A Q&A with De Blasio’s new campaign manager Rick Fromberg

Photo by Guillaume Federighi

A Q&A with De Blasio’s new campaign manager Rick Fromberg

An interview with New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio's new campaign manager Rick Fromberg
May 4, 2017

Rick Fromberg is no stranger to big campaigns. He helped run Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign in three of the toughest battleground states: Ohio, Pennsylvania and Virginia. A former senior adviser to New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, Fromberg’s new job as de Blasio’s campaign manager was announced on April 24. The re-election campaign is still in an early stage – Fromberg wasn’t even drinking coffee when he met with City & State on a Tuesday morning. In his first extended interview as campaign manager, Fromberg talked about what he learned from Hillary, running on a record and the best sporting event for an election fundraiser.

RELATED: 5 questions de Blasio's budget doesn't answer

C&S: First things first: Are we going to see a new logo? So far you’ve been going with the same red typeface as in 2013.

RF: People have been responding well to the campaign in general. They’ve been responding to the mayor’s record; they’ve been responding to his accomplishments on things like pre-K, public safety, affordable housing and on mental health. I think we’ve seen a lot of excitement and we’re going to run a robust grass-roots campaign, and I think that’s been working over time. We’re seeing a lot of really good things, so I’m not going to necessarily say that we’re in a decision point on the logo, but I think things are working pretty well. I’m feeling good about it.

C&S: The 2013 campaign had the iconic “Tale of Two Cities” tagline. Will you be using that again?

RF: He’s going to run on his strong record. We now have free pre-K for every child. We’ve made a lot of progress on public safety – crime is down. We’ve ended the abuses of stop-and-frisk. And we’re instituting body cameras for police officers. We’ve made huge strides through ThriveNYC. That’s sort of a baseline. And then we’re going to talk about what his vision is for the city moving forward.

C&S: It seems like a lot is still in development. Ending the controversial use of stop-and-frisk policing was one of the premier issues of the 2013 campaign. Is there a specific policy issue that you’ll be hammering home in the 2017 campaign?

RF: We have a very strong record to run on. We’re going to talk about the commitments the mayor made in his campaign and the progress that we’ve made as a city in his administration. We’re also going to talk about the new policies that he’s implementing – things like 3K (pre-K for three-year-olds), things like body cameras and the positive vision that he’s got to continue to make the city more affordable.

C&S: You were the regional director for Hillary Clinton’s campaign in Pennsylvania, Ohio and Virginia – one win and two losses. What did you learn there? What are you hoping to repeat or avoid in the de Blasio campaign?

RF: On a very positive note, we ran a robust grass-roots campaign. We had a collegial team. We innovated in the way that we approached campaigning. I think what you take away from that is that you take no vote for granted. You triple down. You take every opportunity that you can to talk to every voter that you can and to share a positive vision. Thankfully for us, the mayor has that vision and he has that track record to run on.

C&S: What drew you to de Blasio specifically?

RF: I think he’s a national progressive leader. The accomplishments of things like Pre-K for All, which I was very involved in the implementation and launch of. Once you’ve been through that kind of experience working for somebody who’s as engaging, as focused on making progressive change and improving people’s lives – not just the wealthy, but also every single New Yorker, and that’s where he really drills down, he really thinks about it. So having worked with him and gotten to know how committed he is to that kind of progress for New Yorkers, it was a natural draw to come back and work for him.

C&S: Was his the first administration that you worked for, outside of campaigns?

RF: On my very first job out of school, I worked on the Hill for about a year. But what drew me to the administration was the progressive leadership that he was showing. The Pre-K for All was something I felt passionately about. I hadn’t worked within government in quite some time, but for a leader like that, it was an amazing opportunity. It was something I was glad to do.

“I think people recognize that the mayor is a fighter on behalf of them. And if that is going to mean that we have to stand up to Trump, he’s a leader in that effort.”

C&S: On your background, are you originally a New Yorker?

RF: I grew up in (New) Jersey.

C&S: And you were with Global Strategy Group before joining the de Blasio administration?

RF: Right, my background – I’ve been in progressive politics my whole career. I worked for the Sierra Club, I worked for a group called Wal-Mart Watch. I’ve been really focused on making progressive change. So I’ve worked for nonprofit organizations; I’ve worked for progressive groups; I’ve managed political campaigns for Glenn Nye in Virginia, for Steve Bellone out on Long Island. I worked for Global. I also worked for the mayor in launching the Pre-K For All program and then created the Public Engagement Unit. And then, obviously, worked for Hillary’s campaign and now honored to come back and serve the mayor again.

C&S: Have you been consulting for de Blasio unofficially these past few months? Or did you take some time off after the Hillary campaign?

RF: I took some time off after the Hillary campaign. That was a great experience, but I was certainly happy to take a little bit of time off after.

RELATED: How much will NYC lose under Trump's budget?

C&S: You were with Pre-K for All and the Public Engagement Unit within the mayor's office. Both of those were data-driven operations. You’re reaching out to specific people like parents of 4-year-olds, or people that may be close to losing their apartments. Can we expect a granular, data-driven campaign here in 2017?

RF: One of the lessons that we’ve learned over time is you want to be efficient with the way you reach out. But what’s really important for the mayor of New York City, when you have this kind of record that you can run on, is to have a broad message that touches every New Yorker. We are going to go to every community. We’re going to ask every voter for their vote. It’s a precious and personal thing, and we’re going to continue to reach out and ask for that. And you take no vote for granted that somebody’s going to vote for you, and you take no vote for granted that they’re not going to vote for you. And the way that you run a robust, grass-roots campaign is we’re just going to keep on top of reaching out to everybody that we can.

C&S: Do you have a data unit yet? Do you have people specifically working on the demographics?

RF: I think we have a good sense of what the electorate looks like. But at the same point, we understand that there are 8.5 million people in the city, that he is the mayor for all those 8.5 million people and that his record on things like pre-K and on things like public safety touch everyone. And it’s important that we continue to communicate that with every voter in the campaign but every New Yorker in general.

C&S: You haven’t run an electoral campaign before in New York City. Is this an easy way to start, with a relatively popular incumbent?

RF: I wouldn’t call it easy, but I would call it a great opportunity. Any campaign manager’s dream should be a progressive candidate who has this kind of record to run on, who has a vision for the future and is an engaged, grass-roots candidate who’s very focused on that kind of outreach.

C&S: You have C-list opposition on the Democratic side. Is there percentage of the primary vote you’re hoping to reach in order to make a splash?

RF: When you think about what this campaign is going to be, you take absolutely nothing for granted. We’re going to focus heavily on speaking to voters in the primary. We’re going to have a long-term plan heading into November for the general. But again, you can’t take anything for granted. Our approach is we’re going to work hard and ask for every vote so that Bill de Blasio will be the Democratic nominee and will be re-elected as mayor of New York City.

C&S: What’s working hard going to look like? Are we going to see Ed Koch-style campaigning at the subway stops, waving and shaking hands? Or is he just going to be doing his job in office?

RF: He can walk and chew gum at the same time. You’ve seen that he’s already started to engage the grass roots. There’s a lot of different ways that you can do that. He’s gone and has spoken at Democratic clubs. He’s going to be out there campaigning, certainly. We are going to have a robust outreach and organizing effort that’s also going to speak directly to voters. But he’s very, very committed to speaking voters himself and being out there.

C&S: You’re going to attend the official debates, but can we expect to see de Blasio at the forums, the unofficial stuff run by Democratic clubs?

RF: We’re still formulating what that’s going to look like. The official debates run by the (New York City) Campaign Finance Board. We are committed to doing those.

C&S: How much are you involved with fundraising? This has been ongoing since 2014, but he has at least one donor in every single ZIP code in the city where people live except for Hunts Point. Was that a goal?

RF: Ninety-five percent of our donors (ed: in the latest filing period) have given less than $175. When you’re aiming for those kind of grass-roots donations, and that’s your strategy, to raise the small dollars focused on New York City residents, that’s kind of the outcome when you’re really that focused on spreading a broad message. And when, frankly, you have that much energy and support and people are really responding and mobilizing around your candidacy, that’s the kind of widespread support that we have and we should continue to expect and that’s what we’re going to keep focusing on.

RELATED: 25 Brooklyn influencers you need to know

C&S: Your average donation in the first couple months of 2017 is $118 – is a far cry from Bernie Sanders’ famous $27, but still quite low. Are you aiming for those small donors, trying to lower the average contribution?

RF: Yeah, that’s very, very important to us. We have a robust digital effort and we are really focused on those small dollar contributors, like some of the great, progressive campaigns that have been out there. And that is what our focus will continue to be.

C&S: How much is Trump helping? With fundraising and even with people just wanting to support a progressive?

RF: I think what he is doing and a lot of what we’re seeing from Washington has a major impact on the lives of New Yorkers. You’ve got your travel ban, your IDNYC, the ACA – which we’re really, really trying to protect. And those things that are going to impact the lives of New Yorkers, we’re very focused on. And I think we are very fortunate, and I think people recognize that the mayor is a fighter on behalf of them. And if that is going to mean that we have to stand up to Trump, he’s a leader in that effort. And he’s going to fight to protect New Yorkers.

C&S: You’re a big sports fan. Is a Mets game or a Rangers game better for a de Blasio fundraiser?

RF: The mayor is a big, big baseball fan. He went to one of the first Mets games (this year). He’s probably the only guy to step on the mound wearing a Mets jersey who hasn’t gotten hurt this year (laughs), so we have that going for us. But he’s a big baseball fan and he’s attended a number of Mets games. In terms of keeping your candidate comfortable and engaged, that’s where you want to be for Bill de Blasio.

C&S: A recent New York Times story suggested that lobbyist James Capalino was pulling some strings in getting the 1986 Mets to appear in a made-for-TV rally with the mayor. Does the campaign worry about pushing back against these controversies, that some suggest he’s too beholden to lobbyists and donors?

RF: The mayor has – we’re confident that everything has been done above board, that everything has been appropriate. Our focus, when it comes to fundraising, is on those low-dollar contributions. And we’re going to continue to do that.

C&S: De Blasio is a bit notorious for now allowing off-topic questions from journalists once a week, but lately he’s been going longer and last week he allowed off-topic questions twice. Is this part of the campaign strategy?

RF: Look, the mayor has been accessible to reporters and he’s been talking to New Yorkers across the board. He’s been doing town halls and he’s continuing to find ways across many different platforms to make sure that New Yorkers are hearing from him and getting their questions answered. So I think that’s the continuing commitment.

C&S: Is there going to be an official campaign launch date press conference? Or is he already in campaign mode?

RF: We’re still making a lot of the determinations for what the rest of the campaign is going to look like. But he’s going to continue to go out there and do events and make sure that people are hearing from him and understand how engaged he is in this effort.

C&S: Who scares you most on the Republican side?

RF: We’re going to let them figure that out and be ready to compare our record against anybody else’s come November. We’ll let them take care of their business.

Correction: An earlier version of this interview misquoted Fromberg as saying that de Blasio had ended the use of stop-and-frisk. In fact, Fromberg said the mayor had ended the abuses of stop-and-frisk. 

Jeff Coltin
is a staff reporter at City & State. He covers New York City Hall.