Bill de Blasio Can’t Resist Meddling in Iowa

The New York City mayor addressed 40 people at a union hall—and stepped on Bernie Sanders’s toes.

Before Saturday, the last time New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio spoke in Iowa was in 2017, at an event hosted by Progress Iowa. (Charlie Neibergall / Associated Press)

DES MOINES—Bill de Blasio’s friends, allies, and top aides think his flirtation with running for president is ridiculous. None of them came with him here for the weekend.

The why-not-me stage of the Democratic presidential primaries keeps getting extended every time yet another politician asks the question and buys a plane ticket here, and the mayor of New York City wants in.

So talking to 40 people here in a union hall on a Sunday afternoon was worth it, even if that meant—again—annoying an actual candidate he’d spent years building a relationship with. He can’t seem to resist.

Four years ago, it was Hillary Clinton. He’d managed her 2000 Senate campaign and made a big show of inviting Bill Clinton to administer his first oath of office as mayor in 2014.

But then, as the presidential race stepped up in 2015, he insisted that he wasn’t sure Hillary Clinton was progressive enough, and that since he had to stay neutral for the sake of a candidate forum (which he never actually made happen), he couldn’t endorse. When he did finally back her, the only people who cared were the Clinton aides who were mad that it had taken him so long.

This time around, it’s Bernie Sanders he’s rebuffing. In 2018, he asked Sanders to administer the oath of office for his second term and repeatedly gushed about him, and even attended a gathering of the Sanders Institute last November in Burlington, Vermont. His response to Sanders announcing his second run last week: scrambling a trip of his own to Sioux City and Des Moines.

De Blasio could have been prepping to introduce Sanders as a favorite son in Brooklyn on Saturday for what will be the kickoff rally of the second campaign, not far from where the senator grew up and near the neighborhood the mayor used to represent on the city council. The senator’s campaign probably would have been open to that and to the buzz it would have produced about the strength of his 2020 campaign. Or he could be looking to horse-trade his endorsement with one of the many other candidates seeking to prove their own progressive credentials, and build up his power that way.

Instead, de Blasio ducked behind the doorway, just out of sight, until he could make his entrance in the union hall where those 40 people had come to see him on Sunday afternoon. He’d spent the morning doing a photo-op meeting with Tom Vilsack, the former governor and part-time Democratic gatekeeper and elder statesman, and another with Des Moines Mayor Frank Cownie, who later pointed out that New York City is bigger than 41 states and that the mayor comes with an “everyday perspective” of how government affects people’s lives.

He waited for his big introduction, piping up “I’m ready!” at one point, and then walked in from the back of the room.

“It’s a very personal reality,” de Blasio explained to reporters about his decision to come to Iowa on Saturday. He didn’t have a timetable for deciding whether he would run, he added on Sunday. He has to talk to his family.

He urged the people who came to the event hosted by the Asian & Latino PAC to invest in wind power (there are turbines all over the state), told them to stop talking about Donald Trump (most Democrats running haven’t been mentioning the president much at all), and recommended that Democrats reach out to farmers (other Democratic presidential hopefuls have been doing events at farms).

It was a New Yorker’s view of what’s happening in Iowa and the rest of the country, and his insistent sense that he knows what to do about it from the people he’s talking to more than a thousand miles away.

He drew the biggest applause when he said Democrats need to get smarter about being bolder, for the sake of their politics and their values. Tax the rich, he said. Don’t let Republicans make Democrats out as the party of the elites.

“There is plenty of money in this world, there is plenty of money in this country—it’s just in the wrong hands,” he said.

He stressed that Democrats need “a positive vision,” in a way that made him seem mostly unaware of what’s been said on the ground by the other Democratic presidential hopefuls; five others hit events across Iowa the same weekend, all but one on a repeat trip to the state. He talked up his record of progressive governance in New York, including establishing universal prekindergarten, though he spoke mostly about proposals he’s made that haven’t become law, including one that would give everyone in the city health care.

“I’m not in a position to compare [myself] against the rest of the field, because I am not a candidate at this moment. I can only say what I hope for my party,” he said after the event, when asked what he was actually proposing that other candidates haven’t. “We have to have a progressive as our nominee. We have to be able to speak to working people across our whole country. We also have to have a nominee who is believable as a leader in such an important position.”

Every 18 months or so since he won the mayor’s race in 2013, de Blasio has made a flashy play for headlines about national politics, talking like he might just be up to something. His current Fairness PAC is the latest pot of money he’s put together to support his political efforts. In December 2017, the last time he was in Des Moines, he insisted that his appearance as the featured speaker of the Progress Iowa holiday party was absolutely not about running for president, and he wasn’t running for president. He ended a press conference by asking reporters to watch him take out a piece of gum and begin chewing it as he walked out of the room, to show he could be mayor and involved in national politics at the same time. On Sunday, he used the line again, though this time the chewing, or maybe the walking, was actively teasing that he might run.

“Everyone who looks at the facts understands New York is moving in the right direction. But I feel very strongly that there’s a lot we have to fix in our country too, for New Yorkers and for everyone,” he said.

Clinton’s team was annoyed with this kind of behavior four years ago, and still hasn’t forgiven him.

“It was transparently obvious that he was dragging out his endorsement of HRC to make it look as if he was forcing progressive concessions from her to aid his own standing, and it didn’t help him, and his eventual endorsement of her was a nonevent,” an adviser said on Sunday afternoon.

And it’s not like the approach impressed Sanders and his team, who saw de Blasio as playing games around what always seemed obvious to them would eventually be a Clinton endorsement. They aren’t much impressed with how he’s handling things this time, though the senator’s aides declined to comment.

Flying to Iowa for the weekend is a lot easier than putting together an actual campaign, even if this trip did get partially sidelined by a blizzard that temporarily shut down the interstates. But de Blasio wants in on this part, when all it takes is a few plane tickets and hotel rooms to play at presidential speculation—and on seeming like he’s implicitly rebuffing what Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, his clearest ideological allies, have put forward.

“Each candidate has strengths,” he said when asked about those two. “I have a lot of respect for all of those folks, but I’m simply saying our party has to get a couple things right. We have to have a clear progressive message, we have to be unapologetic about it, we have to show people we can produce results for them.” First, he’ll have to see whether he can actually produce a presidential campaign for himself.