, at least in hindsight, why de Blasio wanted to launch a presidential bid. For one thing, being the mayor of New York City sucks. Even a deft politician, which no one would mistake de Blasio for, would struggle to keep all of New York’s populations and competing interest groups happy. De Blasio was constantly at war with erstwhile allies, and particularly with the press. His blunders were legion, particularly when it came to police reform—indeed, a year later, those failures would loom large as the NYPD brutally cracked down on racial justice protests. Still, hanging out in Iowa and New Hampshire was a way to get out of town for a few days: As someone who never seemed to really like being mayor, this was its own appeal.

But de Blasio was also desperate for a way to showcase his record, which is somewhat more impressive than it tends to get credit for. In a Democratic primary that was, at least for a while, uncharacteristically policy-focused, he had a plausible case to make. Before his feud with then–New York Governor Andrew Cuomo and a rough run of political screw-ups (which included dropping and killing a groundhog) stalled his mayorship and tarred him as a flop, he actually got a fair amount done. Universal pre-K has been a huge success; he also made free lunch available to public school students. He pushed for employers to provide paid sick leave and raised the minimum wage for city workers to $15 an hour. Most of de Blasio’s term was spent engaged in petty feuds with rivals and the media—or with taking a motorcade to Park Slope to exercise. But he was not without accomplishments, if you could bear to look beneath the surface.

Many couldn’t: De Blasio struggled mightily to get people to remember his successes, and the fact that he provided ample distractions on which to fixate—particularly for New York’s tabloid media—didn’t help his cause. On the campaign trail in New Hampshire and Iowa, he had neither the gravitas of the race’s heavy-hitters nor enough novelty to compete with the contest’s bright young things, such as Pete Buttigieg and Beto O’Rourke. The fact that a large portion of the news media is based in New York City—and that de Blasio had been feuding with that media for much of his two terms in office—surely didn’t help. Once the sun had set on his quixotic presidential campaign, he slunk back to New York and served out the remaining two years of his term.

As Ross Barkan noted in New York, the idea of a former mayor running for Congress is itself an embarrassment—usually it’s members of Congress who run for mayor. De Blasio, Barkan notes, once commanded a vast budget and entire city departments: New York City’s gross domestic product is roughly comparable to that of Canada. Joining Congress—and particularly joining Congress as a junior member of a party that likely will not have much power for quite some time—is simply a waste of time. De Blasio will have little to do and little power to get any of it done.

It’s hard to think of a worse fit, or a bigger waste of space than de Blasio and Congress, especially given that there are several Democratic rising stars in the mix for the office. What gets the Democrats back to power faster: fresh ideas from some new blood or a 2020 presidential also-ran taking his act to Washington? If de Blasio is looking for something to do, he should stick with the policy initiatives he successfully implemented as mayor, particularly universal pre-K, and continue to push for improvement as a private citizen who can summon some political muscle behind these popular ideas. In this way, he might bolster his own legacy, something he clearly cares about. He also might play a role in mentoring a new generation of New York City progressives. He’s likely to accomplish more, and find his redemption arc, by sticking closer to home instead of taking up space in Congress—he might even get something useful done. Besides, the commute from Washington to his Park Slope gym is brutal.