Pop Culture

Bill de Blasio and NYC’s “Least and the Lightest”: The Second-Hardest Job in the World Is Up for Grabs, and It’s a Clusterclump

On a biting Wednesday afternoon in mid-November, Mayor Bill de Blasio, in a dark gray suit behind a table awkwardly small for his gangly six-foot-five-inch frame, running five hours behind schedule, leveled a blow to parents across New York City. After months of keeping COVID largely collared, the city had kissed the 3 percent test-positivity rate—the school-closure threshold that the mayor, negotiating with the unions, had set over the summer. Days before the presser, de Blasio’s Department of Education had insisted that a couple million parents commit to in-person classes or stick with remote learning through June. Days after it, de Blasio re-reversed course, sending students back to school. The episode was a cornucopia of everything de Blasio critics love to hate about him—spinelessness, indecision, detachment, tardiness—and it laid bare a sliver of the landscape de Blasio’s successor will have to traverse. Just a few months ago, 160 irritated business leaders—including James Gorman and David Solomon—called on City Hall to stanch economic hemorrhage; the NYPD union has all but gone rogue, aggrieved by what it views as a lack of support; even the mayor’s staffers have mutinied. When de Blasio vacates Gracie Mansion in January 2022, he will hand off the keys to a city amid crises that any public official would have a hard time solving, let alone one who creates his own headwinds.

“Is this its greatest moment of crisis? No, it is not,” says Hank Sheinkopf, a political consultant who worked on the Bill Clinton and Michael Bloomberg campaigns. He argues that John Lindsay’s 1970s city in chaos eclipses the current moment. And the city faced a singular crisis after September 11, 2001. Yet the contours of the current problems, tethered to each other and stretched by the ferocity of the pandemic, paired with de Blasio fatigue, have set the stage for an epochal mayoral contest. “One thing we know for sure is that every mayor is both a reaction to his predecessor and also inherits problems bequeathed to him,” says Errol Louis, the host of NY1’s Inside City Hall.

Crisis is, in some sense, the stasis of New York City, with the mayoralty a pendulum swinging in accordance. “If there is a constant to New York city politics…it is the constancy of change,” Sheinkopf says. “There are no great heroes”—merely men (not yet a woman) of the moment. Ed Koch cast himself as reformer in response to machine politics and fiscal crisis; David Dinkins was something of a healer, elected to ease the racial tensions fomented under Koch; Rudy Giuliani was tough on crime, ready to clean up; Bloomberg was the businessman tapped to rebuild after 9/11; de Blasio was the progressive who could represent those left behind during Bloomberg’s “Second Gilded Age.” Who will lead the city out of its latest quagmire, one that some might say is compounded by the mayor himself?

President Lyndon B. Johnson once said, “When the burdens of the presidency seem unusually heavy, I always remind myself it could be worse. I could be a mayor.” In prosperous times, mayor of New York City is a gargantuan job, more on the level of running a nation than a municipality, with a purview dwarfing most U.S. states: a budget in the realm of $90 billion, 8.3 million diverse constituents, and the largest police force and education system in the country. Yet most days the mayor is more akin to ombudsperson for any and all aggrieved parties than one of the more powerful politicians in the country. “Whoever gets the job we might ask, why would you even want the job, which is known traditionally as the second-hardest job in America?” Ken Frydman, who served as Giuliani’s press secretary during the 1993 mayoral race (and is now a critic of his former boss), told me. “It might now be the hardest job in America.”

There are approximately 3.75 million registered Democrats and just 569,000 registered Republicans in New York City, so whoever wins the Democratic mayoral primary will likely take the election. Given the scope of the job, you’d think the mayorship would be a springboard to the White House. Yet of two who offered themselves up on the national stage this past cycle, one paid to play and the other ended up stranded at around 1 percent in the 2020 Democratic primary polls—both of them outshined by a former mayor from South Bend, Indiana. A third mayor alum continues to make a spectacle of himself, from a hotel room with Borat to the hospital with COVID.

Even on home turf, de Blasio barely registers as a political force, eclipsed by the young stars New York City has forged in other offices—Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, newly elected Congressmen Jamaal Bowman and Mondaire Jones, and New York state senator Julia Salazar. “New York mayoralty is kind of like a very well-dressed man with scuffed shoes,” says Sheinkopf.

What the Democratic field might lack in luster, it makes up for in breadth. The 2021 election could include New York City comptroller Scott Stringer, whom one source described to me as “not burdened with charisma” but whose bureaucratic career seems to be in pursuit of mayordom; Brooklyn borough president Eric Adams; Shaun Donovan, secretary of housing and urban development and budget director under President Barack Obama; former New York City sanitation commissioner Kathryn Garcia; media CEO Zach Iscol, an Iraq war vet born to Democratic mega-donors and married to a fashion executive; Raymond McGuire, vice chairman of Citigroup, who introduced himself with a slick ad voiced by Spike Lee; former social-services nonprofit CEO Dianne Morales; former New York City veterans’ services commissioner Loree Sutton; former New School professor Maya Wiley, who became something of an MSNBC celebrity during her two-year stint as an on-air analyst; New York City Council member Carlos Menchaca; and Andrew Yang, the face of universal basic income who also stalled out in the 2020 presidential primary but whose relevance has grown from his perch on CNN. (As long as his apartment-size gaffe doesn’t exceed 800 square feet, anyway.) One rumored wild card is former Speaker of the New York City Council Christine Quinn, who lost the 2013 race to de Blasio, despite—or maybe thanks to—an endorsement from Bloomberg and amid headlines about her temper (she once said she’s prone to “open up the bitch tap and let the water run”).

“Why is it that we have quantity, but it doesn’t seem like we have this abundance of quality for a job like the mayor of New York City?” says Christina Greer, an associate professor of political science at Fordham University. “I think that that also answers our turnout question in many ways.” Critics of New York City’s closed primary system argue that the mayor of the largest city in America is selected by a small sliver of the constituents they represent. In the 2013 Democratic primary, de Blasio got 40.8 percent with just 282,344 votes. In the general, fewer than 800,000 people voted for him over Joe Lhota. In 2017, de Blasio won the general with 726,361 votes, or 66.5 percent—not even 10 percent of NYC’s population. A pretty limp mandate. “We’ve gone back to that one-party state model because of the polarization in national politics,” says John Avlon, a former Giuliani speechwriter, now a CNN political analyst. “When you don’t have a competitive general election, you get the low turnout, you get to a situation where the race is effectively decided in the primary.”

The system may also explain why, for two decades, a blue city was controlled by two Republicans: Giuliani and term-limit-defier Bloomberg. “Why do Republicans win? The Democratic primary process, in order to get to 40 percent, pulls you so far to the left that you actually fundamentally aren’t electable in an 80 percent Democratic city,” says Stu Loeser, a longtime Bloomberg aide. “You end up taking positions that may become vulnerabilities.” As Greer puts it, “There are a lot of shades of blue in the crayon box.”

The party in New York City has shifted. “A decade ago, you would’ve said that Jerry Nadler is the most influential progressive force in New York City—the validator that everybody wants,” a local politician told me. “Today the endorsement that everybody wants the most, without a doubt, is AOC in a Democratic primary. So that shift…I think is a notable distinction.”

We’ll know soon enough how far left the field will tack, with the Democratic primary shifted up to June from September. And, says Louis, “People who know how to run for office and win, who know how to put together a campaign, they have a huge advantage this time because we have a compressed schedule. You basically have to create a whole organization.” For the first time, New York City is experimenting with ranked-choice voting. If no one secures a majority, the lowest vote getter will be cut. Rinse and repeat until a victor is named. “That’s the X factor,” says Louis. One of the few givens this cycle is that the race will be a referendum on de Blasio. In his 2013 bid, de Blasio pitched himself as a counterweight to Bloomberg. He cobbled together a coalition of voters not unlike that of Dinkins and rode it to Gracie Mansion. Then he delivered early on a series of intoxicating voter promises like universal pre-K, a minimum wage increase for employees, paid sick leave, and a reduction to stop and frisk. But the progressive patina faded fast.

His offenses have ranged from trivial gaucheries—indulgent pilgrimages to the Park Slope YMCA, even during the pandemic, and flip-flopping on the Amazon headquarters deal—to severe miscalculations. After a grand jury declined to indict the police officer in the July 2014 death of Eric Garner, de Blasio said he had to teach his biracial son, Dante, to “take special care in any encounter he has with the police.” A few weeks later two police officers were assassinated, and NYPD union chief Pat Lynch said there was “blood on many hands”—implying de Blasio’s. At the funeral for one of the officers, hundreds of cops turned their backs on the mayor. Early missteps in the pandemic cast a pall over City Hall, and during the racial justice protests last summer, critics dug in. Now the would-be correctives are lining up.

But de Blasio isn’t without support. Despite the criticism, limited polling data suggests that de Blasio maintained decent approval ratings. A poll in October put it at 49 percent among New Yorkers. “As much as he’s supposed to be quote unquote hated, he won two races for mayor and is actually fairly popular. He’s just popular in quarters of the city that the media is not inclined to notice,” Louis explains. “And in particular, I’m talking about Black and Latino and immigrant workers and communities.” The reality is de Blasio is an ideologue in a bureaucrat’s suit. “Ultimately, this is a management job,” a local Democratic politician says. “Are we demanding big, transformative change? Or are we just kind of focused on stabilizing the budget, recovery, back to normalcy?”

“It’s not like the fiscal crisis, and it’s not like 9/11 in the sense that many parts of the New York City economy are doing just fine. And the social and racial justice issues in many ways are even deepened by the COVID crisis and by the pattern of layoffs and joblessness in families who were hurt,” says John Mollenkopf, a professor at the CUNY Graduate Center. “To what extent is the current crisis setting aside or displacing the social justice and racial justice issues that de Blasio ran on and won on?”

De Blasio may be a tall man, but a towering figure he is not. “I think a deeper thing that people underestimate about mayors in New York, successful mayors, is that there is an understanding that you need to be tough. The city tends to work best with a tough mayor,” Avlon says. Throughout de Blasio’s time in office, he has been perennially outflanked by the moment, but, adds Avlon, “there are different ways to be tough.”

And New York always feels a little cataclysmic; it’s the nature of the beast. “You can’t find a 5- or 10-year period where there wasn’t some major crisis. There is either an AIDS epidemic or there’s a crack epidemic, or there’s a crime epidemic, or there’s a terrorist attack, or there’s another terrorist attack,” Louis says. “The norm.” Candidates, step up.

“I don’t mean to diminish anyone,” Frydman says. “But are they the best and the brightest, or are they the least and the lightest?”

More Great Stories From Vanity Fair       

Jared and Ivanka’s Final Chapter in Washington Demolished Their Future
— After a Day of Violence, Trump’s Allies Are Jumping Ship
The Unbearable Whiteness of Storming the Capitol
— Gary Cohn Is a Test Case for Trying to Wash Off the Trump Stink
— The Deeply Unsettling, Not Entirely Surprising Images of Trump’s Capitol Hill Mob
Twitter Finally Muzzling Trump Is Too Little, Too Late
The Eerie Charlottesville Echoes of Trump Supporters’ Capitol Coup
— From the Archive: Inside the Cult of Trump, His Rallies Are Church and He Is the Gospel

— Not a subscriber? Join Vanity Fair to receive full access to VF.com and the complete online archive now.

Products You May Like

Articles You May Like

Ellen DeGeneres Returns To Show For 1st Time Since Having COVID & Reveals Her 1 Intense Symptom
Ciara & Kids Future, 6, Sienna, 3, & Win, 5 Mos., Cheer Dad Russell Wilson On In Matching Seahawks Jackets — See Pic
Coronation Street SPOILERS: Yasmeen to save Asha Alahan from controlling Corey
Phaedra Parks Reveals What’s in Her Bag
Alabama FB Gets Hyped For Title Game With Private Liam Neeson Movie Screening

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *