Welcome to our recurring series “Who The Fuck Are All These Fucks?” in which we profile, in brief, each of the 2020 candidates for president. This series is not meant to be exhaustive, and you’re encouraged to look into each candidate on your own.
NAME: Bill de Blasio
CURRENT JOB: 109th Mayor of New York City
PREVIOUS JOB: Public Advocate of New York City, and previously a member of the New York City Council
IF YOU WERE GOING TO MAKE UP A FICTITIOUS MAYOR OF NEW YORK CITY, WOULD YOU NAME HIM “BILL DE BLASIO”: No, that feels too on-the-nose for a New York stereotype, I’d call him something like “William Wilhelm Jr.” that feels ‘stuffy businessman’ without playing into Italian-American stereotypes
William Wilhelm Jr. was born on May 8, 1961, in Manhattan. Known as “Billy” in his youth, he took his mother’s maiden name after his father’s troubles with alcoholism led to large periods of abandonment (William Wilhelm Sr. committed suicide in 1979).
He studied at Columbia with an interest in politics and public service. In the 1980s, he distributed food and medicine during the Nicaraguan Revolution and supported the Sandinistas, the socialist government of Nicaragua that was fiercely opposed by the Reagan administration. He then served for a number of political campaigns including David Dinkins’ 1989 mayoral race, Charles Rangel’s 1994 congressional re-election, and Hillary Clinton’s 2000 election to the U.S. Senate.
de Blasio won his first seat as a candidate in 2001, running for the New York City Council. He became known as an outspoken supporter of LGBT+ rights, especially championing the HIV/AIDS Housing Services Law, which gave more protections and housing services for low-income New Yorkers with HIV/AIDS.
Eight years later, de Blasio was elected Public Advocate, a somewhat unique role in New York City. The Public Advocate was created in 1993 and has evolved over time, but since 2001 has been primarily a kind of watchdog. The New York City Charter says that the Public Advocate “shall serve as the public advocate,” which is exactly what de Blasio did.
de Blasio took the Public Advocate role to mean that it was his job to be either a champion or foil for Mayor Michael Bloomberg depending on what the situation called for. It was arguably under de Blasio that the Public Advocate shifted from a position of influence in the New York City Council to a kind of alternate dimension mayor, similar maybe to the Leader of the Opposition in the United Kingdom.
de Blasio was able to use the position to run for Mayor of New York in 2013. He wasn’t the front-runner when the election began, but he benefited from his reputation as a committed liberal and someone willing to make trouble – culminating in an arrest for disorderly conduct while protesting the closure of a community hospital.
As mayor, de Blasio has tried to walk the same fine line that all New York City Mayors try to walk: keep the public happy, keep the city running, and keep the voters satisfied. It’s been… mixed.
de Blasio promised to address the New York Police Department’s problems with racial profiling and excessive force. But he appointed an old ally of former mayor Rudy Giuliani as commissioner and failed to make major changes to the NYPD, upsetting many of his supporters. But he did make public speeches that alienated the department.
He has promoted the use of congestion pricing to ease traffic – and traffic-related pollution – in New York City. de Blasio wants to use congestion pricing as a way to generate revenue for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority. But he disagreed with Governor Andrew Cuomo over how it would be implemented. That’s not a new power struggle in New York City, which has virtually no control over its subway system: the MTA’s 21-member board has four members appointed by the mayor, four by the governor, and one member appointed by each of the three other New York counties the system touches, and if you are doing that math out you’ll realize that means there are ten more seats so buckle in: four more counties get to each nominate one member but they have to vote as one group and only get one vote between them and then the other six seats are filled by representatives of labor unions and the ‘Permanent Citizens Advisory Committee’, but none of those six can vote. That means that there are really… 21 members of which there are 15 members who between them have 12 votes, and since county executives are more dependent on good relations with the Governor of New York than the Mayor of New York City, the governor has the ability to generally get a majority of the votes on his side even if a majority of the members of the MTA board agree with the mayor. It’s a complicated system and one that rarely benefits the mayor, but de Blasio’s style is all about communication and less about the kind of greasy dealing that, for better or worse, is the true hallmark of New York City politicking.
What would President de Blasio be like? It’s hard to know for sure. He was a liberal firebrand in his city council days but mellowed into a more middle-of-the-road liberal as mayor. He’s long been big on affordable housing but has been criticized for failing to do much about the city’s rent crisis beyond building more subsidized housing — and that’s a sign that de Blasio might not be an “idea man” per se.
He supports marijuana legalization, believes that the families of 9/11 victims should be allowed to sue Saudi Arabia for its role in the attacks, and supports pretty standard positions like “charter schools but not too much” and “a president who puts working people first” but whose website is still pretty empty.
With more than two dozen candidates in the race, one might wonder why de Blasio is jumping in now. It might be that he sees that Joe Biden is weaker than pundits originally thought. de Blasio has long called himself a “democratic socialist” and he might see an opportunity to be a hybrid of Biden’s folksy charm and Sanders’ passionate leftism – and one who is known to have a penchant for the union endorsements both Biden and Sanders crave. But as the New York Post warns, the better de Blasio does the more likely it is to affect Sanders or Elizabeth Warren, not Biden.
“The better de Blasio does in selling his progressive message, the more he will threaten Sanders or Sen. Liz Warren or others in the race running sharply to the left. If the intersectional socialist ideological tendency doesn’t cohere around a single candidate, and instead squabbles over who’s more pure and who’s more identitarian, Biden’s essential message will be made flesh.”