NEW YORK—Bill de Blasio, the 6-5 mayor of the nation’s largest city, slipped in almost unnoticed through a side door in the small community center in Chelsea, where a full-throated anti-Donald Trump resistance meeting was already underway.
Ten days earlier, Trump had been elected the next president of the United States, and New York City, which voted overwhelmingly against him, was still reeling. But anger was starting to find outlets, and one of them was here, where hundreds gathered for a hastily thrown together meeting billed as “Rise Together: The American Majority Against Trump.”
De Blasio’s three years in office so far have been marred by a series of disappointments, missteps, and seeming deafness to the politics of the moment—a track record that had put the mayor at risk of being taken down by his own party in next year’s primary. But since the election, a life raft has suddenly appeared: Trump.
As the president-elect sits in his midtown Trump Tower office, assembling an administration overtly hostile to the kind of progressive politics New Yorkers embrace, de Blasio has found a calling. In front of crowds, he can often fail to connect, coming off as the goofy dad or the scolding headmaster who hasn’t yet quite grown into the office. Here, in the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender Community Center, he leaned straight in. “This is how we fight back!” the mayor shouted. Fists were raised.
Want to take away a woman’s right to choose, Mr. Trump?, the mayor asked the crowd.
Want to overturn marriage equality?
“There will be a national political uprising!”
At a moment when so much fear pervaded the city that comparisons to 9/11 were becoming routine, the mayor of New York sounded the note that so many wanted to hear: We protect our own. “If you are a Latino, New York City stands with you! If you are a Muslim, if you are LGBT, if you are an immigrant, we will never stop being New Yorkers! THAT is how we fight back!”
It is a fight that de Blasio needed. After his surprise landslide win in 2013, de Blasio had seen a steady erosion of support throughout his mayoralty, as his administration seemed unable to avoid tripping over its own feet. There was a massive affordable housing plan that met unforeseen neighborhood opposition; there was a ban on horse carriages in Central Park that reeked of political quid pro quo and was quickly abandoned. Homelessness is up; rank-and-file members of the New York Police Department have literally turned their backs on him in public. He’s under no fewer than five separate corruption investigations by six different federal, state and local entities. Then there was his disastrous foray into national politics, in which de Blasio refused to endorse his one-time boss Hillary Clinton, instead unveiling his own fifteen-point plan to combat economic inequality that was met with a deafening lack of interest. Around City Hall the mood was so grim that, according to one de Blasio advisor, there was a nagging question of whether or not the mayor would even seek a second term in office in 2017.
Now, though, de Blasio has emerged as a mayor transformed. The president-elect has spent the past few weeks in his Fifth Avenue offices interviewing generals and billionaires and anti-immigration lawmakers for jobs in his new administration. De Blasio has spent it traveling the city’s five boroughs talking about democracy, diversity, tolerance. He describes a vision for a city that will stand as eight-and-a-half million strong antithesis of Trumpism. And by linking arms with his fellow mayors across the country, an executive who has been described by both himself and his detractors as an organizer more than a manager, de Blasio is building a rearguard force to fight the worst ideas coming down from the penthouse on Fifth Avenue.
In the days after the election, when the rest of the Democratic Party was stunned into silence, de Blasio emerged through a series of similar public appearances as the unwavering voice of the opposition. When even Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren were pledging to find common ground with the new administration, and Cuomo was suggesting that a Trump presidency would be a “bonus” for the state, de Blasio was defiant almost from the start, vowing to “confront” the new president should he do anything perceived as “a threat to New Yorkers.”
The 2017 mayor’s race in New York was supposed to begin on November 9. But after the city’s political class left the Hillary Clinton election night party at the Javits Center on the city’s far west side, the appetite for an internal Democratic squabble dropped. The new president was one stop away from Gracie Mansion on the Lexington line, and promised to do for the nation what Rudy Giuliani did for the city: deliver a zero-tolerance, anti-cosmopolitan law-and-order regime, picking public fights and pettily feuding with his opponents. And so a mayor who almost comically screwed up his moment on the national stage suddenly found himself with another shot – but one that has the potential to put the nation’s largest city directly at war with the most powerful man in America.
Bill De Blasio is a creature of politics, a lifelong activist for progressive causes and one of the few inhabitants of City Hall in recent years who got there by slowing inching his way up the political ladder, from Community School Board to City Council to Public Advocate to Mayor, but his personality often seems like an awkward fit in an office that has been grown to accommodate the gargantuan personalities and ambitions of the people that have held it—Fiorello LaGuardia, Ed Koch, Giuliani, Michael Bloomberg. Instead, de Blasio goofily shovels snow in front of his Park Slope home, and cracks corny jokes at inopportune moments while scolding the press for its lack of seriousness.
His feud with Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a one-time mentor and another New York pol trying to serve as a living example of a new kind of politics, dogs him everywhere he travels. His aides know they have a leash with the press far shorter than the one his billionaire predecessor enjoyed, but still de Blasio does himself no favors: he left on a weeklong vacation to Italy soon after being sworn in, takes mid-morning trips to the YMCA far from City Hall for workouts, and spends his Fridays kibitzing at his favorite Park Slope restaurant.
His two citywide runs for office were masterclasses in positioning, in building coalitions, in waiting for the right moment to strike. But once in office, he governed like someone who forgot everything he knew about politics. He stopped relying on his staff, especially his communications team; he was unable to dodge the persistent criticism that he was more interested in serving as the leader of newly emboldened progressive movement than he was running the city. Even as he passed most of his agenda, he would stumble backwards across the finish line, knocking out would-be allies along the way. “Never underestimate the ability of this mayor to take a moment advantageous to him and fucking blow it,” said one former aide.
As a result, among white voters, de Blasio has a paltry 28 percent approval rating. Among self-identified liberals, de Blasio has seen a 15-point drop since the summer, even as his overall approval rating has steadied.
As his popularity slid, speculation in New York City’s political circles grew that a serious challenger would arise in the 2017 Democratic primary, someone like City Comptroller Scott Stringer or Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz, Jr or Brooklyn Congressman Hakeem Jeffries. All three have been persistent critics of City Hall, knocking the mayor for not moving fast enough on police reform and for failing to pay enough attention to the nuts and bolts of running a city.
But in the aftermath of the election, it appears that de Blasio has at last found a moment he can seize. In a fundraising letter sent four days after the election, the mayor repeated his vow to defy any federal order to register Muslim or deport Mexicans, and made clear that anyone who lined up on the other side was doing the work of Trump.
“Now that will probably make us a target of Trump supporters in our upcoming election,” de Blasio wrote. “While he received only small pockets of support in New York City, much of it came from people who are prepared to spend a lot of money to defeat us next year.”
On the local front, the tactic seems to have worked. Both Stringer and Diaz have refrained from criticizing de Blasio in recent days–both declined interview requests for this story–and Jeffries took a leadership post on Capitol Hill and told a radio interview that running for mayor “is not something I am thinking about.”
And so instead the mayor has turned his attention to Trump, someone who is both his president, and, for the moment, a constituent. The argument between the two predates the election; in July, Trump took time out of his presidential campaign to tell the New York Post that de Blasio was “the worst mayor in New York City history,” while de Blasio compared the Republican nominee to a “third world dictator” and campaigned often in swing states in the second half of 2016. Nonetheless, de Blasio was also the first Democrat in the country to visit the new leader in his lair. The mayor met with the new president for an hour at Trump Tower after the election, and afterward faced a phalanx of national news cameras and — for once — sounded like a man who fully grasped the gravity of his office, and the moment. “I let him know that so many New Yorkers were fearful, and that more had to be done to show that this country can heal and that people be respected,” de Blasio said. He pledged to be “vigilant, and swift to react any time any action is undertaken that will undermine the people of New York City.”
A few days later, at a much-hyped address at Cooper Union in the very hall where Abraham Lincoln delivered his “right makes might” speech calling for a halt to the expansion of slavery in the western territories, De Blasio went into more detail. He outlined precisely how the Trump resistance would go, vowing that the city would block a Muslim registry, provide abortions if the practice were outlawed at the Supreme Court, not comply with any new stop-and-frisk federal directives, and protect undocumented immigrants from deportation.
“The results of an election don’t change who we are. A single office-holder doesn’t change who we are; a law that gets passed in Washington doesn’t change who we are,” de Blasio said. “We are 8.5 million strong, and we ain’t changing. We are always New York. Somos siempre Nueva York.”
People noticed. “NYC Mayor Teaches Democrats How To Fight Trump,” declared one Daily Kos writer. “I think we found our 2020 candidate. THIS is what it means to be a progressive.”
For restive liberals, de Blasio’s re-election campaign will be a first big test in the Age of Trump. In 2013, he stirred progressive hearts with his plans to raise taxes on the rich to pay for preschool and his unabashed desire for a more equitable city. In 2017, will the message still connect? De Blasio doesn’t think the party needs to decide on the question that most analysts say now bedevil it nationally, whether to double down on a coalition of identity politics, or to push an economic populist argument more appealing to middle and lower income whites. His own race can be seen as proof it’s possible to hit both notes: he made economics and inequality central to his campaign, but he also has an African-American wife and was willing to anger police unions by talking of his fear of his biracial son getting into a confrontation with cops. But if he doesn’t improve his standing with white liberals, or even outer-borough white moderates who make up the building trades and uniformed forces of the city, he could be vulnerable to the kind of blue-collar populist swell that disrupted this year’s presidential race.
Some activists are primed to use a de Blasio win to reinvigorate the national party from the grassroots. “2017 is our rehearsal,” Linda Sarsour, the executive director of the Arab-American Association of New York, told a post-election meeting of the Muslim Democratic Club of New York. “2017 we build the base here in New York City, and then in 2018 we tea party them.”
De Blasio and his aides insist that his re-election won’t be about Trump, or the future of the Democratic Party, or what it means to be a progressive in a dark time for the left. It will be about his record as mayor, and, if he gets a serious opponent, their competing agendas. The singular vision of his first term was addressing the city’s staggering level of income inequality, and they intend to point to the passage of universal pre-kindergarten, a two year rent freeze in some city apartments, a new paid sick leave bill, new paid family leave, 80,000 new affordable apartments.
“This campaign isn’t about Trump. It’s about New York and New Yorkers,” said Phil Walzak, a senior advisor to the mayor who just left City Hall to join the campaign. “But people need to understand that there is an administration here that will protect you should something dangerous happen.”
The whole point of Bill de Blasio in City Hall was never merely about running a city, but about showing that aggressively liberal governance could work in America in the 21st Century, that you could build a more a more equal society, one where wages were higher, police community relations better and housing more affordable without cratering the economy, driving up crime or giving the wealthy a reason to flee.
But unlike Mayor Bloomberg, who waited until he won re-election by a landslide before taking his brand of nonpartisan technocratic solutions national, de Blasio arrived in Washington D.C to unveil his Progressive Agenda on the very same day that a poll showed a twenty percent drop in his approval rating from the day he took office, and that more voters than not thought his national ambitions were distracting him from the job he was hired for.
The much ballyhooed Progressive Agenda nearly fell apart when various progressive groups found that their own pet items weren’t included—it had nothing on the environment, or health care, or campaign finance, for example. Even President Obama dismissed it as a rehash of much of his own agenda.
“We all think he is great,” said one D.C-based progressive organizer who worked on the project. “But you couldn’t say he has handled his politics well, especially in New York.”
“The mayor is just not interested in running the city of New York,” said Tony Avella, a tough-talking state senator from a largely white, solidly middle class district in outer Queens, and someone who told POLITICO that he is considering running for mayor himself in 2017. “It is all about his personal political philosophy, which is nice, but then he should be a political consultant. If he wants to be mayor, he should be running the city.”
If the rollout of the Progressive Agenda was bungled, what happened was a catastrophe. First de Blasio pointedly declined to endorse Hillary Clinton, whose first campaign for the Senate he ran and who was on the dais when he was sworn in as mayor. Here was someone who on the day after he won election received phone calls from both Bill and Hillary, and told reporters “I am proud to come from the Clinton family” but who said he couldn’t support her for president without hearing more about her “vision.”
But he didn’t endear himself to the left when he declined to endorse Sanders either, and then, as if the project wasn’t complete until every constituency in the Democratic Party was pissed off at him, became one of the few people to publicly dissuade a still grieving Joe Biden from entering the race.
When he did finally back his old boss, he did so alone, without Clinton alongside him. Later that day, the campaign sent out a missive including de Blasio’s support alongside 85 other mayors supporting her candidacy. For his efforts, he was rewarded with a CSPAN-only afternoon speaking slot at the Democratic National Convention.
“That shit was so bungled,” one former aide observed. “He’s never going to get national Democrats to listen to him.”
In person, de Blasio doesn’t sound like someone much chastened by his role in the campaign. “I am glad I did it,” de Blasio said in an interview in his office where The Nation magazine sits conspicuously on a coffee table next to a red “Make America Fair Again” hat. “I don’t want to overstate the impact, but all of us who did something, we created some pressure that this was the direction we needed to go in. The question of income inequality became the central topic in the Democratic primary! Bernie and Hillary fought over who would tax the wealthy more! That was music to my ears.”
Trump solved this problem for the mayor. Now when he opposes Trump’s most draconian policies, he will be both defending his city and taking a national stand. De Blasio’s new national play is to stay aggressively local, which is precisely where leading liberals think the next battles will be fought anyway. “We have to assert local rights, local control, and that’s how we will defend the interests of our people,” de Blasio said. It is a national plan though, one that involves not just New York, but Los Angeles and Chicago and other Democratic powerhouse cities digging in against the excesses of the new regime.
This does not mean that de Blasio’s spot in City Hall is safe. There’s still momentum to oust the mayor, largely from the business community and the upper-crust liberals who swooned for Bloomberg. Bradley Tusk, a one-time top aide to Mayor Mike Bloomberg, founded an outside group, NYC Deserves Better, dedicated to making sure that de Blasio is a one-term mayor and pledging to put millions of dollars from business leaders behind the effort. He has been relentless in his criticism of the mayor, and even wrote a public letter all but daring Stringer to get into the race—so far to no avail.
As Tusk sees it, considering the swirling and overlapping investigations into his administration, some kind of indictment or legal ruling against someone in de Blasio’s City Hall is all but inevitable. And failing that, his polls show that a candidate in a one-on-one race can cleave together a majority, presuming he or she found a way to overwhelm de Blasio among white voters while splitting Hispanics and peeling around a quarter to a third of his black base. The message? Hammer home the corruption and the management stumbles, grab liberals aggrieved over some of the mayor’s failed promises on police-community relations and closing the income gap, and highlight declines in quality-of-life metrics and perceived upticks in crime. (Even though crime is down, a recent poll commissioned by the police union showed that most New Yorkers don’t believe it.)
“I think he is in trouble. There are a lot of people that don’t like him,” said Elinor Tatum, publisher of the Amsterdam News, the oldest and largest Black newspaper in New York. “After Trump, all bets are off.”
When asked what kind of candidate would be best prepared to take the mayor on, Tatum said that a black woman would be the best candidate, since such a candidate would take the most away from de Blasio’s strongest base of support, and that it should be someone from outside the political system, a la Bloomberg.
When it was pointed out that this also describes her, Tatum laughed and conceded that it did, and that she was “considering considering” mounting a campaign.
For de Blasio, much like the point of his first administration was to show that progressive governance can work, the theory of the case for his second campaign for mayor is that his vision of the Democratic Party can work. Will he win re-election as the candidate of identity politics, sweeping black and brown precincts on the strength of his family and his police reform rhetoric, much as he did in 2009? Or will those kind of white, economically beleaguered voters in the city’s outer boroughs also heed his call for economic justice in such a way that makes them realize he means them too?
Trump though remains both a rhetorical foil and a real threat. With hate crimes seeing a 35 percent spike, de Blasio blames the tone coming out of Trump Tower. De Blasio ran in 2013 with the audacious goal of lessening inequality in a confined geographic area where penthouses butt up against housing projects. Now, sitting in his City Hall office,he says help from the federal level, the goal “is more distant than ever.”
“Now we are going to have to fight to preserve the gains we have made,” he says. “We have to do what we can to stop an increase in income inequality.”
The city, he says, will be a haven in the face of the new regime, even as Trump threatens to return home every weekend. “We create our own reality,” says de Blasio. “We here can create a government for our people, with our values.”
But it won’t be easy. New York relies on $7 billion in federal money per year, which helps pay for everything from subways to public housing to mitigating the effects of climate change. Trump has threatened to pull that money from cities that attempt to protect immigrants against his policies. If Trump promises to deport millions of undocumented immigrants, he could start by using the data culled from the mayor’s IDNYC program, a measure favored by liberals that created a municipal identification card for all who sought one, regardless of legal status. Would Trump withhold money from cities that refuse to re-institute stop-and-frisk? The mayor has pledged to resist, while pledging to provide abortion services if federal support dries up, while also promising to provide legal services to immigrants. That could get expensive. Just in the past week the mayor asked Congress for an additional $35 million to cover security costs related to protecting the president-elect up through Inauguration Day. Republicans responded with a mere $7 million allocation. (A Republican source told the New York Post that Congress had “little appetite” to “bend over backwards” for de Blasio, given the line he’d been taking on Trump.)
It is easy to imagine municipal budgets soon reaching a breaking point. The city wouldn’t be so much a sanctuary but an island under siege, and under attack from a force headquartered within its borders.
De Blasio has said he was heartened by Trump’s paeans to New York during the campaign, and when he met with the new president, tried to explain the fear that New Yorkers felt about the new administration. He impressed upon Trump that there were 900 Muslim members of the NYPD. And although de Blasio declined to characterize Trump’s response, he did not emerge from the gilded island in the sky suddenly sanguine over the possibility that Trump will govern differently than he campaigned.
And so what is surely to be a long battle is just beginning. And like so much of what has happened over the last four weeks, it is all uncharted territory. Can Trump live with someone in home city throwing bricks? If de Blasio really wants to be a spokesman for Progressive America, he couldn’t have asked for a better opponent. Can he curb his own worst political instincts while still leading the opposition, which by mere dint of geography and size the mayor must do? Can he run and win another mayoral campaign that convinces liberals to love him?
“We get a chance to live out the alternative to the hateful picture that Trump has painted,” de Blasio told the activists at the Center in Chelsea that evening. “This is a city that has done well as a multi-cultural, multi-racial, multi-faith society. And we are going to and together with people all over the country. There are cities and towns all over who feel the same we do, and who are going to stand up with us. This is going to take organizing, and we are going to be doing that organizing.
“This is the beginning of the next phase.”
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