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BROOKLYN — Bill de Blasio has seen that article from the Onion, the one that needles New Yorkers who had tired of his eight years as mayor and thought that the city’s fortunes would improve with his departure. “De Blasio: ‘Well, Well, Well, Not So Easy to Find a Mayor That Doesn’t Suck,'” the headline reads, with a scatological four-letter word added for emphasis.
Yes, the joke is partly on de Blasio, who left office roughly as popular as a parking ticket. But its true target is his successor, Eric Adams, who had promised to return New York to its pre-pandemic glory, only to have discovered that relentless, plainspoken optimism has not been quite enough to erase the depredations of the coronavirus pandemic.
“Comedy always gets to this kernel of truth,” de Blasio said when I showed him the Onion headline on a recent afternoon.
Never left enough for the left and always far too left for the Manhattan establishment, de Blasio became more moderate not by choice but by necessity.
“I’m in a reflective place about the things I did right and the things I don’t think I did right,” says de Blasio, who came to City Hall in 2014 by outflanking his top Democratic opponents on the left. He thinks his former constituents are going through a similar reevaluation, as the Onion headline seems, in his view, to suggest: “I think that headline, in a comedic way, points to something I’m hearing,” de Blasio offers, “where folks are thinking about it and they’re like, ‘You know, now we get it a little more.’ That’s sort of the sentiment I get from a lot of people. ‘What was all this about?’ Well, it was about real things.”
Returning after leaving office to his remodeled Park Slope row house as disenchantment with Adams increased seemed to render his own struggles — against crime, state legislators in Albany, the editorial board of the New York Post — in a more auspicious context. Then, two months ago, a byzantine legislative redistricting process created a new House of Representatives district that included de Blasio’s beloved neighborhood of brownstones and small businesses. He could be just another constituent — or the man who represents New York’s 10th Congressional District in Washington.
He announced his run on MSNBC in late May. “I feel a fire,” the former mayor said. He now casts himself as a chastened progressive, one whose experience would offer a necessary antidote to the rhetoric of Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and her so-called Squad.
His detractors rushed to put the fire out. “Hey de Blasio, no one wants you to run for anything!” harrumphed the New York Post.
De Blasio knows he has detractors, and not just among the Post’s conservative audience. In her upcoming book, “Any Given Tuesday,” political strategist Lis Smith — who lost out on a top job in his administration after her relationship with disgraced former New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer was made public — calls de Blasio “childish, intellectually lazy, overconfident in his own abilities and annoyingly condescending.”
As it happens, a call from Smith interrupts my conversation with de Blasio.
“You better get that,” he says, regarding my iPhone with newfound suspicion. I assure him that Smith and I were slated to speak for another article altogether, but the assurance does not appear entirely convincing. The mayoralty gave de Blasio unrivaled name recognition, but he can’t always help just what feelings his name summons.
The most substantive criticisms of de Blasio held that he was never an especially adept manager as mayor, preferring the kind of behind-the-scenes dealmaking and politicking that are ill suited to the mayoralty but are de rigueur on Capitol Hill, where members of Congress constantly strike allegiances and trade legislative favors, without any of the ethical scrutiny that hounded de Blasio in City Hall.
Nor did the isolated nature of the job serve de Blasio well. His predecessor, Michael Bloomberg, was an Upper East Side billionaire well ensconced in the city’s power elite, while current mayor Adams has a natural vivacity that may, on any given day, find him learning how to ride a Jet Ski or presiding (gleefully) over the demolition of illegal dirt bikes.
De Blasio sometimes seemed a captive at City Hall, as well as inside the official residence of Gracie Mansion, where he at first resisted moving. He was increasingly isolated from supporters — most of whom lived outside of Manhattan — but also unwilling to concede that his opponents had a point.
“The mayoralty is a bubble,” he says. “It is a constant state of tumult. I am proud of a lot that my team and I did, but it is no way to live.” Critics will wonder why, if he sought more connection with New Yorkers, he and his wife, Chirlane McCray, attended so few social events, especially during the formative first years of his tenure.
All his triumphs and regrets could serve as grist for a memoir, but de Blasio is not interested in the kind of retrospection that signals a political career at its end. Nor does a sinecure at a political consultancy hold any allure. And whatever one thinks of him — his policies, his motives, the fact that he eats pizza with a fork — it is obvious that electoral politics is what he was born to do. Any office he holds is simply preparation for the next one.
“I wouldn’t know how to sit on a beach,” says de Blasio, who sought the presidency in 2019. He never emerged from the bottom tier of Democratic candidates and dropped out of the race. He later considered running for governor, the office having been vacated by nemesis Andrew Cuomo. And for Congress in a district that included Staten Island, the city’s last major Republican redoubt.
He finally settled on the brand-new NY-10, which includes his longtime home of Park Slope, along with a diverse array of neighborhoods in Brooklyn and Manhattan home to ethnic whites conservative on cultural issues, Asian and Latino immigrants worried about crime and schools, and moneyed progressives attuned to the discourse on Twitter and cable news.
The 61-year-old de Blasio now finds himself in a crowded race that notably includes a congressman from another part of the state and an heir to the Levi Strauss fortune, along with a slate of other legislators and other local politicians. Polling and fundraising numbers have not been especially encouraging for him, but that was also the case nine years ago, when his campaign for mayor broke out from a crowded field.
Covering the mayoral race for the New York Daily News, I once caught the then public advocate walking down a lonely East New York street with his wife after a candidate forum where he had done little to stand out. Tall and stooped, he seemed from my vantage point on a transparently quixotic quest.
Several months later, he was inaugurated as the city’s new mayor. Envisioning a progressive revolution, he achieved a major early success by instituting free universal pre-kindergarten. But in the ensuing years, his accomplishments never rivaled that first victory; ethics controversies also took their toll. Regular trips to his Park Slope gym became a symbol, for his detractors and even some former supporters, of a leader unwilling to lead.
“I realize, now, some of the mistakes,” de Blasio says. Asked about the gym sojourns, he does not respond with the kind of bluster that City Hall reporters came to treat as an expected hazard of the job. “I got very stubborn about it because I felt offended,” he says of his gym regimen, pointing out that his predecessor Bloomberg routinely jetted off to Bermuda for weekend getaways (including during a devastating 2010 blizzard). “I should have just stopped and figured out something else.”
There were, of course, shortcomings that were more consequential. Writing recently in the Atlantic, de Blasio acknowledged that for much of his second term, his administration lacked a coherent vision: “I failed to give New Yorkers a clear sense of where I was taking them. I lost my connection with the people because I mistook real policy for real popularity,” he wrote. At least part of his time was occupied with a White House run that, while short-lived, nevertheless took him out of the city.
He seems plainly relieved to be free of the mayor’s endless burdens. “To feel life again, to feel humanity again, to feel the neighborhood again, to go back to my roots — it’s very moving, very energizing,” he told me.
It is late June, and de Blasio is sitting at an outdoor café on Sixth Avenue in Brooklyn, where he returned after leaving Gracie Mansion. He is both unburdened and impatient, relaxed and tense, the same de Blasio his constituents have known for years, only updated to suit the political realities of 2022.
Despite the enviable name recognition that came from governing 8 million people, victory in next month’s Democratic primary is far from certain. His top competitors include Daniel Goldman, the Levi Strauss heir whose role in the first Trump impeachment made him an MSNBC mainstay, and Rep. Mondaire Jones, a progressive rising star from the suburbs whom the arcane redistricting process left in search of a new seat to call his own.
The size and diversity of the district has attracted other candidates too, including state legislator Yuh-Line Niou and City Councilwoman Carlina Rivera, either of whom could emerge to capture voters’ imaginations. De Blasio is more likely banking on their loyalties: He expects to do well in the district’s sizable Orthodox Jewish community, one of the city’s last true voting blocs. But candidates like Brooklyn Assemblywoman Jo Anne Simon and former Rep. Liz Holtzman (first elected in the 1970s and famous for pushing the Justice Department to investigate Nazi war crimes ) add even more complexity to the race.
De Blasio’s argument is simple: If he could run the country’s largest city, he can handle a congressional office. Goldman is compelling as a television legal analyst, and Jones surely has a bright future in Squad-style politics, but de Blasio — in the de Blasio version of events — is the one for the moment, the one who knows every neighborhood in the district, who knows whom to call when things go wrong.
“I am not interested in joining a debate society,” he says. “People need help right now. This is the former city councilman in me speaking.”
These words are said with pride, as if his former constituents are listening. Well over 6 feet tall, de Blasio leans back. His phone is cracked, and one of his front teeth is chipped. Yet he claims he is relaxed and, in moments, genuinely does seem to be. At the very least, the irritated attitude of a chief executive too busy to answer the questions of citizens or reporters is nowhere in evidence. Passersby greet him pleasantly and he greets them right back, the exchanges coming with such frequency that I wonder if his campaign has put on an elaborate display.
De Blasio harbors ambitions, but not illusions. Those would be difficult to maintain in a city that never tires of reminding him of where he fell short, in particular in the progressive vision he outlined in his first campaign. As we sit talking, a makeshift banner flaps in the summer breeze from a chimney across Sixth Avenue, impossible for the mayor to miss. “Defund, disarm, decarcerate,” the banner reads.
It is impossible to read the message as anything but a rebuke to de Blasio. Although he ended the policy of stop-and-frisk while continuing to oversee historic drops in crime, he never enacted the ambitious police reforms he had promised. Rattled by the murder of two officers early in his first term, he largely left the New York Police Department to its own devices, a stance that satisfied neither criminal justice reformers nor advocates for public safety, which increasingly became an issue in his second term.
Progressives were especially infuriated when, during the social justice protests of 2020, he took on a we-must-have-order attitude that was at seeming odds with his views.
De Blasio remains unapologetic on that point, noting that not a single person died during the many nights of protests in New York. “It was a prevent defense,” he says of the police department’s response. “There were individual officers who did things that were absolutely inappropriate, and some of them paid the price for that.”
Activists thought the price was not high enough. Progressives who had worked for him at City Hall staged a public rally to denounce his commitment to equity and racial justice. Already hated by the right, he had by now lost the left as well.
De Blasio says he struggled to overcome his “initial personal pain” at accusations from the left that seemed to catch him off guard. But he insists his approach to the protests, and to policing more generally, was correct. “We were in such an imperfect situation,” he says. “I had to absorb that blow.”
He emerged from that summer a changed mayor. That fall, he pushed for a full reopening of the city’s public schools at a time when most Democrats were skittish about returning to pre-pandemic life. He also pushed for city employees to return to in-person work, arguing that city services could not be adequately provided via remote locations.
“Working-class people didn’t have that choice,” de Blasio says of remote work. “Frontline workers didn’t have that choice. I never left the office. I was there every day in City Hall.”
He also pushed for a stringent vaccine mandate that, he argued, would allow New York to reopen without being forced to shut down again. He even attended the Met Gala, the kind of high society event he had long spurned — the kind of event that, coupled with an outing to a cricket game in Canarsie and a beer garden in Williamsburg, may have dispelled the isolation he came to so thoroughly detest.
Now, in the upcoming Democratic primary, New Yorkers will have the chance to consider him all over again, though there is little in de Blasio today of the fiery rhetoric that marked his first run for mayor.
Though he maintains that he is the same progressive whom New Yorkers elected in 2013, de Blasio distances himself from the kind of polarizing rhetoric that has gripped parts of the left.
“Democrats, as a party, have lost touch with the essence of who we are and who we became as a party starting in the 1930s. We were the party of working people across all racial lines,” he told me, proceeding to relate the story of a woman in the Red Hook section of Brooklyn who needed help finding care for her autistic daughter in Maryland and how that kind of work is more important than the grandiose plans envisioned by younger progressives.
“I think they fall into this trap where they love to talk about big structural change,” says de Blasio, who once invoked such change himself. “But they don’t see the person in front of them who’s hurting.”
And if his own standing within the left has evolved from progressive firebrand to lunch-pail realist, he's fine with that too. “This is just my life’s journey around the left,” he says. “I love my roots on the left, and I honor them.”
What remains unstated is that roots that do not grow will decay. And say what you will about Bill de Blasio, he will not be undone by a lack of motion. If things don’t work out for him in this congressional race, there will be another seat, another race, another chance to prove his critics wrong.