Bill de Blasio, the mayor of New York City who has repeatedly sought to brand himself as a leading American progressive, will run for president.
The mayor announced his decision in a video Thursday morning, ahead of an appearance on Good Morning America.
"Don't back down in the face of a bully," de Blasio said in the video, referring to President Donald Trump. "Confront him. Take him on."
"As president, I will take on the wealthy. I will take on the big corporations. I will not rest until this government serves working people," he said.
De Blasio is a deep long shot in a primary race already filled with long shots, including two other current mayors. But he’s comfortable with unlikely campaigns: In 2013, when he held the largely powerless elected position of New York City public advocate, he ran a mayoral campaign in a crowded field as a progressive champion out to eliminate wealth inequality. He won, beating out frontrunners who had long planned for the race.
Even though de Blasio is often portrayed as bumbling in the city’s tabloid press (see: the Great Groundhog Incident or his gym routine), he is not especially unpopular in the city on the whole. He easily won reelection in 2017, without a serious primary challenger. An April poll showed somewhat typical approval numbers for the mayor among New York City voters: While he’s slightly underwater overall (42% approve of his job handling and 44% disapprove), he’s much more popular with black voters (66% of whom approve). Black support has been a hallmark of his time in office, and is a big part of the reason why he ultimately won the job to begin with. De Blasio’s wife, Chirlane McCray, is black, and their family has been crucial to his political career: McCray is a close adviser, and an ad featuring their son Dante helped clinch the 2013 primary.
McCray joined de Blasio on Good Morning America Thursday, saying she was his "top adviser, but not his only adviser." The interview, filmed in New York's Times Square, took place with protesters outside. “A little serenading,” the mayor said.
The mayor has a long political history in and out of government. As an activist in the ’80s, he went to Nicaragua, then at war, to help deliver food and medicine and backed the leftist Sandinistas. He worked at the Department of Housing and Urban Development during the Clinton administration, then–HUD secretary Andrew Cuomo. He went on to manage Hillary Clinton’s successful first Senate campaign in 2000 and soon after won election to the New York City Council, representing an area of Brooklyn that included much of Park Slope. In 2009, he was elected the city’s public advocate, a job that is effectively acting as the city’s top complainer. Even though the job's responsibilities are amorphous, it proved to be a political launching pad, and de Blasio used it to position himself as a forerunner on national issues: campaigning against Citizens United, cautiously backing Occupy Wall Street protesters in their demonstrations against economic inequality, and backing city proposals that would’ve put greater oversight over the New York City Police Department.
De Blasio has lived up to some of that progressive promise as mayor, most significantly in establishing universal prekindergarten in the city. His administration has also overseen a continued the drop in the NYPD’s use of stop-and-frisk policing while presiding over a declining crime rate. But he has struggled to implement many of his proposals to reduce economic inequality, including a proposed millionaires tax to pay for repairs to the city's oft-broken subway system that has repeatedly died in the state legislature in Albany.
He spent much of his first term in office in a never-ending fight with Cuomo, the state’s governor. The two have been virtually unable to work together on anything, from funding for city programs and the failing subway system to — this is not a joke — saving a loose deer in Harlem (the deer died). The city’s public housing system is also in crisis, and this year has given up more control to HUD. The number of homeless New Yorkers has also remained high, significantly higher than the number the last year Michael Bloomberg was in office.
De Blasio's first term also featured the kind of scandal that is particularly out of place in Democratic politics in 2019: long-running investigations into whether the mayor or his aides improperly acted on behalf of donors. De Blasio and his aides were ultimately cleared in state and federal investigations, but the Manhattan district attorney still faulted de Blasio and his team, saying certain “transactions appear contrary to the intent and spirit” of election laws. After a two and a half year investigation, the city's Department of Investigation found in a report partially revealed this April that de Blasio violated conflict of interest rules by asking for donations from people with business before New York City, even though he was warned not to do so.
De Blasio last tried to grab at national political relevance in the lead-up to the 2016 presidential election, when he founded a progressive nonprofit designed to push his agenda nationally. The group intended to host a presidential forum in Iowa soon before the state’s caucuses to push candidates on progressive issues, but ultimately canceled those plans once it became clear that candidates would not actually show up. That PAC was eventually shut down.
Instead of playing a role as a progressive thought leader in the election, de Blasio’s 2016 role was chiefly to be awkward. In part because of the planned forum, de Blasio delayed publicly endorsing either Bernie Sanders — whose views most lined up with his own — or Hillary Clinton — whose campaign he once ran. De Blasio’s dithering, and desire to be courted, infuriated Clinton’s campaign, according to hacked emails released by WikiLeaks — by the time he actually endorsed Clinton and traveled to Iowa to campaign on her behalf, he was left to door-knock alone and without any official events with the campaign. (When Clinton and de Blasio did actually appear together on stage in 2016, the moment did not go over super well.) By the end of the cycle, Sanders had effectively become the thing de Blasio set out to be, a statesperson for progressive causes.
But the mayor took Clinton’s loss to Donald Trump as a validation of some of his own ideals. “I thought she would eventually take a stronger position on income inequality,” de Blasio said in a book published after the election. “She could have generated more support if she had taken a stronger stance, and done it sooner.”
That message will be central to his campaign now. He’ll be one of nearly two dozen candidates preaching it.