Bill de Blasio Tries to Rock the Democratic Boat

For good or ill, the New York City mayor stood taller than his fellow contenders on the stage and spoke louder than most of them too.

Bill de Blasio brought New York energy to the debate stage last night. (Jim Watson / Getty)

Bill de Blasio was one of the last Democrats to enter the presidential-primary race, and as evidenced by his placement on the far edge of the stage last night, one of the last to squeeze into the first primary debate.

But he was the first to rock the party boat, the first to interrupt a rival, and the first to pick a policy fight.

For good or ill, the New York City mayor stood taller than his fellow contenders on the stage and spoke louder than most of them too. In the first night of a two-part Democratic debate in Miami, the goal of each of the nine contenders not named Elizabeth Warren was to have a moment that could make an impression with a national television audience, and de Blasio had several. If the debate began as a more staid, buttoned-up affair than the Republican free-for-alls that President Donald Trump dominated four years ago, de Blasio brought at least a hint of a New York brawler to Miami.

Early on, he challenged former Representative Beto O’Rourke of Texas over his hesitancy to scrap the nation’s private-insurance system in favor of a single-payer program. “How can you defend a system that is not working?” de Blasio asked, effectively seizing the microphone from O’Rourke, who, despite his own recent difficulties, remains higher in the polls. When the candidates were asked to raise their hands if they were willing to get rid of private insurance companies to implement a government-run plan, de Blasio joined Warren as the only two candidates to say yes.

Later in the evening, the mayor passionately defended immigrants and sought to redirect the ire of struggling workers toward corporations and the wealthy instead. “For all the American citizens who feel you are falling behind and the American dream is not working for you, the immigrants didn’t do that to you,” de Blasio said in one of the debate’s more memorable lines. “The big corporations did that to you. The 1 percent did that to you.”

De Blasio was far from the only candidate who entered the night desperate for a breakout moment—half of the hopefuls on the stage do not consistently register above 1 percent in the polls. But he needed one as much as anybody else. The mayor’s presidential bid has been ridiculed back home in New York, where he is unpopular with both the public and the press, despite a considerable record of progressive accomplishment. De Blasio hasn’t fared much better outside the Big Apple; multiple polls of Iowa voters have found that among all the widely known Democratic candidates, he has the worst favorability ratings, with more respondents viewing him negatively than those who view him positively.

De Blasio clearly came into this first debate with something to prove, if only to remind his critics that it was his skills as a campaigner that helped elevate him over a slate of better-known and better-funded candidates to win election as mayor in 2013. “He’s always been a good debater on the local level, and now he’s shown he has the potential to shine on a national debate stage as well,” said Rebecca Katz, a progressive campaign strategist and former de Blasio adviser.

On a crowded stage, de Blasio managed both to set himself apart from his rivals and to intersperse snippets of his own biography to introduce himself to an audience that may have only vaguely been aware of his record in New York. He leaned on his position as “chief executive of the largest city” to claim a measure of authority over the legislators on the stage, boasting about his success in enacting a universal prekindergarten program in New York while taking credit for the $15 minimum wage approved in the state legislature. And the mayor spoke in highly personal terms, as he rarely does, about his father, a World War II veteran who lost a leg in battle and died by suicide years after coming home.

Not all of de Blasio’s lines landed smoothly. He awkwardly suggested that by virtue of his son, Dante, he had a more personal connection to black voters than the lone African American candidate on the stage, Senator Cory Booker. “Something sets me apart from my colleagues, and that is for the last 21 years, I have been raising a black son in America,” de Blasio said, reprising the story of his discussion with his son about dealing with the police that helped him win election as mayor. At another point, de Blasio tried to talk over the moderators heading into a commercial break. As the camera panned back, he could be seen looking miffed, his hand on his hip behind his lectern.

Unlike some of his rivals, de Blasio offered few specifics about what he would do as president; voters won’t find much on his campaign website. His goal last night was clearly to introduce himself to voters as a fighter willing to mix it up with his own party as much as with the president. On that score, he succeeded, perhaps more than anyone else in this inaugural debate. De Blasio certainly made an impression—now he must hope Democratic voters actually liked it.