Bill de Blasio Burned Out When New York Needed Him Most

A few months before the beginning of one of the most trying years in New York City’s history, Bill de Blasio was in Des Moines, Iowa, sitting unbothered on the veranda of an administrative building on the Iowa State Fairgrounds.

Devoid of context, it was a strange place to find the mayor of the nation’s largest city. With proper context, it was even stranger. De Blasio traveled over 1,000 miles to the annual mecca of fried food and obscenely large farm animals because he was running for president, and this is what people running for president do the August before an election. What no one seemed to understand is why this is what it was de Blasio was doing with two years still remaining on his second and final term in office. The field was already crowded with bigger names, a poll found that 76 percent of his constituents opposed the move, and running New York City, arguably the second-toughest job in politics, doesn’t exactly lend itself to side gigs that require spending large chunks of time in places like the middle-of-nowhere Iowa.

Case in point: A few months after he announced his run earlier in 2019, a massive blackout left 73,000 New York City residents without power. De Blasio was in Waterloo, Iowa. Three weeks after the blackout interfered with de Blasio’s tour of Iowa, a Siena College poll found the mayor’s approval rating in his home state was only 26 percent, nearly 10 points lower than Donald Trump. The week after that he was back in Iowa for the state fair.

As absurd as all of this may seem, it didn’t come out of nowhere. De Blasio had been working to establish himself as a national progressive leader practically since he took office. He’d been fumbling around in Iowa since 2015, and when it came time for his 2017 reelection campaign, he spent an inordinate amount of time working out-of-state donors. “It was very clear to me that he had moved on from New York City and had moved into the space of wanting to be this national figure,” says Cat Almonte, a former personal aide who left the administration after working on the 2017 campaign. “Being the mayor of New York City is a giant role, and you’re sort of a celebrity. I think all of that gets into your head and you start to think, as we all do, ‘What comes next? Where do I build from here?’ I think he moved in that direction too quickly.”

He did not, however, move in that direction with much success. On the same day I spotted de Blasio at the state fair, he took his turn at the Des Moines Register’s “Political Soapbox.” It’s a tradition for candidates to climb atop it and pitch themselves to prospective caucus voters. In jeans and a button-down shirt with the sleeves rolled up, his wife and son Dante at his side, de Blasio preached righteously about how America is not working for working people and how politicians need to do a better job advocating for the marginalized. De Blasio went on to finish 23rd out of 24 candidates in the Cast Your Kernel contest, a state fair tradition in which patrons drop a corn kernel in mason jars corresponding to their favorite can. Six weeks later he dropped out of the race, vowing to “continue my work as mayor of New York City.”

“We can’t be talking about just a little bit of change,” he intoned in Iowa. “We have to be the party of big, bold change. That’s how we motivate people. That’s how we energize people. That’s who we have to be.”

De Blasio’s work in New York City, however, bears a striking resemblance to the hollow incrementalism he decried in Iowa. He notched some progressive victories early on, most notably instituting universal pre-K, but his tenure in City Hall has been largely defined by an unwillingness to press for the kind of systemic change he promised when he first ran for mayor. His failures to address inequity in areas like housing, homelessness, education, and criminal justice only compounded in 2020 under the weight of the pandemic and a generational racial justice movement. Many New Yorkers who once supported de Blasio are now wondering what exactly they voted for.

If it was for someone who could lead the city through trying times, they haven’t gotten that, either. Just as the past year has brought two crises, it’s brought two opportunities for the mayor to step up and point the city toward a more equitable future. Those opportunities have been squandered. “They present differently, but what they share is that this has been, in two quite different but meaningful ways, a moment of real need for leadership in our city,” says Brad Lander, who represents de Blasio’s old Park Slope district in the City Council. “We haven’t had it.”

So what happened? How did a mayor who promised to usher in a new era of progressivism in New York fail his city in such spectacular fashion when it mattered most, and do so through naked betrayals of the principles around which he built his political persona? New Yorkers have been puzzling over the answer since the pandemic hit, but with de Blasio leaving office in a matter of months, they may be better served asking themselves how they were duped, and what can be gleaned from the past year of empty rhetoric and half-measure solutions that can help them avoid making the same mistake as they elect his successor.

On the morning of Monday, March 16th, de Blasio got into a black SUV that shuttled him 11 miles from the mayor’s residence on Manhattan’s Upper East Side to Brooklyn’s Park Slope YMCA. It was a trip he made nearly every morning, ignoring persistent criticism of the mayor’s waste of time and gas.

None of the mayor’s commutes to workout in his old neighborhood drew as much scrutiny as this one. The coronavirus had been spreading through New York for weeks, and the previous night de Blasio had announced that most of the city’s businesses would shut down no later than Tuesday morning. Hours before that he had ordered the public school system closed, a move he had resisted despite immense pressure from the City Council, the teachers union, and his own Health Department.

Mayor Bill de Blasio leaves after exercising at the Prospect Park YMCA in New York, on July 12th, 2016. The Brooklyn gym is at the center of a three-block archipelago of neighborhood haunts which were part of his pre-mayoral life and where he routinely returned to work out most mornings prior to the pandemic.

DAVE SANDERS/The New York Times/REDUX

The larger health community was also pressuring him, and on March 12th dozens of infectious disease experts sent de Blasio a letter imploring him to take action. “We were waiting for the mayor to shut down the schools and nothing was happening,” says Dr. Theodora Hatziioannou, a virologist at the Rockefeller University who organized the letter. “We were getting more and more stressed about it, wondering what was happening. Instead, the mayor was boasting about 700,000 kids going to school every day and New York being open. We could just see that this was the perfect opportunity for the virus to spread.”

De Blasio finally took action when he closed schools and businesses a few days later, but it didn’t seem like he’d actually accepted the reality of the situation. When he announced the closure of bars and restaurants the Sunday night before his jaunt to the YMCA for his usual workout, he advised New Yorkers to head to their favorite neighborhood spots before they closed. He was effectively calling for one last city-wide superspreader event. The YMCA trip underscored the message. “It was a distillation of hypocritical self-righteousness,” Lander says. “It not only makes people think you’re phony, but undermines the possibility of leadership that inspires social solidarity, which was the thing we most needed.”

De Blasio was widely panned for the optics gaffe but seemed neither to care nor to understand what everyone was so upset about. “There’s something wrong in the world where this kind of very small matter gets blown up like that by people, you know, who live in a world of public relations,” he said on NY1. “I don’t live in that world. I live in the regular world.”

De Blasio does not live in the regular world. He lives in the world of the mayor of New York City, where public relations are a pretty big deal, both in how you present yourself to the public and in how you manage your relationship with the press. He’s neglected both since he took office. “He never cared,” Rebecca Katz, a former close adviser who was critical of his trip to the gym, says of his relationship with the media. “He never cared from the jump. From Day One, he never cared.”

De Blasio’s PR failures go a long way in explaining why he became the whipping boy for New York’s early epicenter status while Governor Andrew Cuomo used daily PowerPoint presentations to turn himself into a folk hero. “It’s hard for a normal person to get their head around how badly Cuomo has screwed New York City,” Katz says. “It must be maddening to be Bill de Blasio and see it and still get taken apart for everything you do. Yet, he still continues to do those things. He never thought, ‘Oh, maybe I shouldn’t go to the gym.’ He as just like, ‘Fuck it, I’m going to the gym.’ He just dug in. That’s the thing. He’s contrarian by nature.”

He’s also stubborn. Former City Hall staffers spoken to by Rolling Stone stressed that once de Blasio makes up his mind about something, it’s very hard to change it. In the case of the pandemic, his actions suggest he decided early on that the situation wasn’t as dire as many believed. (In addition to urging people to go about their lives as normal, during a March 11th appearance on The Daily Show de Blasio warned about a “fear that’s been generated beyond the facts and the reality.”) Plenty minimized the potential impact of the pandemic in late February and early March, but as more was learned about the nature of the virus they were quick to realize a seismic disruption of everyday life was inevitable. De Blasio resisted such a disruption long after it became clear that it was a matter of life and mass-death, and when he was finally pressured into taking action, his trip to the YMCA and call for people to head to their favorite bars one last time made clear that he’d yet to abandon his own delusions about the severity of the virus.

De Blasio’s contrarianism and stubbornness have hampered his ability to govern throughout his time in office, but never have the consequences been so immediate and so severe as they were during that critical window of indecision last March. “He really just dropped the ball completely,” says Dr. Paul Bieniasz, another virologist who signed the letter urging him to close schools. “People paid with their lives.”

The people who paid were disproportionately from the communities of color de Blasio had long promised to lift out of the margins. His failure to take meaningful steps toward doing so, both in the past year and over the course of his time in office, goes well beyond his initial response to the coronavirus.

De Blasio centered his 2013 mayoral campaign around the idea that he was a progressive stalwart who would advocate for underrepresented New Yorkers, particularly those from communities of color. He was of the people, announcing his candidacy not in Manhattan but in front of his Park Slope home, and it was alongside them that he planned to end the “Tale of Two Cities” that existed under the Bloomberg administration. “It’s their spirit that I intend to sweep into City Hall,” de Blasio said.

The spirit of the marginalized never quite made it into City Hall, but late last June it was spray painted all around it. The vast majority of the graffiti was directed explicitly at the NYPD, which has been brutalizing protesters demonstrating across the city in the wake of George Floyd’s death late last May. But given where it was concentrated — on the sides of the ornate stone municipal buildings surrounding City Hall, and splayed across the granite plaza in front of it — it goes without saying that it was also directed at the mayor who failed to hold the police accountable. Sometimes it went ahead and said it anyway. “DEBLAZIO = CUCK <3,” one tag read.

In response to the oppressive police response to the wave of Black Lives Matter demonstrations that had swept the city, activists set up a semi-autonomous zone outside City Hall. Their aim was to pressure de Blasio into redistributing $1 billion of the agency’s $6 billion budget into social service programs. He instead opted for largely cosmetic nips and tucks that did not in any meaningful way ameliorate the tension between the NYPD, whose budget is three times as large as any police force in the nation, and the everyday people fighting for the racial justice the mayor once promised.

Tamping down police aggression had been a pillar of de Blasio’s initial appeal to New Yorkers, most notably by vowing to drop Bloomberg’s appeal of a federal ruling that stop-and-frisk was unconstitutional. He made good on his promise after he took office in 2014, but after six-plus years of de Blasio rule, it was clear that he’d failed to bring about the kind of meaningful reform he’d promised. What wasn’t clear was whether he still actually wanted to. As video after video surfaced of NYPD officers terrorizing peaceful demonstrators — throwing them to the ground, beating them with batons, pepper-spraying them indiscriminately — the mayor defended their actions while neglecting to show solidarity with the thousands of New Yorkers protesting systemic racism within law enforcement. “We saw tremendous restraint from the NYPD,” de Blasio said the day after footage of police SUVs plowing through a crowd of demonstrators went viral, one of a string of feckless, equivocating responses to the demonstrations that floored current and former City Hall staffers. “I can only describe it as heartbreaking,” says Richard Buery, who served as de Blasio’s deputy mayor from 2014-2018.

De Blasio’s tenure up to that point had held plenty of warning signs that his commitment to criminal justice reform may not have been as ardent as he led people to believe. The biggest may have been hiring Bill Bratton, “a broken windows” proponent and stop-and-frisk defender plucked from the Giuliani administration, as his first police commissioner. Bratton stepped down in 2016, but he’d made his mark — so much so that de Blasio named his deputy, Dermot Shea, commissioner in 2019. “Dermot Shea has been in every single NYPD meeting since the very beginning,” Almonte says. “The mayor and him have a longstanding relationship.”

Dermot Shea (C) poses after being sworn in as the new NYPD Police Commissioner while standing next to Mayor Bill de Blasio (L) on December 2nd, 2019 in New York City.

Stephanie Keith/Getty Images

De Blasio learned early that any slight to the police force he vowed to rein in would not go unpunished. After Eric Garner was choked to death in July 2014, the new mayor spoke publicly about how he and his wife had to “train” their black son Dante “to take special care in any encounter he has with the police officers.” The police didn’t take kindly to de Blasio’s comments, and at the funeral for an officer who was killed that December, hundreds of officers turned their back on the mayor. “The moment where everything shifted, where I began to see a shift, is when those officers turned their back on the mayor at that funeral,” says Christopher Collins-McNeil, who worked in the de Blasio administration and helped organize an open letter from former staffers protesting de Blasio’s response to the demonstrations. “That was when we first saw a pivot, and then a complete abandonment of what he believed.”

De Blasio’s racial justice heel-turn last summer may have seemed shocking, but it made a certain kind of sense to anyone looking past de Blasio’s rhetoric to his actual record. “The mayor did not have a history of activism on police reform prior to his campaign,” says Lander, the Brooklyn councilman. “In his time in the City Council and in his time as a public advocate, he had not made systemic racism in policing or policing in general an area of hope. There were those of us who were part of the effort to end stop-and-frisk and had to work pretty hard to get him to join that effort. Once he joined it, he jumped in with both feet. It became a centerpiece of the campaign. But there were a number of us who did the work to get him on board.”

If progressives had to work that hard to get de Blasio on board with police reform before he took office, it isn’t surprising that the influence the police were able to exert on him once he stepped into City Hall may have been enough to get him to question where he stood. “Something folks don’t realize is that the mayor spends the most time with police,” says Almonte. “It’s who he sees when he wakes up in the morning. It’s who he sees when he goes to bed at night. I think you live in this little bubble. He got lost in the bubble.”

The coronavirus didn’t take a break to allow the city to reckon over police brutality last summer. The city and its residents were still trying to figure out how — and if — they’d be able to survive a pandemic for which no end was in sight. De Blasio made clear early on that he was staking the recovery effort on making New York the first major school system to reopen for in-person instruction. He announced in early April that his administration would be “working tirelessly” to prepare children to return to classrooms in September, and that any student who needed an internet-enabled device for remote learning would have one by the end of the month. This didn’t happen — to say the least.

De Blasio may have talked a big game about reopening schools, but his inability to do the follow-up work to ensure the resumption of classes would happen smoothly and equitably led to not only to a stunted, months-long reopening slog filled with last-minute course corrections that left parents, teachers, and administrators scrambling, but to the widening of an already sizable education gap between the rich and the poor. Stakeholders say the confusion could have been mitigated if de Blasio did a better job considering the input of education experts instead of stubbornly refusing to budge a plan everyone realized was untenable weeks before de Blasio abandoned it.

“There is this interest in making a splashy headline and trying to show this image that New York is doing OK when behind the scenes things are falling apart,” Mark Treyger, the chairman of the City Council’s education committee, says of de Blasio’s general approach to managing the city. This focus on the headline, rather than the legwork, applies to his approach to reopening schools as well, and Treyger for months last year warned everyone who would listen that the mayor’s plan to do so was ill-conceived and not feasible. “I think throughout his tenure he’s had a very limited bandwidth, and a limited capacity to listen and make informed decisions and follow up on issues. He has a very small group of people he listens to and doesn’t go beyond that bubble. Unfortunately, we’ve paid a heavy price for those poor leadership traits this year.”

For all of de Blasio’s mismanagement in resuming in-person instruction, even less attention was paid to remote learning, a pretty big deal considering the families of 700,000 of the city’s 1.1 million schoolchildren had opted out of the mayor’s reopening plan. These families were disproportionately from communities of color who already bore the brunt of the city’s inequitable school system. The education gap was widening even further as tens of thousands of children did not have remote learning devices months after de Blasio promised them. “We have failed to deliver good learning experiences for the 700,000 kids at home,” says Mark Levine, chairman of the City Council’s health committee.

In response to the idea that de Blasio has prioritized getting kids back in classrooms over the remote-learning experience of the majority, spokesperson Bill Neidardt wrote that this is a “false dichotomy” before pointing out that the administration has, in fact, delivered hundreds of thousands of devices to children in need. “This is the mayor that brought universal free pre-K, so it should come as no surprise that he invested heavily in both in-person and remote learning, and we have no apologies for that, even during a fiscal crisis,” Neidhardt wrote.

The Department of Education said last May that enough devices were doled out to satisfy the mayor’s commitment to make sure any child who needed a device would have one by the end of April, but by November there were still 60,000 identified children without devices. Then-Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza blamed “supply chain issues.”

NaQuan McLean, president of the Community Education Council in Brooklyn’s District 16, has a son who was diagnosed with dyslexia over the summer. He’s a visual learner, and, like most children with special needs, has struggled to learn remotely. “The city has done so much investment in reopening schools for the minority and not looking at what the majority wants,” he says. “We should have been looking at both of them at the same time, making sure that both experiences were going to provide students with the best education experiences that they deserve. Students are falling behind. Students still don’t have devices.”

“Do black lives really matter to him?” McLean says of the mayor. “If they did he’d be focusing on remote learning.”

If there was ever a time when New York’s distressed communities required special attention, it’s during the pandemic. It’s been the case over the course of the effort to reopen schools, just like it was the case last March, when black and Hispanic New Yorkers were dying at twice the rate of white New Yorkers. “As always happens, the black community was last and saw the least,” says Councilwoman Inez Barron. “It was known the conditions that were contributing to the deaths of those who came down with Covid were manifested in large numbers in black and brown communities, and that these conditions were the manifestation of the systemic racism and lack of services. If you knew that and suspected that would be the case, that’s where you should have directed your resources at the outset. That did not happen.”

De Blasio’s failure to address these systemic issues he ran on fixing goes a long way in explaining why so many black and brown families opted to keep their children at home despite the challenges of remote learning. They don’t trust the system designed to neglect them, and they don’t trust the mayor who has perpetuated it. “Our people are dying,” says Dr. Kaliris Salas-Ramirez, an education activist and mother of two living in Harlem. “They are dying because they’re essential workers. They have no other option. They have no health care. They’re in multigenerational homes. We have that lived experience from the spring, and so we are doing everything in our power to protect our communities.”

McLean, Salas-Ramirez, and many of the others who now despise de Blasio believed in him when he ran specifically because he campaigned as a progressive who promised over and over again that he would advocate for the marginalized before anyone else. Everyone has a different story about when they realized he wasn’t as dedicated to lifting them up as he promised, but the degree to which he’s done the opposite throughout the pandemic has still come as a shock. “I believed in de Blasio, I had hope in de Blasio, I voted for de Blasio,” McClean says. “But what he has shown us, is that he doesn’t care.”

Many of those who have worked with the mayor insist that he means well. They do so as a way of tempering their criticisms, and there’s often a sense of pity there, like he succumbed to some ineluctable corrupting force. “He’s a good person who really wanted to do great things for New York City, and really got off to a good start,” says Almonte, who speaks fondly of the early days of the administration, about how exciting things were and how much hope there was.

“Someone where along the line—”

She pauses.

“It’s an extremely difficult job. I do want to say that it’s very easy to criticize the mayor of New York City.”

This is certainly true. As Wallace S. Sayre and Herbert Kaufman wrote notably in their 1960 book Governing New York City, the mayor ‘’is the highly vulnerable symbol of all the defects in the city and its government.’’ This is true of all mayors, but the mayor of New York, a big, dense, and complicated city never without a surplus of defects, is uniquely positioned to be pilloried. When a viral pandemic brings the city to its knees, it’s going to get ugly for the person in charge. “There are a lot of things that are his fault, but there are a lot of things that aren’t,” Katz says. “He’s just too easy of a target and he gets blamed for everything.”

But such defenses of de Blasio can only go so far. Trying times are no excuse for the failure of governance over the past year, nor is the difficulty of the job. “When it comes to leadership, even if you have bad options you need to be able to articulate the best of those bad options,” says Jumaane Williams, the city’s public advocate and frequent critics of de Blasio. “We have a leader that consistently chooses the worse of those bad options.”

The perplexing part of de Blasio’s place at the center of all of this is that it seems like he was almost going out of his way to betray the progressive leader he fashioned himself to be. There’s the decision to run for president, which is hard to argue is anything but an enormous middle finger to the city. There’s his almost truculent ignorance of the severity of the coronavirus. There’s his very public sympathy for the NYPD in the throes of last summer’s racial justice demonstrations. There’s claiming that the city’s parents want in-person classes to resume when the vast majority of them, and an even larger majority of people of color, have chosen to keep their kids home.

“What I can’t quite tell is whether he believes the story he’s telling,” Lander says of de Blasio’s many rationalizations in the wake of the NYPD’s behavior during the Black Lives Matter demonstrations. The same could be said of any number of the excuses he’s made over the past year.

When asked to respond to any of the issues the de Blasio has been dragged for in the press, both he and his office tend to cite what he has done in the past as proof that he couldn’t be guilty of what he’s being accused of in the present. His spokesman cited universal pre-K in arguing that he’s given due attention to students learning remotely during the pandemic. During a press conference last June, de Blasio ran through a list of past actions — overseeing the end of stop-and-frisk, the settlement of the Central Park Five case, pushing for NYPD de-escalation training, and other measures — as evidence that his status as a criminal justice reformer is unimpeachable. “I do stand by why we are a progressive beacon and I’m not going to let anyone denigrate that honestly, or underestimate that,” he said in response to a question about why he waited years to prioritize legislation banning chokeholds.

But both the fallout from the pandemic and the brutality visited upon last summer’s racial justice demonstrators have been felt too intimately by too many New Yorkers to be papered over with rhetoric. Alluding to NYPD de-escalation training doesn’t count for much when people are able to watch video after video of police officers assaulting protesters. If this is what de Blasio’s efforts to rein in the NYPD led to, then it’s pretty clear not enough was done. “He continues to pat himself on the back about all the work he’s done,” Almonte says. “But it’s not just like two years and you do some stuff and you’re done. I think that’s kind of how he played it.”

New Yorkers must now ask themselves what led them to believe de Blasio eight years ago, and how they can avoid making the same mistake in electing his successor. “You have to look at people’s history,” says Williams, who endorsed de Blasio when he first ran. “The type of boldness that we needed, I don’t know if that was in the history of de Blasio’s public service. We need to scrutinize the totality of someone’s career, not just one part, good or bad. We have to look at the totality.”

The stakes are high for the city as it tries to recover from over 30,000 deaths and countless businesses shuttered in the wake of the pandemic, and also for progressives like Williams who want to sell New Yorkers on the viability of the type of boldness de Blasio promised but couldn’t deliver. “The saddest part is that there is a human cost to it that we see,” he says. “There is a cost to people thinking that this is what progressiveness led us to, when nothing could be further from the truth.”

Despite whatever warning signs there may have been, it’s impossible to know exactly how someone is going to respond to one of the most high-pressure jobs in the world, the constant scrutiny of the media; the influence exerted by moneyed interests who can make things far more difficult when they don’t get their way; to the immense pressure to overhaul a deeply entrenched system designed around inequality, and to the relative comfort that awaits on the other side of trying. “It’s a lot of weight on your shoulders,” Almonte says. “I think he has caved to that pressure in certain ways. Maybe it’s inevitable. Maybe power corrupts you in that way. Maybe his ego really took over. But I don’t recognize this person.”

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