New York City may not have a reputation as the friendliest town, but news that Mayor Bill de Blasio is running for president was met with particular derision.
“Me doing stand-up is like Bill de Blasio running for president,” said Tina Fey this week at a Comedy vs. Cancer charity event in Manhattan, according to someone who attended. “Except I would figure it out because I’m not the worst.”
Former Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein tweeted, “On the bright side, if DeB gets elected prez, we New Yorkers will lose his undivided attention a year ahead of schedule.”
“I think there’s a lot of hypocrisy behind his actions and I think in a place like New York people see right through it,” said Assemblyman Ron Kim, a Queens Democrat who endorsed Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign in March.
To the untrained eye, it might seem a mystery why a committed progressive mayor of one America’s most liberal bastions — who handily won a second term in 2017 — would face such mockery for his presidential ambitions. Solving that mystery requires understanding de Blasio’s personality — or at least the political world’s understanding of that personality, as refracted through the lens of a New York media with which he has had a bad relationship from the beginning.
Former aides and allies have long questioned his approach to the press — and the toll it’s taken on his public image — since he took office in 2014, succeeding Michael Bloomberg after serving on the City Council and then as the city’s public advocate.
“Early on there was an imperiousness,” said Neal Kwatra, a Democratic operative who has worked with de Blasio since his Council days. “It continued that way. He sort of sees reporters as almost colleagues and fellow operatives in the game of politics and there’s a little bit of ‘I know better than you.’”
That haughtiness, combined with the standard tendency among politicians to say things that aren’t precisely true, has earned de Blasio a reputation as a leader prone to high-flown, exaggerated rhetoric, and one that seeks to circumvent the local press for the less familiar national media.
He claims outside of New York to have created a universal health care program, when in fact he is implementing a modest expansion of an existing program that’s been in place for decades. He claims he is divesting New York City pensions from fossil fuels, but the boards that control those pension funds have yet to formally approve the plan. He held a rally at Trump Tower to tout a piece of climate legislation he hadn’t actually signed.
He is not a fan of the local press and is fond of dismissing critical coverage as misleading or inaccurate — not unlike the president he hopes to unseat.
Rebecca Katz, a former de Blasio advisor, attributes the bad blood between the press and de Blasio to both parties.
“There are no heroes here,” she said. “The way that the elites mock him and the degree to which they toss aside all of his accomplishments is truly stunning. I think this is all personality driven.”
But de Blasio’s reputation can’t just be reduced to bad press relations. His frequent trips to the gym in the middle of the day were already a point of regular criticism when, last fall, a homeless advocate approached the mayor at the Park Slope YMCA and asked him to create more housing for the homeless.
De Blasio, who was being videotaped, said “I’m in the middle of doing my workout. I’m sorry I can’t do this right now,” before being whisked away by his police guard.
His political instincts have occasionally landed him in hot water with powerful allies. He waited too long to endorse his old boss, Hillary Clinton, in the 2016 primary, making his eventual endorsement somewhat moot and annoying Clinton loyalists in the process.
But de Blasio has natural political talents, evidenced by the fact that he’s won every city election he’s run in since 2001. He was an underdog in the 2013 mayoral race but drove a message of fighting income inequality to ultimate victory.
And, certainly, de Blasio has accomplishments to tout.
“I dont know why the political class snickers at him, and when you think about it, [universal pre-K], really low crime, police reforms and actual job growth, should be a platform that attracts positive attention and yet all of us in the political class are snickering,” said Josh Gold, a spokesman for Uber and former manager of de Blasio’s pre-K campaign.
But snicker they do.
“De Blasio PAC Spends $30 Million On Ads Urging Candidate Not To Embarrass Self By Running” read a recent Onion headline.
“He has, shall we call them, popularity issues, not just because he roots for the Red Sox in the home of the Yankees and Mets,” said MSNBC news anchor Brian Williams on Wednesday night. “His own staff members have called him stubborn, arrogant and entitled”
That tendency has frustrated former and current allies who see a different de Blasio when he’s not battling reporters.
“He’s an empathetic guy, one on one and in smaller groups,” Kwatra said. “He can be a good listener. He can relate to people’s lives given his own history.”
De Blasio’s father suffered from alcoholism and depression. He is in a biracial marriage and is the father of young adults — all things that make him relatable to other Americans, Kwatra said.
His inability to hide his displeasure can also be seen as a selling point.
“Bill de Blasio is one of the most authentic people you’ll ever meet in that he won’t lie to you about his dislike of you,” Katz said. “So it is, while he’s very good on some level at playing politics, he’s not going to fake it. That’s not the way this whole situation works.”