When Bill de Blasio appeared on “Good Morning America” just days after announcing his presidential campaign, dozens of police officers showed up outside the studio in Times’ Square. They chanted “liar, liar,” blew whistles, and hoisted foam fingers and signs in the air.
“A little serenade,” de Blasio awkwardly quipped on national television.
From the moment de Blasio became the 24th Democrat to throw himself into the 2020 field, the New York City Police Benevolent Association and its president, Pat Lynch, have made it their goal to squash the White House ambitions of “America’s Mayor.” At three of his early campaign stops in South Carolina and New York, de Blasio had to ignore members of the union hurling insults and questioning his solidarity with New York workers.
“Go back to New York City,” three former Police Benevolent Association members yelled at the mayor as he made his way to the Williams Chapel AME Church in Orangeburg, South Carolina, on June 1. De Blasio, who’s been frequenting the early primary state in hopes of stirring enthusiasm among black voters, picked up his first endorsement from the mayor of the small Southern town that same week.
One of the protesters is Marq Claxton. The 56-year-old retired NYPD detective now lives in Orangeburg. The 20-year veteran of the force has been a consistent thorn in de Blasio’s side during his trips to the state. Wearing police union shirts and caps and holding picket signs, he and his two comrades were among the first attendees waiting to greet de Blasio when he arrived.
One of the protesters, another retired NYPD officer, drove two hours to the campaign event just to pester de Blasio during the visit.
The Police Benevolent Association’s beef stems from what cops frame as de Blasio’s reluctance to keep their salaries competitive with police the department in neighboring Long Island and the New York state police force. The salary gap can be as large as $20,000 to $30,000 annually, according to New York’s top union publication, The Chief Leader.
Factor in de Blasio’s already-strained relationship with the cops — including his opposition to stop-and-frisk practices and the condemnation of police-related killings — and the rift easily carries over to the national stage.
“For six years, we’ve seen firsthand Mayor de Blasio’s staggering inability to address critical issues like our city’s skyrocketing homelessness rate, and his uncanny ability to make city services — like his billion-dollar mental health boondoggle, ThriveNYC — even worse,” Lynch said in a statement provided to VICE News. “Meanwhile, the men and women charged with addressing these issues in our communities as the ‘solution of last resort’ are continuing to suffer with wages 30% below market rate.”
De Blasio’s campaign, faced with strong opposition from members of his own police force, is touting his criminal justice platform — and by extension, his opposition to the administration.
“Police reform was a key element on the mayor’s platform in 2013, and he has led a paradigm shift in the way the city is police during his time in office. New York is the safest big city in the country, while this administration has ended the era of stop and frisk and dramatically reduced arrests,” a de Blasio spokesperson told VICE News. “There may be resistance to reform, but we are confident it is the right direction for our city.”
During another campaign stop in Orangeburg, Claxton trolled the mayor again.
“Be a friend of labor, Mr. Mayor. The PBA is starving!” Claxton yelled at de Blasio during a campaign stop at a South Carolina restaurant. As the mayor shook hands and greeted voters inside, Claxton circled outside with picket signs in hand.
The protests, while small, have elicited questions from local undecided voters.
“What’s up with the protestors out front saying you’re not a friend of labor?” one woman asked de Blasio as she live-streamed on Facebook May 8 during a stop at Duke’s Bar-B-Que in Orangeburg. De Blasio, whose campaign slogan is “Working People First," responded by insisting that the Police Benevolent Association was an outlier.
“We have 380,000 workers in New York City government, overwhelmingly unionized, and I get along with a vast majority of them,” de Blasio said at the same event. “With a couple of unions, there were some disagreements, and [the Police Benevolent Association is] one of them.”
He then launched into talking up his key issues.
“We’ve done so many things for working people. Fifteen-dollar minimum wage, paid sick leave. Our government is on the side of working people. Now that doesn’t mean that there aren’t going to be some disputes with some unions. That’s a part of life.”
Other 2020 candidates, like Elizabeth Warren, Cory Booker, and Bernie Sanders, have made organized labor a campaign issue by courting early union support.
These protests wouldn’t be the first time the police union has tried to embarrass de Blasio on the national stage. In 2017, cops showed up to an Iowa fundraiser the mayor attended to protest stagnant negotiations. In 2014, officers even turned their backs on de Blasio multiple times during funerals for slain officers or other events.
“If you’re going to call yourself pro-labor, then you’ve got to live up to that tag”
Claxton promised that he’d be present “any time de Blasio comes” to the state, “demanding that he get back home and to the negotiating table.” He also said he’s been talking to South Carolina politicians about de Blasio’s history with the union.
“It’s about a fair wage. It’s about compensation. It’s about not allowing corporations to benefit over the law enforcement community. It’s about not giving back benefits. It’s about not being willing to negotiate with a major union in New York,” Claxton told VICE News.
Claxton said Lynch has since reached out to show his support. Lynch and his union also sent letters to police leaders in South Carolina ahead of the mayor’s visit.
“If you’re going to call yourself pro-labor, then you’ve got to live up to that tag,” Claxton said. “You can’t throw that out there and expect not to be challenged.”
De Blasio is already polling dead last in favorability among Democratic candidates, according to FiveThirtyEight. And the protests can’t help. But it’s unclear what the long-term effects will be. In a world where de Blasio becomes the Democratic nominee, lack of union support — especially from law enforcement — could spell disaster in a general election against President Trump.
“The president has been very hawkish on [de Blasio’s policing] policies,” said Brian Arbour, a political science professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. “He’s done a lot of aggressive rhetoric on law enforcement on the federal and local levels, and I’m sure he’d echo that in a general election if de Blasio was there.”
But de Blasio’s weakness in the polls doesn’t mean the Police Benevolent Association plans to stop.
“We’ll continue to spread the word about de Blasio’s labor hypocrisy and management failures because we don’t want to see them repeated on a national scale,” Lynch said. “The rest of the country deserves to know who he really is: he is no friend of labor, and as commander-in-chief, he would be nothing short of an unmitigated disaster.”
Cover: Democratic presidential candidate and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio listens to a question during a Democratic Black Caucus Meeting on May 18, 2019, in Columbia, South Carolina. (Photo by Sean Rayford/Getty Images)