De Blasio tries hard to stand out in the first presidential debate

Bill de Blasio, Tim Ryan and Julian Castro were among 10 to face off during the first presidential debate Wednesday!
Bill de Blasio, Tim Ryan and Julian Castro were among 10 to face off during the first presidential debate Wednesday!
Michele Eve Sandberg/Shutterstock
Bill de Blasio, Tim Ryan and Julian Castro were among 10 to face off during the first presidential debate Wednesday!

De Blasio tries hard to stand out in the first presidential debate

Hizzoner tests an anti-corporate message on the national stage.
June 27, 2019

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio did his best to stand out on a crowded debate stage Wednesday night and largely succeeded, making his limited time on camera count by establishing himself as one of the most anti-corporate candidates in the 2020 Democratic presidential field. 

De Blasio was one of 10 candidates featured in the first official debate. Ten more, including U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, will grace the stage Thursday night. But de Blasio set himself apart early by being one of just two candidates on stage, along with U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, to raise his hand when asked who supported ending all privately run health insurance plans in favor of government-run insurance. De Blasio didn’t get much of a chance to explain his position, but did butt in on former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke’s answer defending private plans. “Private insurance is not working for tens of millions of Americans!” de Blasio said. “Why are you defending private insurance?”

That position puts him at odds with most of the Democratic field on one of the most heated – and complex – national issues, but it fit with de Blasio’s other anti-corporate lines of the night. He opened by declaring his support for a 70% marginal tax rate on the wealthy and breaking up corporate monopolies before diving into the line that has become his presidential campaign’s catchphrase: “There’s plenty of money in this world. There’s plenty of money in this country. It’s just in the wrong hands.”

The mayor’s top line of the night may have come when talking about immigration policy. Unlike some other candidates, de Blasio shied away from policy specifics, and spoke broadly about racial animosity that he sees as misplaced. 

“For all the Americans out there who feel they’re falling behind, who feel the American dream is not working for you – the immigrants didn’t do that to you!” de Blasio said to growing applause. “The big corporations did that to you! The one percent did that to you! We need to be the party of the working people, and that includes the party of immigrants.”

De Blasio is among the lower-performing candidates in national polls, and was treated as such Wednesday night. He was the seventh candidate to get asked a question, and didn’t speak on camera at all for one 35-minute stretch in the middle of the debate. By the end, only one candidate, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, has less speaking time than de Blasio. 

And yet de Blasio’s performance earned praise on social media from Democratic validators like criminal justice activist Shaun King, liberal filmmaker Michael Moore and comedian Sarah Silverman. Even typical nemeses like the New York City press corps and Republican New York City Councilman Joe Borelli had nice things to say. 

De Blasio set himself apart in other ways, too. He was one of just two candidates, along with Warren, who didn’t mention the name of President Donal Trump. Instead, de Blasio took opportunities to talk about his family, referencing his military veteran father in an answer about foreign intervention, and his son, Dante, in an answer about police-community relations.

Having a black son sets him apart from the other candidates, de Blasio said. “I’ve had to have very, very serious talks with my son Dante about how to protect himself in the streets in our city and all over this country … because there’s been too many tragedies between our young men and our police.”

Five years ago, de Blasio made similar comments when a Staten Island grand jury declined to indict an officer in the death of Eric Garner. Soon after, New York City police officers, led by the Police Benevolent Association, turned their backs on him during an officer’s funeral in one of the most tense periods of de Blasio’s time as mayor, one that colors de Blasio’s relationship with the NYPD to this day.

And try as he might to become a national figure, the mayor can never seem to escape the minutiae of city government. The police union was present once again at the debate Wednesday, protesting de Blasio outside the arena while the union negotiates its latest contract with the city.

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