What is Bill de Blasio’s path to victory?

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio addresses the National Action Network's annual national convention in New York.
New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio addresses the National Action Network's annual national convention in New York.
JUSTIN LANE/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock
New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio addresses the National Action Network's annual national convention in New York.

What is Bill de Blasio’s path to victory?

Experts weigh in on the NYC mayor’s chances in the 2020 presidential race.
April 10, 2019

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio just might do it.

Despite skepticism from local voters and concerns about the city’s chief executive taking time to travel extensively to key primary states, the mayor is looking more and more like he’ll add his name to the long list of Democrats running for president.

In our online reader poll this week, the vast majority of voters said he should not seek the White House – though most predicted he would do it anyway. Many guessed he would get in the mix just to stay relevant, while only a few thought he would run to actually become president. (Among the write-in responses speculating about de Blasio’s motives? “Delusions of grandeur,” “He likes campaigning more than governing,” and “To raise his profile nationally with view to his next job.”)

Now, in this week’s “Ask the Experts” feature, we take a closer look at de Blasio’s chances, what he brings to the table, and what he might do next. We asked four experts to weigh: George Arzt, the president of George Arzt Communications; Richard Flanagan, professor of political science at the College of Staten Island, CUNY; Karen Hinton, a communications consultant and a former de Blasio press secretary; and Lupe Todd-Medina, a political consultant and the founder of Effective Media Strategies.

What are de Blasio’s chances in the Democratic presidential primary?

Lupe Todd-Medina: I worked on Mayor Bill de Blasio's public advocate race so I have seen firsthand what a great political tactician he is and I don't take his stamina for the game for granted. He's had a great winning streak and has never lost a public race, which includes his run for school board, campaign manager for the U.S Senate race for Hillary Clinton, twice for City Council, public advocate and mayor – twice.

However, this time the niche he carved for himself early in his career as a reformer, progressive and democratic socialist has been hijacked by many in the race. I don't see how he distinguishes himself from the pack. And, like Joe Biden, he still hasn't announced and therefore is late to the dance.

George Arzt: You never say never in politics. Look at the current occupant of the White House. But I would put Bill below the 10% threshold. All the negative news coming out of New York is going to be a drag on his narrative. Running for president is an arduous challenge, but as Teddy Roosevelt said, “The man in the arena” deserves the credit and “if he fails, at least he fails while daring greatly.”

Karen Hinton: Mayor Bill de Blasio’s chances could become as good as other lesser-known electeds in the running now. Sanders and Biden are well-positioned, but we must remember many political experts doubted Barack Obama would beat Hillary Clinton and become president. Obama came out of nowhere because he attracted Democrats impressed with his abilities, beliefs and personality. A candidate such as de Blasio could do the same. However, Democrats in 2008 also wanted to elect an African American. Twelve years later, they likely will give a woman strong consideration, and the women in the primary now are electable for the presidency or the vice presidency. A white man, well-known or not, will face tough competition from Kamala Harris or possibly Kirsten Gillibrand.

Richard Flanagan: In such a crowded field, not great, but perhaps no worse than the other 15 or so top-tier candidates in the race. If he jumps in, de Blasio will be competing with Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren for the progressive vote. While he can’t match their star power early on, he has a proven track record as a chief executive that looks good compared to the modest record of legislative achievement of Sanders and Warren.

Of course, big city mayors make deals with corporations regularly, something that might turn off pure of heart progressives. The busted deal with Amazon would likely haunt de Blasio. It does not help de Blasio that many other former charismatic mayors are in the mix, including Pete Buttigieg (South Bend), Julian Castro (San Antonio), John Hickenlooper (Denver) and Cory Booker (Newark). Castro may be the one to beat among this group – his record stacks up well next to de Blasio’s.

And of course, the New York mayoralty has reliably been a dead-end job for those with political ambitions. It will be hard to beat the hex. Mayor John Lindsay bombed out in the Florida Democratic primary when he ran for president in 1972. Rudy Giuliani’s political ambitions were frustrated in the Sunshine State’s Republican presidential primary in 2008. Mayor Michael Bloomberg made the wise choice of not running for president in 2020, and de Blasio would be prudent to follow his predecessor’s example. If he does go for it, what distinguished him in the crowded 2013 field for mayor was his family – Chirlane, Chiara and Dante. He should bring them all to Iowa.

Based on his mayoral record, what would be his strengths and weaknesses?

Karen Hinton: His strengths will be the progressive positions he has taken on many important issues that Democrats care about: public education, affordable housing, race relations and immigration. His weaknesses will be based on something he can’t change – he’s a white man. If interest in Sanders and/or Biden declines, Democratic voters may turn to only the best woman for the job.

Richard Flanagan: De Blasio is a pragmatic progressive. He ended Bloomberg’s cold war with the city’s municipal unions in the opening years of his administration, settling outstanding contracts on fair terms with city workers. De Blasio balanced police/community relationships deftly, recognizing both the need for law and order and the community’s legitimate concern about excessive use of force. Hiring William Bratton as his first police commissioner was an inspired choice. He moved small policies like the allocation of dollars for parks and other city services to poorer neighborhoods. His crowning achievement was getting universal pre-K done with hardly any administrative problems.

De Blasio has spent a lot of money. His budgets have risen at about three times the rate of inflation, fueled by the city’s go-go economy since the 2008 recession ended. The recent City Council hearings about Thrive New York, a program intended to improve mental health in the city, reveal wasteful spending and administrative mismanagement. There are limits on what a progressive mayor can achieve; New York is still a racially segregated town, housing is unaffordable, and the gap between the city’s have and have nots remains huge. He had little appreciation for the tax burden on New Yorkers. Like so many of his predecessors, he is thin-skinned with the press, and New Yorkers never connected with him emotionally. While I suspect he will be viewed respectfully by New Yorkers years from now, he will not be remembered all that fondly. And, of course, he faced no great test as mayor, such as a difficult economy or a natural disaster. This is all good news for the city, of course, but leads to an incomplete portrait regarding his potential for greatness. But on balance, he is a reasonable man and a good mayor.

Lupe Todd-Medina: His strength is that he is the mayor of New York City. No one else in the race has got that kind of cachet. However, under his administration we are seeing a shrinking of our working middle class due to a lack of affordability in the city. Once he announces, it will be extremely difficult to manage New York City and run for president. Mayor Lindsay tried to do it and failed miserably. Maybe South Bend can be managed from the campaign trail, but not NYC.

George Arzt: He can tout some major accomplishments, including: UPK, building affordable housing, the boom in New York City’s real estate market (which can be seen by some as a negative), paid personal time for city workers, eradication of stop and frisk, 44 percent drop in pedestrian deaths since 2014 through the Vision Zero program and others.

He can be criticized as not a strong manager as embodied in the awful NYCHA stories. Homelessness is at a record high. He is viewed as sharing the blame with the governor for the subway problems. People in transition neighborhoods blame his policies for gentrification. In other words, there are people in formerly deprived areas such as Crown Heights, Williamsburg and the Lower East Side who believe that the administration’s development policies are to blame for old tenants being forced out of the neighborhoods because they no longer can afford the rents.

Any major negative event that occurs while he is out of the city will reverberate onto his presidential ambitions.

If he runs and loses, what’s next for the mayor?

Karen Hinton: De Blasio will help the Democratic nominee beat Donald Trump. Assuming he contributes significantly to defeating Trump, de Blasio could end up in a Cabinet position, such as the secretary for Housing and Urban Development, or he runs for governor or establishes his own progressive nonprofit to advocate for legislation and/or actions that improve low-income communities. His involvement in a strong nonprofit for advocacy will strengthen his views for another run in the future.

George Arzt: He can get a Cabinet post if a Democrat wins the presidency or a Democratic Party post. He can go to the Soros Foundation headed by his friend Patrick Gaspard. He can write a tell-all book about his City Hall years and the problems he faced.

Lupe Todd-Medina: I think the mayor wants to be on the national stage in some capacity. After you have been mayor of New York City and run for president, what then? I gather in the next chapter of his life he writes a book, goes on a book tour, hangs his shingle and takes in clients while readying Dante for his run for office.

Richard Flanagan: He is only 57, so I bet he will run a local think tank for a while until a U.S. Senate seat opens up.

Jon Lentz
is City & State’s editor-in-chief.
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