Brooklyn City Councilman Bill de Blasio has helped candidates for mayor, Congress, U.S. Senate and the presidency win office, earning him a reputation as a highly skilled political tactician – a winner. Yet it was a crushing political loss that landed him where he is now: Running in a crowded field against better-known or better-funded opponents for a job that some people want to delete from city government.
This time last year, de Blasio had the inside track to become the next Brooklyn borough president. Then Mayor Bloomberg called to extend term limits and eventually prevailed, despite the vocal opposition of de Blasio and a handful of other councilmembers, as well as plenty of citizens and good-government advocates. Incumbent borough president Marty Markowitz opted to run for re-election, so de Blasio decided on a new target: Public advocate.
De Blasio now says the city's number two slot is a perfect fit for the skills he's honed over two decades of political combat. “I think elected office is supposed to be about expanding popular power,” de Blasio says. “Because of my experience running campaigns, it's the natural way I look at the world: To try and educate people and give them the tools to expand their political impact.” The office of public advocate, he adds, “is supposed to be a voice for the people in general, including when they're in conflict with the city government.”
De Blasio, who is 48 and lives in Park Slope with his writer wife Chirlane and their two children, grew up in Cambridge, Mass. and majored in urban studies at NYU, then earned a master's degree at Columbia University's School for International and Public Affairs. He worked on David Dinkins' 1989 mayoral campaign, served as an aide in the Dinkins administration, then worked as executive director of the New York branch of the New Party—a fledgling progressive fusion movement. In 1994, he managed Congressman Charles Rangel's re-election campaign and in 1995 advised a successful insurgent candidate for an East Harlem Assembly seat. The following year, de Blasio ran the New York state operation for the Clinton-Gore re-election effort.
After a stint on the staff of then-Council Speaker Peter Vallone, Sr., de Blasio was appointed the Department of Housing and Urban Development's regional secretary's representative, making him HUD boss Andrew Cuomo's envoy to New York and New Jersey. In that post, de Blasio was the public face of HUD in the region, implementing policy from Washington and occasionally, according to a former HUD colleague, “pushing back.”
In the HUD post, de Blasio focused on the big picture items; the operational details were left to others. “He's a political animal,” said the former colleague, whose current job is at a nonprofit and is not supposed to weigh in on candidates. She added: “But he can talk policy. It helped that you weren't talking to a blank stare.”
In 1999 de Blasio left HUD to run Hillary Clinton's campaign for U.S. Senate. Around the same time, he won a seat on his local nine-member community school board (a part of the school system that no longer exists). During de Blasio's tenure some parents in the district began to raise questions about the leadership style and fiscal practices of local superintendent Frank DeStefano. They took their concerns to de Blasio.
“He listened. He's very good at listening. He took notes. Asked really great questions,” recalls Katia Kelly, one of the parents. But even as concerns about DeStefano mounted, deBlasio defended him. DeStefano ultimately resigned in 2001 as it emerged he had amassed $57,000 in car service bills, spent heavily on conferences and retreats and driven the district to a $1 million deficit. “I thought [de Blasio] was really going to look into it,” says Kelly. “Turns out, he wasn't.”
De Blasio doesn't disavow the stance he took eight years ago. “He clearly made mistakes,” he says of DeStefano. “He chose to resign, and if he had not we would probably have taken action against him, but at the time I was cognizant of his having done a lot of good.” De Blasio made the leap to run for an open City Council seat in 2001 and, with a slight advantage in campaign funding and the crucial New York Times endorsement in hand, won a six-way primary with 32 percent, then cruised through the general election. Shortly after winning office, he legally changed his name from Warren Wilhelm Jr. to the current version that uses his mother's maiden name, which he had been going by for years.
Once on the Council, de Blasio secured the chairmanship of the Committee on General Welfare, which oversees public assistance, children's services, homelessness and AIDS policy. He has often used the post to upbraid city agency heads for insufficiently compassionate or effective delivery of services. Advocates in those policy areas generally give de Blasio high grades. “Bill has shown amazing leadership, particularly around homeless issues,” says Patrick Markee, a senior analyst at the Coalition for the Homeless.
Sean Barry, executive director of the New York City AIDS Housing Network, says de Blasio “has a pretty strong record working to reduce homelessness among the HIV/AIDS population.” In 2005, he sponsored a law to make it easier for people with HIV/AIDS to get emergency housing and was outspoken in 2006 opposing a proposal by the Pataki administration to raise rent on AIDS housing, Barry says.
In nearly eight years in the Council, de Blasio has introduced more than 30 pieces of legislation and seen 12 become law, with three surviving a mayoral veto to get on the city's books. Laws he's sponsored have, among other things, barred the city from referring homeless people to substandard housing, required signs warning parents about the danger of burns from mats used on city playgrounds and prohibited landlords from discriminating against renters using Section 8 vouchers. De Blasio points to his committee's work to strengthen the Administration for Children's Services after the death of Nixmary Brown – demanding more reporting from ACS and providing the agency with additional funding – as perhaps his proudest achievement.
Detractors, however, say there is one thing the de Blasio resume lacks: a tough fight. De Blasio cast seven “no” votes during the 2006-2008 period on the Council – among the fewest on the body, according to Citizens Union. He surprised some progressive allies by opposing congestion pricing—a vote he defended by saying the Brooklyn would not receive its fair share of transit upgrades under the plan.
“He, I think, continues to speak out on the kinds of issues you would not expect any controversy for,” says Gloria Mattera, a Green Party member who twice ran against de Blasio. “I never get a sense he has any bold initiatives or takes a risk on the important bigger picture issues.”
A developing story
Being a councilmember, a political consultant, a HUD official or a school board member is different from being public advocate – a citywide post with a broad, if vague, portfolio, and fairly modest resources. But each job has encompassed aspects of the position de Blasio now wants: oversight, drafting policy, responding to pleas for help from both average New Yorkers and powerful interests.
De Blasio's harshest critics find fault with his approach to development in and around his district, which includes parts of Park Slope, Carroll Gardens, Cobble Hill, Kensington, Borough Park and more. While de Blasio has opposed some projects, he has largely supported rezonings—in Park Slope, South Slope and Gowanus—that protect certain low-density areas at the cost of allowing significantly heavier development (and, defenders say, the chance for more affordable housing) nearby.
Marlene Donnelly, an activist in Gowanus, recalls when she and other neighbors mounted opposition to a developer who wanted a zoning variance in 2004. “De Blasio had his aide call us, saying, 'Stop opposing this or this developer's going to build the ugliest industrial building and it's going to ruin your community,'” she recalls. The developer lost. The ugly building never materialized. But other projects de Blasio backed are getting built.
The most high-profile project in Brooklyn, of course, is Atlantic Yards, which falls close to his district and which de Blasio backed from the beginning. Only last year—well after demolition had begun on the site—did de Blasio say he wanted a moratorium on tear-downs until it was clear that the developer, Forest City Ratner, would make good on its promises of affordable housing and jobs.
“I'm obviously not satisfied with how the process unfolded,” de Blasio says. “I think there was an opportunity to take the initial vision which was in the community benefits agreement and involve the community and figure out a way to achieve what was in the [agreement] in a way that was acceptable. I really think that didn’t happen.”
Foes of Atlantic Yards don’t think de Blasio's late-day skepticism is genuine. “He has supported Atlantic Yards uncritically for years and now, like nearly every other supporter, has modified his position by picking away at this thing or that thing or 'I support it if [blank],'” says Develop Don't Destroy Brooklyn spokesman Daniel Goldstein.
Brooklyn City Councilwoman Letitia James, who represents a neighboring district, is one of Atlantic Yards' fiercest opponents yet has sustained a close collaboration with de Blasio. James says he is “often referred to as my political husband,” because of their frequent partnership on political issues. “I think he'll be a great public advocate,” she says, pointing to his intelligence and his commitment to progressive causes. To the question critics raise about his willingness to take hard positions, she says, “He's like most politicians in that he waits to see how the wind blows and is a little cautious in the causes he supports, but that's not atypical.” Nor is keeping one's counsel necessarily a bad thing.
The development fight now brewing in de Blasio's district is over whether the federal government should designate the Gowanus Canal—a fetid cocktail of old industrial waste and modern-day sewage overflow—a Superfund site. Some Gowanus residents are pushing for the designation by circulating a petition and submitting supportive comments to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
De Blasio says he was at first thrilled to hear about the possible Superfund designation, but grew wary when he learned that the fund depends largely on fines levied against polluters and land owners at each site. The stigma of a Superfund designation, he says, is “going to be negative for the development process.”