When the cat’s away, the mice will answer to the first deputy mayor

A screenshot from Bill de Blasio's presidential campaign announcement.
A screenshot from Bill de Blasio's presidential campaign announcement.
via Youtube
A screenshot from Bill de Blasio's presidential campaign announcement.

When the cat’s away, the mice will answer to the first deputy mayor

Bill de Blasio will be out of town a lot. Here’s what that will mean.
May 19, 2019

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio is planning on spending much of the next year in county fairs in Iowa and Rotary Clubs in New Hampshire.

If you’re wondering what happens at City Hall while he’s away, or if he actually wins – well, the latter seems… unlikely. But either way, we’ve got you covered.

Who runs the city while the mayor’s away?

Effectively, First Deputy Mayor Dean Fuleihan will take charge while de Blasio’s out of town – the city charter allows the mayor to delegate responsibilities to a deputy while he’s away. A veteran government worker – he previously worked for both de Blasio and former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver as budget czar –  Fuleihan is already responsible for managing much of the day-to-day city operations and overseeing many city agencies. De Blasio has said that he is in constant communication with Fuleihan and other deputies while he’s away, and that final decision-making still rests solely with him. The mayor has often works remotely rather than from his office at City Hall, and emails have shown he relies heavily on aides and advisors even when he is in the five boroughs, so the reality is that de Blasio’s absence will likely have little effect on running the city.

But he’s the mayor, shouldn’t he be, you know, around?

One can make the argument that part of the mayor’s job, as the city’s chief executive, is to be publicly visible in the city, even if the value of his presence is mainly symbolic. The idea would be that he reassures constituents that things are getting done and that the person in charge cares about what is happening in the city. It’s like when the mayor visits victims of an accident – he is not a doctor, he cannot do anything in that moment to actually help those people, yet at the same time his absence could feel glaring to some. De Blasio was the target of fierce criticism when he left for Germany just a day after a police officer was killed, for example.

But de Blasio already spends a fair amount of time outside the city, despite the fact that he dinged his predecessor Michael Bloomberg for his absences. But it’s also his last term. With no more city races to run, the political risk of leaving considerably lessens. De Blasio has a disapproval rating of 44%, compared to a 42% approval rating, according to an April poll from Quinnipiac University, so it’s not like he can run on his popularity at home anyway.

Does that mean we won’t see him for weeks at a time?

De Blasio has said that he will periodically return to the city. Due to a quirk in city law, he might even come back every nine days. According to the city charter, Fuleihan cannot serve indefinitely during the mayor’s absence. The public advocate will take over if he is gone for more than nine days and will act as mayor until he returns. This very nearly happened in 2014 when de Blasio took a family vacation to Italy, but his staff was careful to ensure that the mayor was not physically gone from the city for a long enough period of time that then-Public Advocate Letitia James would take over. Current Public Advocate Jumaane Williams has also said he has no interest in becoming mayor via de Blasio abdicating, even if he will perform his duties as necessary.

Is this an issue in other places? What’s South Bend doing while Pete Buttigeg is campaigning?

New York City is the most populous city in the country, larger than most states, larger even than the combined population of Iowa and South Carolina, where de Blasio spent the weekend. So the issue of who runs it is likely more pressing than other municipalities, particularly South Bend, In., which has 102,000 people. There are City Council districts with larger populations than that entire city. But according to South Bend’s municipal code, much like in New York City, the deputy mayor (there is only one in South Bend) takes over in the mayor’s absence, or in the event of a vacancy. A cursory look at the municipal code does not seem to offer other specifics about how long the deputy mayor can serve in that capacity, nor the mechanisms for an election if the absence is permanent. But Buttigeg is term-limited in Novemeber anyway and the race to replace him is already underway.

What happens if de Blasio decides to resign, wins or doesn’t fulfill his term because he gets elected vice president or appointed to a cabinet position by the next president?

As unlikely as it seems, there are mechanisms in place to hold a special election if de Blasio steps down to campaign full time, or if he gets elected in the 2020 general. The public advocate would step in immediately to become acting mayor and, within three days of the vacancy, announce the date for a non-partisan special election, to be followed by a primary and general election the same year. The winner of that race would determine who completes the remainder of de Blasio’s term. If de Blasio resigned so late in 2020 that a primary could not be held, the special election would determine the person who would hold the position until the 2021 election.

For a better understanding, just take a look at this year’s three public advocate races. There was first a special election free-for-all, to be followed by a June primary, if one is necessary, finally culminating in a November general election to decide who will stay in the position until the next regular election in 2021. The rules for the mayoral election follow the same strange, redundant format.

Rebecca C. Lewis
is a staff reporter at City & State.