Leave de Blasio alone

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio at a rally to urge the Board of Elections to implement a robust early voting plan in April.
New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio at a rally to urge the Board of Elections to implement a robust early voting plan in April.
Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography
New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio at a rally to urge the Board of Elections to implement a robust early voting plan in April.

Leave de Blasio alone

The press unfairly maligns the mayor and his presidential campaign.
May 30, 2019

Maybe it’s because I’ve been in the middle school girl trenches, and I understand the mechanics of middle school girl bullying, that I feel moved to defend New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio from the weaponized snickering that aims to erode his self-confidence and crush his presidential ambitions.

I get that he’s an adult politician with a powerful job aiming for an even more powerful job, but it sort of feels like the New York political media clique won’t let up until they make the poor guy cry. Of course, I’m not referring to legitimate investigations into potential conflicts of interest or abuses of power. The more actual journalism the merrier!

I’m talking about dozens of media outlets finding deep national significance in the actions of a couple of trolls at the mayor’s gym posting a warning that “by entering these premises you agree not to run for President of the United States.” Oh man, what a burn!

The political press, trembling with excitement, tore into the fresh opportunity to remind people that the mayor travels all the way to Park Slope from the Upper East Side – in a car! – to work out at his old neighborhood YMCA. Not that they typically need any real reason to do so. In an article about new environmental regulations that would literally change the face of New York by forcing the city’s glut of energy-inefficient glass skyscrapers to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, Crain’s New York Business partially headlined the piece: “De Blasio defends 11-mile drive to gym while promoting environmental plan.”

Why has the driving to the gym issue become such an emblem of de Blasio's supposed aristocratic detachment? Yes, the optics would be better if he took the subway. But the previous mayor knocked off work early every Friday to visit his friends at Greg’s Steakhouse in Bermuda via private jet. I challenge any of de Blasio’s critics to compare the carbon footprints of those two commutes.

To get some sort of perspective on why the political press seems fixated on inventing faux scandals at the expense of actual substantive reporting, I turned to the Columbia Journalism Review. Unfortunately, CJR’s analysis had all the nuance and insight of a burn book – offering a compilation of the greatest empty hit pieces on de Blasio. After citing several zingers from reporters mocking de Blasio for accidentally dropping a groundhog on Groundhog Day in 2014, CJR’s Alexandria Neason intones solemnly: “If he can’t recognize the look of skepticism among the city’s press, maybe he should listen.”

It’s that sort of tsk-tsking and eye-rolling that makes me – someone who has never donated to, volunteered for or worked for de Blasio – want to urge him to run for president, just to show the cool kids they haven’t gotten under his skin.

Their latest angle – that he can’t handle the responsibilities of being mayor and run for president at the same time – doesn’t seem to apply to any of the other people who have jumped into the race. Perhaps no one thinks that being a senator is a demanding job and that only people out of work with little responsibility should run for president. (If you want a full-time candidate, I’ve got a moody, road-tripping Gen Xer for you.)

So what is the real problem political reporters have with de Blasio? Since they were much more deferential to then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg, my theory is that the problem with de Blasio is that he’s not a multibillionaire with a net worth larger than many foreign countries. Perhaps, after covering a guy who could afford to launch million-dollar ad campaigns in nonelection years and hire political talent just to prevent his opponents from hiring them, New York reporters started to believe that insulation from political wear-and-tear was normal.

Bloomberg was someone who could simply buy off dissent by spreading private donations to vulnerable neighborhood groups around the city (many of whom had lost public funding as a result of the mayor’s budget cuts). In 2008, he made it clear that he expected those who had benefited from his private philanthropy to show up at public hearings in support of easing term limits that would allow him to stay on for a third term.

“The traditional politicians are bought by special interest groups, but Bloomberg buys special interest groups,” Cooper Union history professor Fred Siegel told The New York Times at the time, adding that Bloomberg had “reversed the flow of money” in politics to build the illusion of widespread support.

Bloomberg’s allies now seem to be in the business of building the illusion of widespread revulsion toward de Blasio by writing stuff in the Observer like, “The man who has been routinely panned as the worst big city mayor in America has his eyes on a new gig: President of the United States.” If you follow the link to “worst big city mayor in America” to find out who has routinely panned de Blasio, you’ll discover it’s the writer himself – Bloomberg’s former political and communications adviser Arick Wierson – doing the original panning in a separate article. Usually, when people call elite political punditry an echo chamber, they don’t mean it quite this literally.

All of this isn’t to say that there aren’t legitimate criticisms of the mayor on homelessness and affordable housing, on the state of the subways and buses. And, really, what’s up with his attacks on e-bike delivery workers?

But when I survey progressives about their fundamental problem with de Blasio, I don’t get a lot back. They know they’re not supposed to like him, that he’s vaguely embarrassing, but can’t tell me why exactly. He dropped a groundhog once?

If my theory is correct, and de Blasio’s real problem is being a nonbillionaire trying to divert resources back to the working class using the tools and levers of plain old regular democracy – as opposed to making problems go away with a private stash of money – then I’m moved to stand up for our progressive mayor and his presidential ambitions.

Let’s slow down the de Blasio hate train and hear him out.

Kate Albright-Hanna
is a former presidential campaign staffer for Barack Obama and a documentary filmmaker.