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Why Does Bill de Blasio Think He Can Save the Democratic Party?

Less than two years into his mayoralty, Bill de Blasio has crowned himself the King of the Left. The question is whether he can find any subjects.

by John Surico
May 13 2015, 6:44pm

Photo by Kevin Case via Flickr

Since the day he was elected, Bill de Blasio has redefined what it means to be a mayor of New York City.

In November of 2013, he rode into office on a message of income inequality with more than 70 percent of the city's vote, an electoral and ideological mandate not seen in decades. Unlike past mayors Michael Bloomberg, Rudy Giuliani, and Ed Koch, he has made his family a centerpiece of his public persona: Chirlane, his African American wife, with her expansive initiatives on mental health; Chiara, his daughter, with her admissions of depression and substance abuse; and Dante, his son, the living legacy of his dad's now famous stop-and-frisk reform. And, contrary to everything New York stands for, the mayor eats his pizza with a fork and knife.

But recently, de Blasio, a lanky Brooklynite, has embarked on a mission most of his predecessors didn't consider until later in their tenure, taking his populist, progressive message nationwide, in the hopes that the entire country—and more specifically, the Democratic Party—cares what the mayor of New York thinks.

On Tuesday, de Blasio took his show to the nation's capital, joining Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren and Nobel-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz to deliver remarks on income inequality at the Roosevelt Institute. Then, with a handful of other left-leaning Democratic leaders by his side, he stood on the steps of the Capitol and introduced his own "Contract for America," a liberal blueprint for the Democratic Party modeled on the multipronged Republican document crafted by Newt Gingrich in the 1990s.

"Six weeks ago, I convened a small group of progressive leaders at Gracie Mansion," de Blasio told the crowd, referring to New York City's mayoral mansion on Manhattan's Upper East Side. "The idea was to discuss the central challenge of our times—income inequality—and to find a way to bring progressives together to make an impact like never before."

Deemed " The Progressive Agenda," de Blasio's 13-point program is a slate of leftist dreams, demanding nationwide paid sick leave, universal pre-kindergarten, and a $15 minimum wage—proposals that have conveniently made their way on to de Blasio's agenda since he's been in office. In a simultaneous email blast, de Blasio drove his own short-lived legacy home, asking supporters to share the agenda with friends and family.

"From universal pre-K to paid sick leave, we've made tremendous strides here in NYC," the mayor wrote. "But there's a real hunger across the country to tackle the inequality crisis we're facing—and the fact is, our city does not exist in a vacuum."

In recent weeks, de Blasio has been riding high. He's traveled all over the country, delivering lectures on his Tale of Two Cities message in battleground states like Iowa and Wisconsin. He was the subject of a glowing profile from Mark Binelli in Rolling Stone, which cast the mayor as a progressive force to be reckoned with. When Hillary Clinton announced her presidential campaign last month, de Blasio withheld his endorsement, despite having run her 2000 Senate campaign, catching people's attention by suggesting that the former Secretary of State hadn't been clear enough on her progressive policies.

The release of de Blasio's "Progressive Agenda" Tuesday was the culmination of all that, a sort of coming-out party on the national stage. If it succeeds, the idea is that elected officials who sign on—namely, Clinton—will be forced to shift to the left to gain the approval of the progressive movement. The fact that Clinton has already gotten on board with most of the points in the Progressive Agenda isn't really relevant—de Blasio's new "contract" is all about the populist packaging: This is what the Democratic Party wants, the argument goes, so please prescribe accordingly.

By releasing the platform, the New York City mayor—less than a year and a half into his mayoralty—has essentially crowned himself kingmaker of the left, with Warren— who has yet to officially sign on to his agenda—as his queen. But the question is, will anyone actually listen to the guy?

"I don't think it's a bad thing, what he's doing, but it's not gonna have a major impact," Sal Albanese, a former New York City council member and long-shot candidate for mayor who came in eighth behind de Blasio in 2013, told me. "He's not gonna move the needle left, particularly because what he's promoting is virtually accepted by every Democrat in the country. Who's against raising the minimum wage in the Democratic Party? I imagine it's irritating to Democrats who have been saying this stuff for years.

"I don't know what he's achieving aside from increasing his own name recognition," Albanese continued. "Nobody knows who de Blasio is yet. But if he wanted to make a difference, he should've run for Senate. Besides, you have people like Liz Warren and Bernie Sanders [who are] saying the same program."

When we spoke, Albanese used phrases like "pontificating" and "speechifying" to describe de Blasio's recent moves. In the past, he has criticized de Blasio for giving his office too much grandeur, arguing that while his statements on income inequality may sound nice, the city's mayor doesn't really have the power to change macroeconomic policies in New York City. To say otherwise, Albanese claims, especially less than two years into de Blasio's reign, is conceit.

Errol Louis, the host of NY1's Inside City Hall, a nightly news show that covers all things de Blasio, disagreed, saying that while the mayor visited Washington to amplify his own spotlight, there is also real change he can effect in the city.

"De Blasio needs $14 billion for NYCHA [New York's public housing agency], $15 billion to keep mass transit running, and a higher minimum wage and more favorable unionization rules to slow and reverse a surge of poverty and homelessness," Louis told me over email. "Given the hostility of the GOP-controlled Congress, changing the national conversation is the only way to make progress."

In terms of that actually happening, Louis warned people not to discount de Blasio, who as a candidate once blindsided the New York City media. A man once considered an underdog, de Blasio, as Binelli described in Rolling Stone, "got himself noticed by hitting Bloomberg the hardest and giving voice to the millions of struggling New Yorkers who looked at the post-9/11 gilded-age excess all around them."

"His administration has been very explicit about reminding us that the campaign was more in touch with the city's mood than many journalists, pols and pundits in 2013," Louis said. "So this is a lesson they think they've learned, and they are patiently waiting for the rest of us to realize they are right once again.

"None of this means the mayor is wise to be spending so much time on the road—but it's not a crazy strategy, either," he added.

Albanese also reiterated a point that has made headlines in New York recently: that de Blasio has spent so much time building his national profile that he has forgotten about his actual job, which is to govern the biggest city in the country. To note: On Wednesday, de Blasio will continue his push for federal funds in Washington, DC, and fly to Silicon Valley to give more speeches.

"He doesn't need to go to California," Albanese said. "Nanci Pelosi is there—she'll take care of your message!" He added that de Blasio has been largely vacant from the lives of New Yorkers, and has yet to host just one town hall where residents can come and voice their opinions.

Whether New Yorkers actually care about the whereabouts of their mayor on a Tuesday afternoon is still up for debate. But still, the argument marks what has the been defining challenge for the mayor here and abroad: how to triangulate himself between City Hall, Albany, and Washington, without pissing off New Yorkers, or the state's governor, Democrat Andrew Cuomo, and the political establishment.

"Although I agree with much of de Blasio's agenda, he doesn't really understand the difference between being a champion of legitimate labor interests and an agent of labor's special interests," said Wayne Barrett, a Giuliani biographer and investigative journalist who is one of the more prolific experts on New York City politics.

"He [de Blasio] looks like he vets everything he's saying with the labor allies that brought him into politics when he first ran for city council," Barrett argued. "He's letting them define his brand of supposedly progressive politics, and he appears to be a broker for them with Hillary and the party."

Barrett also mentioned an issue that was conspicuously absent from the mayor's speech on Tuesday: law enforcement. The Progressive Agenda makes no mention of reforming the criminal justice system, a topic that has obviously rocked the country lately. Binelli also glazed over the issue in his profile of the mayor. That's perhaps because the issue, may be de Blasio's Achilles heel: if you ask most New Yorkers what's wrong with de Blasio, there's a really good chance they'll mention his troubles with the New York City Police Department.

But de Blasio seems to have swept that issue under the rug for now, instead focusing on arguments he believes can gain traction on a national stage, and, by extension, in an election. First, though, he'll have to appeal to ordinary Americans, like Jason Greeno of Des Moines, Iowa, who, when asked by the Wall Street Journal about the mayor, responded: "Was he the one who outlawed the large sodas?"

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