NEW YORK — At six feet, five inches, former New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s lumbering height is an apt embodiment of his status as a political lightning rod.
After a decade and a half as a school board member, city councilman and citywide public advocate, de Blasio landed a come-from-behind victory in New York City’s 2013 mayoral race. The first Democrat to lead the Big Apple in two decades, he promised to narrow the city’s yawning income gap and curb police abuses that threaten his own biracial children.
At the end of eight years in office, de Blasio had notable accomplishments, chief among them the establishment of universal preschool for the city’s 3- and 4-year-olds.
But he leaves behind a legacy plagued by mutual enmity with the press, public frustration with his managerial skills, and fierce debate over his brand of liberal policymaking. Centrist and conservative residents, who never much liked him, utter his name like an epithet. Progressives who celebrated his first win consider him a bitter disappointment.
Now, after a failed run for president in 2020, de Blasio is campaigning for the Democratic nomination in New York’s new 10th Congressional District. He is competing for the open, liberal seat against Rep. Mondaire Jones, state Assemblywoman Yuh-Line Niou, City Councilwoman Carlina Rivera, and a host of other Democratic contenders. Voting in the closed party primary concludes on Aug. 23.
HuffPost is running an interview series with the 10th District candidates. Check out our previous interview with Carlina Rivera.
HuffPost interviewed de Blasio at a café near his home in Park Slope, Brooklyn, earlier this month to talk about why he is running, his legacy, and what he thinks progressives can do better.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
You were chief executive of a city of 8.5 million people. You’re running to be one of 435 federal legislators. Why? Isn’t it a step down?
Looking at the great progressive leaders in Washington — Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, AOC, Sherrod Brown — I don’t think anyone would say, “Oh, because they’re one member, they don’t have an impact.” These are people helping to set the national agenda and push the spectrum in a more progressive direction. They’ve got the megaphone.
I would come into this with a different approach to the same idea. I will come in having been the mayor of the largest city in the country and having achieved a profound progressive agenda on the ground — actually bringing it to life.
That will give me strength as a progressive voice. I want to be able to say, “These are the things this whole country could do that we proved work.” “Pre-K for all” works. “3-K for all” works. [New York City’s pedestrian safety plan] Vision Zero works. The $15 minimum wage works. Paid sick leave works — go down the list. Wealth redistribution works. Fighting income inequality through combined, forceful government policies works. It’s been proven: We reduced income inequality, turned the trend.
I know something about organizing. I know something about how to get issues on the agenda. I know something about debating. I could bring another strong, progressive voice to the equation, and I’d be heard from the very beginning. I’m not going to be anonymous or someone who has to warm up. I’ve been in the national discourse for most of the last decade.
But also, the second piece of the equation is a Congress member is also very much a local elected official. I spent 11 years as a school board member and a city council member. I really feel that kind of imperative deeply. When you’ve had that kind of experience, and a person comes up to you in the supermarket or on the corner, or on the subway, and they say, “Here’s a problem I’m having, that my family’s having” — I’ve helped people with those kinds of issues thousands of times. I know how to do that.
Given all that you’ve told me about these achievements that you’ve secured and your near-universal name recognition, why did the earliest polling show just single-digit support? And why, when you left office as mayor, was your approval rating so far underwater? What happened?
First, without being disputatious, I’d say I don’t know very many people who believe in American polling anymore. And I don’t mean that to be facetious or difficult. God bless those who attempt to discern public opinion, but it has gotten less and less accurate for years. So I have literally never let polling determine my choices.
Put aside my own imperfections — and I’m clear about that — I’m going to describe to you a progressive who was arguably the national leader on vaccine mandates. A lot of people come up and talk to me about what I did to keep them safe by fighting COVID. That just happened, and it was very personal. I’ve talked to folks who remember the rent freezes [in rent-stabilized apartments].
I dealt with the toughest press corps in the country. I certainly made my own mistakes. And I dealt with really tough times, too. And the COVID era was a very, very tough time.
Obviously, people are still in pain, but voters are discerning. It’s a new year. This is a new type of service.
I truly believe this district will say, “This is not a mayor’s race. This is not the past. This is now. Who do we want to send to Congress? Who do we want to be the person that will fight for a change?”
The example of Chris Murphy is a great one. I give him a lot of credit. He has worked for years and years, building up the capacity to be a difference-maker. And I think he’s done something profoundly important here. It’s not everything I want, by any stretch. It is, to me, absolutely essential that we are going to have the first big opening [on gun control] in 30 years.
Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) is a mainstream progressive, but the way he cut a tentative agreement on gun control was to haggle with Republicans for something that can pass. You’re prepared to do that — to compromise and make deals wherever common ground is possible?
Yeah, and I’ll give you some examples, but I want to stay on this for a quick second. I think he is doing something with profound magnitude. It’s not just the items in this deal. If you said, “This is it. See you again in 30 years,” a lot of us would say well, that’s nowhere near enough.
To me, that’s not what’s going on here. This is the big opening we’ve been waiting for. I think the NRA’s back is increasingly to the wall, and the public opinion dynamics are off the charts in favor of much bigger changes — background checks, assault weapons ban, etc. What Murphy has done is recognized, “Give us an inch and we’ll take a mile.” We have to build a movement.
I think there are some other areas for bipartisanship. We saw some with criminal justice reform. We saw some on the Patriot Act, a few years back, where left and right both saw the excesses of the original act and worked to reform it.
“Rent regulations could be a powerful tool all over the country, particularly in urban America. I want to fight for that.”
– Former New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio
Another area which is near and dear to my heart and is ripe for change is mental health. This country is talking about mental health in ways it never has before because of what happened during COVID. There’s more bipartisanship on that. We have no national mental health strategy in what is supposed to be, and I want to be, the greatest nation in the world.
Mental health first aid should be available widely. Every place in America should have something like 888-NYC-WELL [New York City’s mental health hotline] 24 hours a day for any kind of mental health challenge with trained counselors. There needs to be a massive increase in the number of people in the mental health profession, hundreds of thousands more social workers, psychologists, mental health workers. There are some areas where I think there could be common ground.
This is an opportunity to jump into the national debate about the homelessness crisis. What needs to be done that isn’t happening?
We, as a city, have a right to shelter. Every place in America should have the right to shelter. I’ve talked to a lot of street homeless people about their path. It’s absolutely consistent. At one point, maybe it was a year ago, maybe it was 10 years ago, they were living a life in some way like you and I: They had a home, many of them had a job, had a family, and something fell apart. When you start to see that humanity, the right to shelter makes such absolute sense.
We have rent control, rent stabilization. We have robust public housing that needs an immense amount of help, but it still houses hundreds of thousands of people. The West Coast doesn’t have these things, by and large.
COVID notwithstanding, we’re in the middle of a national re-urbanization trend. Rent regulation and a right to shelter are two examples of New York City strategies that should be adopted. Rent regulations could be a powerful tool all over the country, particularly in urban America. I want to fight for that.
We also need heavy investment in affordable housing and supportive housing, including subsidizing people in place.
Clearing people off a site without an alternative, without a right to shelter, without robust creation of supportive housing, just doesn’t work.
But you can’t tolerate an outdoor encampment of people over the long term. I believe those two concepts — ensuring a right to shelter, and not permitting encampments — do go together. Encampments in the long term are not helping the homeless person, nor the community.
The way you handle people living in encampments is you go to people in advance with caseworkers, with outreach workers who get to know them. You say, “We want to offer you a place to live. Where would you like to go? Here are the places we have. Where would you like to go?” A lot of times, people are looking for smaller shelters or safe havens, or they want to be in a certain neighborhood.
When you were elected mayor in 2013, you were the first Democrat to run the city in 20 years. You really were a return to New York City’s progressive roots. And in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, you got a lot of criticism from the left, especially for your handling of racial justice protests. Do you think that some elements on the left have gone too far, most notably in their attitude toward finding the right balance on policing?
I come from movement politics, and I come from the left. I have a reverence for people who place themselves on the left in world history and around the world today. That is my home and yet, just like in a family, I am always struck by how people turn on each other. We have common enemies and a common purpose that really should call us together.
In New York City, we created one of the closest things to a social democracy in recent United States history. And you think it would be embraced, but it doesn’t surprise me that in some quarters, it isn’t. Because, unfortunately, that’s our culture [as progressives]. It’s something that somehow we’ve all been taught to do.
I hope and I believe that we don’t need to be trapped by that culture. Because progressives have figured out how to do some things we never did before. Bernie’s campaigns are absolute historical proof of that.
So in that moment [after Floyd’s murder], I now look back and fully understand the frustration. I’ve said very publicly what I know I did wrong. People were hurting. I had the immediate challenge in front of my face, and that’s what I was fixated on, but people needed to hear a moral voice and a bigger understanding of what the moment meant and where we needed to go. I know I didn’t do that right.
I was trying to make sure no one got killed. I was worried about protesters. I was worried about police officers. And I was worried about bystanders. I thought if anyone got killed, the situation would become much harder and more dangerous for everyone.
I really believed that the National Guard should not come in, and I had to fight with some other folks around the state on that point. I thought that would be very dangerous. I did not want to see the police use any of those sort of heavier tactics that you saw around the country. And I also did not want to see anybody burn down a police precinct. I really felt like, especially on top of COVID, it was this breaking point for the city, and that if we were going to keep the city together, and keep whatever progress we had made, we had to get out of those weeks.
I imagine that it especially hurt to hear certain comments, like when [New York City Public Advocate] Jumaane Williams said, “You can no longer hide behind your Black wife and kids.”
That was patently unfair! But I’ll tell you, I respect Jumaane. I get along with Jumaane, and this is exactly the thing I’m talking about. It doesn’t make me appreciate the good in Jumaane any less or the many areas we agree.
But I wouldn’t ever say [what he said] about someone because it’s not fair to a family and it’s just not what happened.
And at the same time, your base of voters as mayor was basically among the city’s Black and Latino working classes. Those voters also ended up being critical to the election of Eric Adams, whom leftists dislike as well. Is the left out of touch with the working class?
Look, there are certainly a number of people on the left who are highly educated or who have been economically privileged, which doesn’t make them bad people.
But I do think if you actually went into communities most affected by the problems of policing, there was a profound, and I think, noble pragmatism. The answer was not “remove the police.” Folks had real, legitimate needs that they wanted the police to solve, but they wanted a very different kind of policing, which we were trying to do with neighborhood policing.
And frankly, we’re actually making progress. COVID and the horror of George Floyd’s murder really set us back.
There are a lot of good, progressive people, who I feel comradely for and connected to — even when they don’t feel connected to me. But what I would say to them is: Go talk to working people. Go talk to people who don’t feel safe. Go talk to people whose lives are insecure and ask them what they want. Don’t speak for them; ask them what they want.
There’s a diversity of opinion among working people of color — let me not for a moment make the mistake of saying there’s a monolith there. But what I have heard very consistently is folks who are living on the front line absolutely need to be safe, and they feel vulnerable. The irony is, they want to see an answer to what we saw too often in the ’80s and ’90s, when, in a lot of communities of color, you couldn’t get help from the police if you wanted it.
“This would be my larger argument to the left: If you want to change this country, go talk to workers ― and even working people in a uniform.”
– Former New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio
So you believe that it’s possible to effect these reforms in police departments where the police unions are as strong as they are? It can appear sometimes that these unions function as an extortion racket — that when they don’t like what the city wants from them, they stop doing their job and they’re strong enough to get away with it.
We actually got real change on transparency. After George Floyd, we actually got it so that we could publicize police disciplinary records in a way that we were never allowed to before.
The police unions are a shadow of their former selves.
Not least because the head of one of them is now under federal indictment.
I think that’s karma, baby!
I got elected with total opposition from the police unions. I got reelected overwhelmingly. So, so much for their power.
I would argue, in the big sweep of history, police union power is declining. I fought with them endlessly. I’m proud of it. I would have wished that my brothers and sisters on the left would have seen more of that — that if someone’s fighting this fight, don’t let them fight alone.
Police are working people, too. There’s a diversity of opinion among police. And there’s a massive generational split. Younger officers coming up in many cases have very different and more open values. Why don’t we go and help that change along?
This would be my larger argument to the left: If you want to change this country, go talk to workers ― and even working people in a uniform. Go talk to them. Don’t stereotype them, don’t attack them — talk to them, move them. You might find more common ground. But don’t let the right be the only force talking to working people.
What’s your coalition and path to victory in New York’s 10th?
The same as I’ve always done. When I won this council seat and I was not supposed to win, I won Park Slope and I won [the Hasidic Jewish enclave of] Borough Park at the same time.
When I became mayor, and I was not supposed to win, I was against candidates of all different backgrounds. In the primary, I won the African American vote, the women’s vote, the LGBT vote.
This is a district where, to win, you have to be able to appeal to a wide range of folks. The goal here is to build the broadest coalition. That’s kind of been my forte, and I think it can be done again.
There’s folks who are dissatisfied about something in the past — I’m not missing that. But I can sure as hell say, well, I at least was present in their lives. And I believe, with the vast majority of folks, I can show them something I did for them that they care about.
Also, how many people in this district have pulled the lever for me before? And then ask that question about the other candidates.
Why did you work behind the scenes to elect Eric Adams as mayor? What kind of job do you think he’s doing right now?
My theme was about as simple as it could possibly be: working people first. I would like to see a workerist approach in our party, in our movement, in our government. I thought Eric was the closest to that because he was from the working class and he articulated the reality of people’s lives much more passionately and urgently than I thought other candidates were. And I also thought he had a history of fighting for police reform on the front line when it was really tough to do.
I want to see him turn those ideas, that core inspiration, into action.
It’s too soon to tell [whether he’ll do that]. I would like to see him dwell on those progressive ideas that were his roots. Right now we have very little to go on, but I think he’s got to speak more to that. I want to hear him express that progressive vision, that pro-worker vision.