Most people would not insist on working out 11 miles from their home when there’s a perfectly good gym just around the corner, especially when they’ll be roundly criticized by millions of people for it. But most people are not Bill de Blasio.
That’s the thing about the New York City mayor: De Blasio’s gonna de Blasio, whether you like it or not. A lot of people, well, don’t.
De Blasio, who looked at the 20-something-deep 2020 presidential field in May and decided to toss his hat into the ring anyway, is a pretty unpopular figure in both local and national politics. Most New Yorkers don’t want him to run for president, and they’re blasé on the job he’s doing as mayor (though there’s a racial component that I’ll get to later). Among the Democratic primary field, candidates’ favorability tends to track with their name recognition, meaning the more Democratic voters know them, the more they like them. Except for de Blasio.
Why don’t people like the mayor of America’s largest city? There’s no single explanation.
Policy-wise, a lot of de Blasio’s record is strong, and he’s essentially delivered on what he set out to do when campaigning for mayor: He delivered universal pre-K and expanded paid sick leave, reduced stop-and-frisk policing, and oversaw the city’s $15 minimum wage hike. New York’s economy is strong and crime rates are low, though homelessness remains a problem. De Blasio has steadily progressed up New York City’s political ranks over 30 years and was reelected mayor in 2017 with 67 percent of the vote. As FiveThirtyEight’s Chadwick Matlin notes, de Blasio “was progressive before it was cool.”
Rather, de Blasio’s issue largely seems to be one of style. De Blasio can come off as sanctimonious, arrogant, stubborn, and preachy about the gravity and scope of what he’s doing. He can be perceived as caring more about big-picture symbolism than the day-to-day grind of city policy, and he’s not particularly charismatic. To make matters worse, he has a fractious relationship with the New York press — which tends to drip out into national media, since so many media companies are based in New York — and neither he nor they seem particularly inclined to try to fix it. And to some extent, New Yorkers are always going to hate the mayor they have, whoever it is.
“The issue is people don’t like him, and he doesn’t care,” said Rebecca Katz, a former longtime de Blasio adviser and founder of consulting firm New Deal Strategies. She added, “In terms of New York City being a beacon of progressive leadership, he’s made some really strong strides, but his personality has left some to be desired.”
Bill de Blasio is unpopular among white New Yorkers
Before delving into why de Blasio is unpopular, it’s important to point out among whom he is unpopular, because it’s not everyone.
According to an April Quinnipiac University poll, 42 percent of New Yorkers approve of the job de Blasio is doing as mayor, and 44 percent disapprove. But when you break it down by race, the numbers tell a different story: De Blasio’s approval rating is 31-58 percent among white voters, 33-44 percent among Asian voters, 40-40 percent among Hispanic voters, and 66-23 percent among black voters. In other words, de Blasio does poorly among white New York voters. Among voters of color, it’s a different story.
“The whole cocktail party circuit loathes Bill de Blasio, and he takes so much pleasure in that, and it’s a perfect storm of crass,” Katz said. When de Blasio ran for mayor in 2013, he did so on a theme of a “tale of two cities” — one for rich elites and moneyed interests, and another for everyone else.
“He told people who thought they were part of the solution that they were part of the problem and that they would never be able to understand that because they themselves were not subject to policing and other problems,” one New York political operative said.
Of course, it’s not just white elites who are turned off by de Blasio. Democratic Rep. Max Rose, who in 2018 defeated former Republican Rep. Dan Donovan in historically right-leaning Staten Island, ran explicitly against de Blasio in his congressional race. He even ran a campaign ad attacking de Blasio.
It makes sense that de Blasio would be unpopular among the city’s working-class whites, who likely agree with “Blue Lives Matter” and other sentiments opposing the racial justice themes that de Blasio has campaigned and governed on.
When things are bad, de Blasio has a tendency to … not make them better
One of the signature anecdotes about de Blasio among New Yorkers is that he works out at the YMCA in Park Slope, Brooklyn, which is very far from Gracie Mansion on the Upper East Side, where he lives. Over the years, he’s caught a lot of flak for it — taking a private car accompanied by a police escort isn’t good for the environment, New York City traffic doesn’t need more cars on the road, and it just seems like some silly posturing on his part. That being said, it’s not some sort of dire transgression.
The situation, as trivial as it seems, actually says a lot about who de Blasio is and why he can rub people the wrong way: All he has to do for this little controversy to go away is find another gym. And he just won’t.
“Sometimes [de Blasio’s] stridence is good; you want that in your leaders,” one former aide said. “Sometimes it’s silly and stubborn.”
The mayor has dug in on his antagonistic relationship with the press. Beyond national politicians such as the president and congressional leadership, the mayor of New York City probably has one of the biggest press corps dedicated to him or her of any political figure in the country. It’s important to cultivate relationships with reporters — except de Blasio won’t. The result is a vicious cycle of antagonism on both sides. Perhaps not uncommon among executives, de Blasio has a reputation for tardiness. So when he arrives late to press conferences, reporters tweet about their annoyance at his lateness, and then when he does show up, he’s condescending. Neither side is entirely in the wrong — as Katz put it, “there are no heroes” in the situation — but de Blasio just doesn’t use the press to his advantage.
“It’s a give-and-take relationship, and if there’s hostility, especially by the person being covered, that doesn’t help,” one longtime de Blasio adviser said. “It is just not a very good relationship, and that is a two-way street.”
It’s worth noting it hasn’t always been this way. When de Blasio was a public advocate, the relationship with the press wasn’t as bad (though he also wasn’t covered nearly as much), and after he was elected in 2013, the dynamic seemed positive. He appeared on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart in 2014 and poked fun at his predecessor, Michael Bloomberg, and himself. (De Blasio has been mocked for eating pizza with a fork and knife — a New York no-no — and he and Stewart did a bit about it; they also brought out a giant soda, a dig at Bloomberg’s attempted soda ban.) The same year, the de Blasio family affably took part in the annual Mermaid Parade in Coney Island.
But the relationship has soured — de Blasio’s presidential campaign hasn’t yet scheduled a town hall on CNN or MSNBC. (The campaign says that they are in talks with both networks.)
Some of the de Blasio hate is petty, and some of it isn’t
As you might have noticed, some of the criticism de Blasio gets isn’t exactly on the biggest of issues (the gym, the pizza eating). There are more examples — he’s a Red Sox fan in a city with two major baseball teams, he reportedly sometimes naps in his office, he one time accidentally dropped (and maybe killed) a groundhog. De Blasio’s social media presence is sometimes cringeworthy — his attempt to brand President Donald Trump #ConDon, which is Spanish for condom, is not great.
When the complaints are substantive, they are sometimes over things he can’t control — such as the subway, which falls under the authority of the state and Gov. Andrew Cuomo. In 2018, New York City released thousands of pages of de Blasio’s emails with outside consultants after a long court battle with local media outlets. There was nothing hugely damning in them, but seeing anyone’s private communications generally doesn’t help a person look good in the public eye. (Just ask Hillary Clinton.)
Still, some of the issues are legitimate.
De Blasio has come under fire for his handling of the death of Eric Garner, an unarmed black man who died in 2014 after being confronted by police in Staten Island for allegedly selling untaxed loose cigarettes. One of the officers, Daniel Pantaleo, put him in a department-prohibited chokehold — in footage of the incident, Garner can be heard saying “I can’t breathe” multiple times.
The Department of Justice has decided not to file charges against Pantaleo, who remains on paid desk duty at the NYPD. De Blasio has declined to fire Pantaleo, and at the second round of Democratic debates in July, hecklers shouted, “Fire Pantaleo!” during his and Sen. Cory Booker’s (D-NJ) opening statements. De Blasio’s campaign said it’s up to the police commissioner, not the mayor.
There are ethics questions around de Blasio. One of his former fundraisers was convicted of conspiring to bribe NYPD officials. Another campaign donor pleaded guilty to trying to bribe de Blasio to get favorable lease terms for a restaurant he owned in Queens. New York City’s Department of Investigation found de Blasio violated conflict of interest rules in soliciting donations from people seeking favors, according to a recent report from the city. In 2017, federal and state prosecutors declined to bring criminal charges against de Blasio and his aides after probes into his campaign fundraising practices.
And sometimes, his public posturing can be contrived. De Blasio initially courted Amazon and encouraged New Yorkers to welcome its since-abandoned second headquarters project in Long Island City. But then when Amazon backed out, he turned against the company and criticized its decision as “the 1 percent dictating to everyone else.” People noticed the flip, especially as 2020 speculation grew.
The 2020 run is not helping
Before de Blasio announced his 2020 presidential campaign in May, someone put up a flyer at his gym reading “by entering these premises you agree not to run for President of the United States in 2020 or any future presidential race.” In March, Politico quoted a former aide calling the idea of a 2020 de Blasio campaign “fucking insane.”
De Blasio decided to run anyway, and it’s made his public standing worse, not better. “The run for president has reinforced what a lot of people believe,” said Josh Greenman, the opinion editor at the New York Daily News.
The press, with its predisposition to criticize de Blasio, has pilloried and mocked the mayor for his likely doomed presidential run. (According to a RealClearPolitics average, de Blasio is at 0.5 percent support in the polls.) When there was a major blackout in Manhattan in mid-July, de Blasio was campaigning in Iowa. It was not a good look, even if there wasn’t much he could do about the situation, wherever he was.
It’s a conundrum any 2020 candidate is going to face — missing some sort of event they should have otherwise been present for because they’re on the campaign trail. For the many senators and representatives in the race, they miss votes and hearings. In de Blasio’s case, there are a lot of things happening in New York City all the time, and with voters and the press paying a lot of attention, he’ll run into trouble over campaigning. “He actually, unlike other candidates in the race, is forced to do things every day that have tension in them,” Eric Phillips, de Blasio’s former press secretary, said.
To be sure, de Blasio isn’t the only New York City mayor to harbor national ambitions. Rudy Giuliani ran for president after leaving office. Bloomberg has very publicly toyed with the idea. And de Blasio isn’t the only mayor to be unpopular. Giuliani’s approval declined during his tenure prior to 9/11; Bloomberg’s approval rating took a hit after the financial crisis. With no third term to run for (a rare exception the New York City Council granted to Bloomberg in 2008 that was rescinded by referendum two years later), New York mayors have executive experience chops that make a presidential run seem natural — if all too often unsuccessful.
“New Yorkers like to hate the mayor they have,” Greenman said.
De Blasio is in a tough hole of unlikability that he can’t get out of. His thus far ill-fated 2020 bid, like the Park Slope gym, is emblematic of what seems to be at the core of his problem: Most people, seeing that they have virtually no chance of winning and knowing the public backlash they’re going to face, wouldn’t run for president. Not Bill de Blasio.