Mayor Bill de Blasio has announced he is running for president. Here is what you need to know about him:
De Blasio has been mayor of New York since January 1, 2014. Before that he was the city’s public advocate, a watchdog and ombudsperson who is technically the No. 2 citywide official, for four years. That came after de Blasio served eight years as a member of the New York City Council. Earlier in life, de Blasio was a political organizer, an aide to Mayor David Dinkins, a regional director for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and the manager for Hillary Clinton’s 2000 Senate campaign. De Blasio, 58, is a graduate of New York University and Columbia University. He is married to Chirlane McCray and has two children.
The Playing Field
The mayor joins one of the most crowded presidential fields in history, and it is not clear how long he would last. Given the steep odds de Blasio has overcome in virtually all his runs for public office—he beat a crowded field to win his Council seat, won a tough two-stage primary to become public advocate and was in fourth place seven weeks before winning the mayoral nomination in 2013—the mayor might see a path to victory. It is also possible his true aim would not be the presidency but rather a Cabinet post or other appointed position in the next Democratic administration.
Whatever his goal, de Blasio’s case to national voters will likely be that he has delivered more concrete progressive policy changes than anyone else in the field, all while managing a massive bureaucracy (with a 300,000-person payroll, the city has more employees than any state government). With the exception of former Vice President Joe Biden, de Blasio might argue that his work experience is more akin to the demands of the presidency than any other contender’s. And de Blasio’s long-time, vocal support for Israel could allow him to tap into support from voters who have accepted the dubious notion that other Democrats are lukewarm in their backing of the Jewish state.
Being mayor of a major city is what has given de Blasio the policy victories and managerial experience he’ll point to as he runs for the White House. At the same time, it’s exposed him to daily press scrutiny that other pols typically avoid; the results have sometimes been ugly. Leading New York City has also placed de Blasio knee-deep in sticky policy problems like homelessness and public housing, and there’ve been few shining moments on either score. Meanwhile, his apparent disdain for political optics would be tested in a national campaign. And there is one wild card: De Blasio’s day-job means that a problem can arise at virtually any time that will pull him off the campaign trail, and his handling of it will either burnish or blot his national reputation.
Having been mayor for more than five years, de Blasio’s mayoral record is long and complicated. Here are some quick highlights:
Pre-K: De Blasio ran on a promise of offering free, full-day pre-kindergarten to every four-year-old in the city and he delivered the phase of the program within months. It now serves around 70,000 children, providing an early start on school and giving parents a form of quality childcare. De Blasio in 2017 announced a move to gradually expand the program to 3-year-olds.
Criminal justice reform: De Blasio dramatically reduced stop and frisks, marijuana enforcement and arrests overall, and began the process of closing Rikers and shifting to borough-based jails. Some of those steps he took only after persistent advocacy, but he took them. He’s not gone nearly far enough to suit many, but has earned a lot of ire from tabloids and police unions for the extent to which he has reduced policing in the city—even facing down a mini police mutiny in early 2015.
OneNYC: De Blasio did not have a reputation as an environmentalist before taking office, but he has taken strong steps to make the city greener, including adopting tougher emissions standards for buildings, greening the city’s fleet of vehicles and setting ambitious goals for carbon reductions. And unlike his predecessor Mike Bloomberg, who had a strong environmental agenda, de Blasio linked environmental sustainability with economic inclusion.
Equity measures:De Blasio was elected on a promise to address inequality in New York City, and he has taken some meaningful steps in that direction: mandating paid sick leave, broadening the city’s living wage rules, creating a municipal ID open to people regardless of immigration status, launching a form of universal health insurance for residents and more.
Donors:De Blasio has faced sustained criticism for doing favors for people who donated to his Campaign for One New York, a now defunct nonprofit the mayor set up to pursue his agenda, and for improperly funneling donations to Democratic candidates for the state senate in 2014. He avoided prosecution after state and federal investigations, but their results hardly cast him in a good light, and more damaging revelations have continued to emerge.
Public housing: The New York City Housing Authority, which provides homes to at least 400,000 people, was in crisis before de Blasio became mayor, and he devoted more money to NYCHA than his predecessors had. But the level of support and mayoral attention he applied to public housing was no match for the severe problems in the agency. They blew up in a disastrous lead-paint scandal, a U.S. attorney investigation and the appointment of a federal monitor.
Search for a national role:De Blasio’s surprise win in 2013 led some (including, to some degree, your author) to hail him as the flag-bearer for a new progressive wave, and he seemed to believe the hype. Early in this first term de Blasio sought to claim a share of the national spotlight, and the effort fell flat—Exhibit A being his attempt to stage a candidates forum in Iowa in 2015. De Blasio delayed joining in the coronation of Hillary Clinton in 2016, then clumsily tried to jump on her bandwagon, leaving just about everyone unhappy. In hindsight, his ideas were often on target but his strategy was not.
Transparency:De Blasio has had an especially tense relationship with the press, and his avowed commitment to transparency hasn’t always translated into real-life openness. In one unfortunate episode, he tried to conceal some emails from release under Freedom of Information law by saying his consultants were acting as “agents of the city.”
The relationship with Gov. Cuomo:The mayor and governor waged a bitter feud virtually from the beginning of de Blasio’s tenure, with Cuomo appearing to thirst for chances to belittle the mayor and de Blasio sometimes walking right into the governor’s jabs. The two seemed to have reached detente recently. But who knows what de Blasio might have accomplished if the two most powerful Democrats in the state had gotten along from the get-go?
The housing plans:De Blasio promised and has delivered a massive plan to build or preserve 300,000 units of affordable housing. He instituted mandatory inclusionary zoning that essentially forces private developers to create housing for lower-income groups. But de Blasio has also insisted on subsidizing housing for moderate- and middle-income families and has supported intense market-rate development in low-income communities of color where displacement is a real risk. On homelessness, de Blasio has moved to create new paths from the shelters to permanent housing, but has been slow to appreciate the gravity of the crisis.
The loose ends:De Blasio is still in the first half of his second term, so it’s not his fault that the jury is still out on many of his key initiatives. But the fact is the grades on ferry service, his ThriveNYC mental-health initiative, a vow to create 100,000 good jobs and other big ideas remain “incomplete.”
The Reading List
City Limits has published dozens of articles about the mayor, but here are a few that give a broad view of his approach to key policy issues: