You would think Bill de Blasio mattered; you would be wrong
New York City’s mayor, Bill de Blasio, was elected with 73 percent of the vote, and on November 7 he’ll probably be reelected in a comparable landslide. On September 12 he faced token opposition in the Democratic primary, to be followed by token opposition in the general election. (Staten Island assemblywoman Nicole Malliotakis is the GOP’s sacrificial lamb, while celebrity private detective Bo Dietl is running as an independent.)
Employment is up. Crime is down. The New York City economy and Wall Street are in bloom. In the grumbliest city in America, New Yorkers have little to kvetch about, except the trains, which, everyone knows, aren’t run out of City Hall. Yet in a fiercely progressive city, the progressive mayor’s approval rating hovers around 50 percent and has been underwater for much of his first term. In a City Hall that still rings with echoes of the footsteps of outsized personalities — Ed Koch, Rudy Giuliani, Mike Bloomberg — de Blasio barely makes a sound. No one credits him with engineering New York’s current state of ease. When the history of the period is written, he’ll be a footnote to the two-decade revolution that was the Giuliani–Bloomberg period. He’s a six-foot-five-inch dwarf.
Why doesn’t New York love Bill de Blasio?
It’s a question that preoccupies the mayor as he coasts to his second (and final, given term limits) stint in City Hall. “You’d assume they’d be having parades out in the streets,” he tells New York magazine.
Actually, New Yorkers are having parades out in the streets, such as the Puerto Rican Day parade, in which de Blasio marched behind a convicted terrorist, Oscar López Rivera, to whom the parade initially planned to give a place of honor. De Blasio initially said he would march behind López Rivera but then, after major sponsors, Governor Andrew Cuomo, and his own police commissioner dropped out, told reporters he had quietly been campaigning behind the scenes to get López Rivera dropped, calling the FALN separatist movement Rivera co-founded “mistaken from the beginning, because it used violence in the context of a democratic society, and that is not acceptable to me.” Then, after López Rivera announced he would not accept a ceremonial honor but would march at the head of the parade anyway, de Blasio joined him, albeit keeping his distance a few blocks behind.
That was pure de Blasio — allying himself with the most vicious and extreme elements of the Left, bumbling in an attempt to get himself out of a jam of his own creation, and coming off comically foolhardy and inept. The mayor whose big college experience was a trip to work for the Sandinistas in 1988, who toured the Soviet Union in 1983 and later honeymooned in Cuba, would love to turn New York into New Stalingrad. But he can’t figure out how to do it. So he settles for fuming about the ills of private property, luxury housing, and income inequality. The more he does so, the more he resembles background static in New York’s glorious cacophony — irritating but irrelevant.
“A wallflower. There is no sense of alpha male about him,” wrote Vanity Fair’s Bryan Burrough. This was in a sympathetic profile.
“He just didn’t have the stars lined up,” Al Sharpton, another fan, told the New York Times, as though already looking back on the man who becomes a lame duck on January 2.
In a Politico list of 18 hot mayors, de Blasio wasn’t even mentioned. The Times reported that he is such a nonentity that he has to wear a nametag at national conferences, even gatherings of mayors. The tallest man in most any room is somehow the most pathetic one in it, the Empire State gelding. Among his best-known and least New Yorky traits is a penchant for oversleeping, rendering him late to, for instance, a memorial service for victims of a plane crash and three different events on one St. Patrick’s Day, including a reception at Gracie Mansion — “his own house,” noted the Times with exasperated italics. Exhausted from his morning workouts, he has a habit of following up with naps in his office. The city that never sleeps has a narcoleptic chief.
When de Blasio is awake, one of the few things he manages to accomplish is doing favors for political donors, for which habit state and federal officials both launched investigations of him. Both announced they would not file charges, yet the district attorney’s office made public an extraordinary ten-page letter saying that “the transactions appear contrary to the intent and spirit of the laws that impose candidate contribution limits, laws which are meant to prevent ‘corruption and the appearance of corruption,’” while the acting U.S. attorney chimed in that investigators had found that the mayor and “others acting on his behalf” solicited donations from individuals pursuing “official favors from the city, after which the mayor made or directed inquiries to relevant city agencies on behalf of those donors” — much the kind of behavior that led to the 2015 corruption convictions of the former leaders of New York State’s senate, Dean Skelos, and its assembly, Sheldon Silver. But after the Supreme Court case that overturned the conviction for corruption of former Virginia governor Bob McDonnell, which in turn caused an appeals court to overturn Silver’s conviction as Skelos’s appeal on similar grounds continues, the prosecutors decided they didn’t have strong enough cases to go to trial. The two embarrassing public rebukes they delivered were, naturally, framed by de Blasio as complete vindication.
How did New York get stuck with de Blasio, born Warren Wilhelm Jr.? In New York City in 2013, with neither a high-profile Republican nor a self-funding billionaire seeking the highest office, the city’s overwhelmingly left-wing disposition meant that the winner of the Democratic primary would effectively have earned the keys to Gracie Mansion. So de Blasio, with no experience running anything much — his résumé includes managing Hillary Clinton’s Senate campaign in 2000 and stints as a City Council member and the mostly ceremonial public advocate — became mayor on the basis of the 7 percent of the city’s registered voters who chose him in that Democratic primary. Given that Democratic primary voters in a municipal election in New York City are the fanatics among the zealots among the diehards — the kind of people who hear de Blasio went Sandinista and think, “How romantic!” — one of the most hotly contested issues in that race was (I kid you not) de Blasio’s advocacy of getting rid of the horse-drawn carriages around Central Park, which he vowed to do on Day One. The horses stayed after cooler minds realized that the proposal would mainly benefit glue factories, and the City Council swatted away de Blasio’s signature promise. Later de Blasio took on Uber, seeking to cap the number of cars the service could put on the streets, coincidentally taking the side of the yellow-cab industry, which had given some $550,000 to his mayoral campaign. In a town where a fight for a cab in rich neighborhoods can quickly turn into a scene out of Mad Max, and where many low-income neighborhoods are not served by yellow taxis, this would have gone over a bit like telling New Yorkers that the only pizza they could order in was Domino’s. Once again, though, de Blasio’s ineffectuality was his savior, as the idea died in the City Council.
De Blasio just doesn’t matter much, and New Yorkers, convinced as we are that the universe revolves around us, chafe at that. We like to think of ourselves as the sharpest tool in the American shed, hardened cynics, seen-it-alls. We love to be represented by a combative, smart-alecky tough guy. Instead we’re led by an oaf. We’re supposed to have fun with dreamy-eyed clods who just fell off the yam wagon on their way in from Tulsa. Now they’re making fun of us.
De Blasio is “really more like a liberal professor or political activist than he is actually a mayor,” a longtime acquaintance told Vanity Fair. “When Bill is presented with a problem, I always imagine him musing, ‘Hmm, what’s my political philosophy on this?’ He’s not a natural manager — I mean, that’s an understatement.”
Which would explain Mayor de Blockhead’s absurdly insensitive remark when businesses that operate in or near Trump Tower were devastated by the chaos outside the building last fall: “I will not tell you that Gucci and Tiffany are my central concerns in life,” he said, as though luxury retail were not an important driver of New York City employment, tourism, and tax revenue. A woman who runs an art gallery across the street told the New York Post that on a day during peak holiday shopping season when anti-Trump protests were allowed to swallow the area, her business cratered. “Every retail store, every garage, every other business around here had zero customers on Saturday,” she said.
When he isn’t insulting his own taxpayers and job creators, de Blasio’s ideas veer between the small-bore (as in his much-touted mandatory-sick-day proposal, essentially a tax on mom-and-pop businesses) and the blue-sky. Close the massive city jail at Rikers Island in ten years? Sure, Bill. Go back to sleep. Make housing affordable? Uh-huh. Reduce inequality? Even de Blasio has a vague sense of why that isn’t going to happen. In what instantly became the most notorious in the de Blasian history of chuckleheaded remarks, the mayor told New York that
what’s been hardest is the way our legal system is structured to favor private property. I think people all over this city, of every background, would like to have the city government be able to determine which building goes where, how high it will be, who gets to live in it, what the rent will be. I think there’s a socialistic impulse, which I hear every day, in every kind of community, that they would like things to be planned in accordance to their needs. And I would, too. Unfortunately, what stands in the way of that is hundreds of years of history that have elevated property rights and wealth to the point that that’s the reality that calls the tune on a lot of development.
I’ll give you an example. I was down one day on Varick Street [in the pricey Tribeca neighborhood], somewhere close to Canal, and there was a big sign out front of a new condo saying, “Units start at $2 million.” And that just drives people stark raving mad in this city, because that kind of development is clearly not for everyday people. It’s almost like it’s being flaunted. Look, if I had my druthers, the city government would determine every single plot of land, how development would proceed. And there would be stringent income requirements around income levels and rents. . . .
The problem is at the top end. In very few ways can we address the rampant growth of wealth among the one percent. The state and the federal government have the power to do that. . . . It frustrates me greatly that we don’t have the power here to tax the wealthy in this city.
You’d expect a deeper understanding of economics from Mayor McCheese. Denouncing private property? Citing Marx on everyone being accommodated according to their needs? Calling for a mayoral right to approve who gets what apartment? It’s not only vapid, it demonstrates total cluelessness about what keeps the lights on in New York. “There’s no sense this man has any interest, unlike Bloomberg, in the nuts and bolts of how the city works,” a veteran journalist told Vanity Fair. Income inequality — i.e., the presence of Wall Street — is what funds all the stuff progressives love. Knock out the finance industry and equality of income would skyrocket, but there’d no longer be a way to keep paying de Blasio’s bills, as he has hiked spending from $75 billion to $85 billion in just four years. Cultural institutions that get propped up by Wall Street would falter, and that in turn would devastate New York’s huge tourism industry. De Blasio’s “druthers” amount to a rerun of the 1970s dynamic of taxmen chasing New Yorkers out to the suburbs, which is why the city’s population shrank by 800,000 in that decade. That’s comparable to a city the size of San Francisco fleeing New York. God save us from de Blasian druthers, and God has. Well, at least Andrew Cuomo has.
A recent NY1/Baruch poll that gave de Blasio a 48 percent approval rating showed Governor Andrew Cuomo with a 60–20 approval–disapproval split. New York respects alpha dogs and so it gives Cuomo the nod of approval, not least for the way he treats de Blasio like Biff Tannen treated George McFly. Tax policy goes through Albany, and Cuomo keeps rebuffing de Blasio’s bid for increasing taxes on the affluent. When de Blasio asked for a surcharge on the wealthy to pay for pre-K, Cuomo allowed the pre-K but not the tax. When de Blasio went to Albany to lead a demonstration to push for the tax, Cuomo trolled him by going to a different rally, to back the charter schools de Blasio and his pals at the teachers’ unions despise, and then forced de Blasio to find more space for the charters. In effect, Cuomo ordered de Blasio to go clap erasers for the mayor’s archenemy, Eva Moskowitz, the founder of the Success Academy charter network, which provides an increasingly visible daily rebuke to every liberal cliché about the supposed impossibility of educating New York kids. “People fear Andrew,” a politico told the Daily News. “People don’t fear de Blasio.” Just to make it clear that he would run over any pet of de Blasio’s that ever appeared in his driveway, Cuomo even killed the mayor’s fervent wish for a plastic-bag fee at supermarkets, which de Blasio grandly and typically framed as a way to combat global warming and the petroleum industry at the same time.
De Blasio does have a gift for one thing, though: getting himself humiliated. Hence the folly of his imaginary national profile. Fancying himself a progressive idol on the same level as Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, he announced in 2015 a presidential forum in Iowa at which he pictured himself as the star attraction discussing inequality. Nobody accepted de Blasio’s invitation, and he was forced to cancel the event. Then he meekly reassured voters that he would not run for president in 2020. So de Blasio will have four more years to try to persuade New Yorkers to hold a parade in his honor. If we do, though, he’ll probably sleep through it.