We can all agree on one thing about New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio: He was really tall. Everything else is up for debate. But now, as de Blasio’s eight years as mayor of the greatest city in the world come to a term-limited end, it seems like the right time to assess his legacy.
We know how he feels about his own tenure – at least, what he’ll say publicly. His greatest achievements, he said at a December event at the Roosevelt House Public Policy Institute in Manhattan, were neighborhood policing, the mental health initiatives branded under ThriveNYC and introducing universal pre-K. The fact that de Blasio has been relentlessly criticized for his handling of the New York City Police Department and that his mental health initiatives are regarded as at least hard to measure and at most a boondoggle, did not go unnoticed.
Old New York City mayors never fade away. They simply run for higher office. At least that was the fate of failed presidential candidates Rudy Giuliani, Michael Bloomberg and de Blasio. If everything goes as expected, de Blasio will also run for governor of the state of New York after he’s term-limited out of office as mayor on Jan. 1, 2022. Like Ed Koch before him, he probably won’t win.
There are many reasons for that, but part of the equation has to be that being mayor of New York City is a tough job. Responsible for everything, and never good enough. De Blasio introduced NYC Ferry? Cool, but too expensive. He built affordable housing, but affordable for who? Inequality was reduced, according to some measures, but does it feel like the tale of two cities is over?
And of course, de Blasio’s reputation was formed, in part, by being an easy target for ridicule. His adherence to Prospect Park YMCA trips was the perfect symbol of the stubbornness behind so many of his political decisions – and nondecisions. He walked a narrow ethical line with political fundraising, and the subsequent investigations left him deeply in debt. And many New Yorkers will never forgive him for running for president when he already had the greatest job in the world – which, for years, he never really seemed to enjoy.
Of course, nobody targeted de Blasio more than former Gov. Andrew Cuomo – and de Blasio outlasting his bitter rival has to be considered one of the triumphs of his tenure. Some may find de Blasio annoying, but he was never accused of engaging in a pattern of sexual misconduct, lording over a toxic workplace, covering up deaths from COVID-19 in nursing homes or profiting off of his government staff’s work on a book about leadership during the pandemic.
About that pandemic – it’s almost inevitable that de Blasio will be remembered as the COVID-19 mayor. It’s been an incredibly challenging time for the city, and while the specifics of de Blasio’s actions and decisions during this time are the subject of active debate, the city’s vaccination and testing infrastructure is a testament to his City Hall.
With all that in mind, City & State reached out to a variety of people who think deeply about city politics. And asked a simple question. “How will de Blasio be remembered?” Responses varied from long and thoughtful to short and snappy. There were points of agreement, like universal pre-K, but only one thing’s for certain: de Blasio was really tall.
These responses have been edited for length and clarity.
Harold Holzer, director of The Roosevelt House Public Policy Institute at Hunter College
Ultimately, I think Bill de Blasio will be remembered as the mayor who managed to enact universal pre-K. That’s a major achievement that no amount of negativity or controversy can take away from him. On the other hand, he will probably be remembered, too, as the mayor who engaged for too long in a futile, distracting feud with Gov. Cuomo that came to a head at the worst possible time: the COVID-19 crisis. That, in a nutshell, is Bill de Blasio’s tale of two cities.
Chapin Fay, Republican political consultant
Christina Greer, associate professor of political science at Fordham University and co-host of “FAQ NYC” podcast
BdB will be remembered for many things. Here’s my list off the dome.
Progressive politician who brought stop-and-frisk to the fold. Universal pre-K. Suspect relationships with real estate developers. Antagonistic relationship with the New York City press corps. Contentious relationship with the NYPD. Legal woes. Presidential bid. Beef with Gov. Cuomo. Naps. Chronic lateness. Steady hand during COVID-19 (at times). Unforced errors time and time again. Brooklyn YMCA. Horse carriages still going strong. MSNBC. Universal 3-K. Relatively safe city. Diverse cabinet. Could he end up like (former New Orleans Mayor) Ray Nagin?
Sean McElwee, progressive consultant
De Blasio was elected during the last wave of progressive activism surrounding Occupy Wall Street and the financial crisis. He campaigned on a tale of two cities and he successfully implemented a pre-K program, invested in our public hospital system and pushed through an ambitious city Green New Deal. As a new generation of progressives grows into governing it's worth learning lessons from him. Simply passing policies into law did not guarantee permanent popularity, events like police brutality ultimately defined the late mayoralty. The climate ambition of the city has been overwhelmed by the ill-fated decision at the state level (out of his control) to shut down Indian Point. As we pass ambitious climate legislation, it’s an important reminder that NIMBY concerns will bedevil the movement for years. Government is ultimately made of people, who have to execute on the progressive agenda, and the government is quickly losing talented young people. The new generation of progressives have seized power, but de Blasio’s mayoralty reminds us that wielding it is the difficult part. Ultimately I think de Blasio did a good job given the constraints of governing. And I wish the people who think they can do better the best, but it’s really fucking hard.
Frank Morano, independent radio talk show host for 77 WABC
Mayor de Blasio will be remembered as the mayor that gave us universal pre-K, never vetoed a single bill and presided over a dramatic increase of traffic deaths, while championing “Vision Zero” in spite of the fact that people weren’t even commuting into Manhattan for a year and a half. He’ll be remembered as a nice guy, who's completely inept when it comes to governing and so out of touch politically that he actually thought he could run for president and governor. He’ll be remembered as a person who perpetually engaged in shady fundraising practices, along with political favoritism, whose greatest contribution might be avoiding indictment.
Olivia Lapeyrolerie, vice president at political consulting firm SKDK and former first deputy press secretary to de Blasio
Nora Moran, director of policy and advocacy at United Neighborhood Houses
Obviously the big obvious one is pre-K. And there's no doubt it was really transformative in the life of kids and parents and the life of the city. I think there are education gains that will be seen down the line. They’re not old enough to see it yet, but we’ll get there. And we were involved in the fights around salary parity. That system was always designed to pay some people less than others. That was rectified, but it took so much fighting and so much pushback. Pre-K was great, and yet the way it was implemented was harmful to workers who were not paid what they should have been to do that work.
Joseph Viteritti, Thomas Hunter professor of public policy at Hunter College, and author of “The Pragmatist: Bill de Blasio’s Quest to Save the Soul of New York”
It depends on whom you ask. If you ask parents who took advantage of free preschool so they could work and give their kids a boost, I would suppose, warmly. If you ask labor leaders who saw him reduce income inequality, I would suppose, appreciably. If you ask advocates for affordable housing, they would say, “Good, but not enough,” even though he did more than anyone since (Fiorello) La Guardia. If you ask people in poor neighborhoods who are afraid of both crime and the police, they would say, “He tried, but we’re still afraid.” If you ask Black and brown parents at charter schools he opposed, they would say, “Hey, what’s up?” If you ask me, I would say, with Trump in Washington, Cuomo in Albany and the plague, “Good run, lousy messaging.”
E. O’Brien Murray, conservative political consultant
He proved to the bitter end we need to be thankful for the part-time mayor. Imagine the damage he could have done if he was full-time.
George Arzt, public relations consultant
Universal pre-K is obviously the thing he’ll be remembered for. And that was a big victory. As it gets expanded, he will get credit for that for many years. On the negative side, it will be his lack of management skills. And the fact that he wasn’t the strong leader. And in many ways, he will go down – in a group probably with Abe Beame, David Dinkins and him – as weak mayors.
You had a strong mayor (with Bloomberg), but you always get elected as a reaction to the previous mayor, and Bloomberg never talked about the other half of the city – the people who were struggling in Black and brown communities. (De Blasio) got elected for doing that. Homelessness is out of control. He gets credit for putting more affordable housing on the market. Still, like most mayors, has not come up with a solution for homelessness.
He’ll be known as the mayor of the pandemic. And I think he gets OK grades for that. But was not a superstar. Of course, he had a problem with Andrew Cuomo at every turn.
He leaves a city that is looking forward to the next mayor. And I don’t think he will be remembered fondly by the electorate.
What was he thinking, going for president? What is he thinking going for governor now? He got into a lot of trouble on fundraising. Personal fundraising and raising money for Senate Democrats. And I often saw him at different events. He would ask people for money at events – “When are you going to throw me a party?”
You can’t really judge him like you judge other mayors because of the pandemic. But I thought on health matters he did a good job. But the city and the city’s economy is still trying to get out of the mess from the pandemic.
It’s the fundamentals that (de Blasio) lacked in. All of us who study the mayoralty go back to the La Guardia statement of there’s no Democratic or Republican way to pick up the trash. … And you just don’t get that from this administration.
Gerson Borrero, journalist and commentator
Correction: This post has been updated to correctly reflect Frank Morano's political stance.