It’s official: Bill de Blasio is running for president.
The mayor of New York City announced his candidacy for the 2020 presidential election—after months of will-he-or-won’t-he speculation—in a YouTube video posted in the early hours of Thursday morning. The video introduces de Blasio’s platform—“Working People First”—and lays out his argument for why he’s running for president.
“It doesn’t matter if you live in a city or a rural area, big state or small state, doesn’t matter what your ethnicity is,” he says in the video. “People in every part of this country feel stuck or even like they’re going backwards.”
De Blasio also takes aim at President Donald Trump, positing that he’s the candidate best equipped to beat him in the 2020 election. “I’m a New Yorker, I’ve known Trump’s a bully for a long time,” de Blasio says. “This is not news to me or anyone else here—and I know how to take him on.”
No mayor from New York City has ever ascended to the highest office in the land, though several have tried: John Lindsay entered the 1972 Democratic primary, only to drop out after poor showings in early races. In 2008, Rudy Giuliani was considered an early front-runner in the Republican primary, but ended up not winning a single state. De Blasio’s own polling numbers have been dismal compared to other 2020 candidates’; he has not yet received the 3 percent of support he would need to qualify for the earliest primary debates, according to the New York Times.
De Blasio has toyed with the idea of a 2020 presidential run for more than a year, and has flip-flopped more than a few times. In 2017, he told New York magazine that running was “not my plan,” and that “I think there’s a lot going on [in New York City] that’s crucial to finish.”
But by 2018, he seemed to have changed his mind: He said several times last year that he wouldn’t rule out a run in 2020, and in July, he established Fairness PAC, a political action committee that has funneled money to Democratic candidates nationally. That PAC has also paid for de Blasio and wife Chirlane McCray’s exploratory trips to states that play a major role in the early months of the presidential primary race, including Iowa, New Hampshire, and most recently Nevada.
Those jaunts around the country haven’t won him any favors with New Yorkers; a Quinnipiac poll from early April found that 76 percent of registered NYC voters think he should not run for president—a “rare moment of unity” for city dwellers, as one polling analyst told the Wall Street Journal.
He’s stepped up his campaign posturing in recent months, most recently with a rally at Trump Tower in which he put President Donald Trump on blast for owning buildings that pump out planet-warming emissions. That event was interrupted by hecklers, whose presence de Blasio seemed to be courting. “When you get opposition from Donald Trump and Trump supporters, you’re doing something right,” he said during the rally.
So why de Blasio for president? In his view, his experience running New York City—abbreviated though it may be—qualifies him for the job. “As the leader of the biggest city in America, we’ve proven here you can make profound progressive change and make it quickly,” de Blasio recently said during a conversation at the Atlantic’s Renewal Summit. “I think there’s a story to tell here of real change, fast change, that people should hear. And I think it would be helpful to the national discussion, but I’m going to be telling that story one way or another.”
In the five years since he was elected, de Blasio has achieved many of the things he originally set out to do. Universal pre-K rolled out quickly after he was elected, as did a municipal ID program that’s open to undocumented immigrants and the homeless. His administration enacted a Vision Zero agenda, and helped reduce the NYPD’s use of stop-and-frisk, which unfairly targeted black and Latino New Yorkers. He easily won re-election in 2017, and campaigned on a platform of making New York City “the fairest big city in America.”
But a presidential race will also highlight his shortcomings. The de Blasio administration has pushed an ambitious affordable housing agenda that’s on track to create or preserve 300,000 affordable apartments by 2026, but critics say it doesn’t go far enough. The homelessness crisis has only gotten worse since de Blasio took office, with nearly 64,000 people sleeping in shelters every night.
In a moment when the MTA is a daily headache for New Yorkers, he rarely uses public transportation—his car rides from Gracie Mansion to his gym in Park Slope are, remarkably, still a thing—and until recently, hadn’t been especially proactive in pushing for the broken subways to be fixed. (His well-documented feud with Gov. Andrew Cuomo over who controls the subway system—it’s Cuomo, for those keeping score—didn’t help.)
NYCHA has been a particular pain point: The housing complex’s dilapidated buildings haven’t improved quickly enough, a lead paint scandal reflected poorly on the mayor, and the federal government recently stepped in to appoint its own monitor with oversight of the ailing agency.
A presidential campaign would also resurface other scandals that have plagued the de Blasio administration, including alleged pay-for-play with campaign donors, and the recent resignation of a City Hall aide who faced sexual harassment allegations.
“I believe Bill de Blasio has 100 percent the right message; I’m just not so sure he’s the right messenger,” a former aide, Rebecca Katz, told Gotham Gazette earlier this year.
De Blasio has a long career in public service: He worked under former mayor David Dinkins, and from there, went on to lead the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Region II—the same division that oversees NYCHA, an agency that has come under scrutiny during his two terms as mayor.
After a brief stint as Hillary Clinton’s campaign manager during her Senate run in 2000, de Blasio veered back into city politics. He won the New York City Council’s 39th district seat—which includes Park Slope, where the de Blasio-McCray family called home until his 2014 inauguration—in 2001, and during his seven-year tenure, focused on areas that would later become major issues in his mayoral campaign, including education and housing.
He became New York’s third public advocate in 2009, where he either “underperformed” or “did the best job he possibly could with an extraordinarily meager hand,” depending on who you asked. Perhaps his biggest attention-grabbing moment was getting arrested during a 2013 protest against the closure of Long Island College Hospital in Cobble Hill, which was slated to turn into a residential development. (It’s now well on its way to becoming condos.)
But De Blasio’s ambitions were bigger than the public advocate’s office; at the beginning of 2013, he announced that he was running for mayor, and campaigned on a platform that positioned him as the anti-Bloomberg. His “tale of two cities” stump speeches resonated in a city where income inequality persisted, and where Occupy Wall Street movement had recently captured the public’s attention. Housing prices had climbed dramatically under the nearly 12-year reign of Michael Bloomberg, who was friendly with big-name developers. De Blasio won the election in a landslide, albeit in a race with record low voter turnout.
“When I said we would take dead aim at the tale of two cities, I meant it,” he said during his inaugural address in 2014. “And we will do it.”
But five years after his first inauguration, inequality persists in New York City, and the gap between the city’s poorest and wealthiest citizens has only widened. Nearly half of New Yorkers live at or near the federal poverty line. The number of homeless New Yorkers has reached its highest point since the Great Depression, according to the Coalition for the Homeless, and de Blasio’s administration has struggled to reduce that number. His relationships with real estate developers have also come under scrutiny, much like his predecessor.
“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,” de Blasio says in his campaign video. “As mayor of the largest city in America, I’ll do just that.”