At 6 feet, 5 inches tall, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio stands out in a crowd. But does he have any shot of standing out in the packed field of potential Democratic candidates for president?
A would-be progressive standard bearer, de Blasio has spent the past few months exploring a run, traveling to events in early primary states including New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada, and appearing on “The Simpsons” and “The View.”
So far, scant evidence of enthusiasm for his candidacy has emerged. He’s drawn sparse crowds — or no crowds at all — at his out-of-state speaking engagements.
A recent Quinnipiac University poll found 76% of New York City voters believe their mayor should not run.
The headlines chronicling his flirtations with the race have been snarky at best, including The New Republic ‘s “Bill de Blasio’s Embarrassing Quest for National Fame” and Vanity Fair ‘s “Lord Help us, Bill de Blasio is Still Thinking About Running for President.”
De Blasio has been undeterred.
“I’m glad I could unify the people of New York City,” he quipped when asked about the Quinnipiac poll. “My whole history has been as an insurgent and an underdog,” he said in an earlier TV interview .
Observers of New York politics say even if de Blasio doesn’t have much chance of winning, a run could raise his profile and possibly position him for a role in another Democrat’s administration.
“Part of what he’s doing is campaigning for a chance to be in the Cabinet or maybe an ambassador,” said Mitchell Moss, an urban policy professor at New York University and onetime adviser to de Blasio’s predecessor, Michael Bloomberg. “By acting as a candidate, you raise your profile politically. You’re not just known as the mayor of New York, you’re known as a person with national aspirations.”
Term limits prevent De Blasio, 57, from running for mayor again after 2021.
“When you’re term-limited and you’re looking for a new job, why not try the obvious path? It’s free publicity,” said veteran political consultant George Arzt.
A former city councilman, public advocate and federal housing official, de Blasio was elected in 2013 pledging to fight the inequities he said had turned New York into “two cities,” one rigged to benefit the rich and another impossible to navigate for the poor.
In that race he’d also been an underdog. The early favorite was City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, who would have been New York City’s first female mayor. Former congressman Anthony Weiner joined the race and was briefly the front-runner until he embroiled in another sex scandal.
Voters, though, went for de Blasio in the Democratic primary, partly on the strength of ads featuring his biracial family. In the general election, he easily pushed aside a respected Republican civil servant, Joe Lhota, who had criticized him as a “socialist.” In the early moments of his mayoralty, he seemed to have a shot at becoming a national voice on the left.
In office, de Blasio won praise for expanding full-day prekindergarten citywide and for curtailing stop-and-frisk policing.
But he also developed a reputation for self-inflicted wounds.
Early in his tenure, he offended the state’s governor, fellow Democrat Andrew Cuomo, who then spent years taking every opportunity to embarrass and belittle de Blasio.
Federal prosecutors investigated de Blasio’s political operation over possible campaign finance law violations before deciding not to press charges. Two of his donors pleaded guilty to charges related to contributions to de Blasio.
De Blasio also narrowly avoided a federal takeover of the city’s troubled public housing authority.
He easily won re-election in 2017, but liberals turned elsewhere for inspiration, most recently to freshman U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
De Blasio has also governed more like a business-friendly centrist than some of his liberal supporters expected. He backed a deal to offer Amazon nearly $3 billion in incentives for a headquarters in New York, only to see the deal collapse when the company got frustrated with local opposition.
A March 11 Monmouth poll found that 18% of Democratic voters nationwide had a favorable opinion of de Blasio while 24% have an unfavorable view.
Still, de Blasio has pulled off come-from-behind wins before, including in 2009 when he ran for the citywide position of public advocate.
Arzt, who was de Blasio’s spokesman during that race, remembers feeling dejected when a poll pegged de Blasio’s support at 9% of likely Democratic primary voters, compared to 42% for the front-runner.
“He didn’t lose any sense of optimism,” Arzt said of de Blasio. “He just looked at it and said, ‘That’s the highest he gets and that’s our floor.’ And he won.”
Asked Friday in a radio interview whether he is contemplating running for president, de Blasio reiterated that he has “not ruled it out.”
In hinting at a White House campaign, de Blasio joins a long line of New York City mayors who have run for president or flirted with doing so, including John Lindsay in 1972, Rudy Giuliani in 2008 and Bloomberg, who announced last month he would not seek the 2020 Democratic nomination.
“There is something about being mayor of New York that makes them all feel they should be and could be president,” Moss said.
None were able to make the leap. De Blasio may or may not be the next to try.