New York seems to be following in the footsteps of Los Angeles, where municipal politics has long met with collective uninterest. Mayor Bill de Blasio, who enjoys a large polling lead in his November reelection bid, took a vacation prior to his late August debate with Sal Albanese, a former city councilman little known to most New Yorkers. Earlier this year, when de Blasio feared that his mishandling of the city’s homeless problems and the multiple city, state, and federal investigations into his ethics violations might pose a threat, he concocted a new slogan for his 2017 campaign: “One city for all New Yorkers,” a pointed contrast with his winning 2013 message decrying New York’s “Tale of Two Cities.” He also announced that he would pay for the legal costs involved in his numerous mayoral shenanigans. But after federal attorney Preet Bharara decided against prosecuting him for trading campaign money for influence, de Blasio dropped his contrived slogan about unity, while also announcing that he’d changed his mind—city funds would be used to cover his multimillion-dollar legal costs, after all. A man who often naps after his morning workouts, de Blasio has dropped the pretense of working hard as mayor. Instead, he works hard at opposing President Donald Trump, even journeying to Berlin to join street demonstrators against the G-20 summit—rather than sticking around to console the family of NYPD officer Miosotis Familia, assassinated in her squad car that same week.
A similar mayoral dynamic can be seen in Los Angeles, where Democrat Eric Garcetti, running for reelection this year on an anti-Trump, pro-sanctuary-cities platform, won with a record 81 percent of the vote. But running virtually unopposed against a slate of also-rans, Garcetti garnered barely 330,000 votes in a city of almost 4 million people. That amounts to just 20 percent of registered voters—though that didn’t “beat” the record-low of 17.9 percent achieved by previous L.A. mayor Antonio Villaraigosa in his 2009 reelection victory. Garcetti’s easy victory left him with a campaign war chest amounting to $3 million—money that will serve him well should he try, in 2018, to succeed 84-year-old Dianne Feinstein in the Senate. It’s not clear yet whether Feinstein will retire, but even if she does, L.A. mayors, no matter how popular, have never been able to win statewide office.
The civic indifference that makes such incumbent dominance possible in both cities is driven by the same source: the sharp decline of middle-class voters for whom the city is a matter of civic responsibility, on the one hand, and the mounting power of public-sector interest groups, for whom the city is a matter of financial interest, on the other. By de Blasio’s good fortune, these same public-sector interest groups, particularly the teachers’ unions, will play a major role at the 2020 Democratic convention.
In his first term, de Blasio invested his limited energies in styling himself as a leading light of the party’s progressive wing. He was slow to endorse the “insufficiently progressive” Hillary Clinton in the 2016 Iowa caucuses, though he’d served as her campaign manager in her successful 2000 Senate run. De Blasio tried to leverage the popularity of Thomas Piketty’s much-noted book on capitalism and income inequality, but he was humiliated when none of the Democratic Party presidential candidates showed up at his forum on the growing class divide.
Undeterred, de Blasio will likely spend much of his second term trying to fashion himself into a plausible presidential candidate. His campaign will be initially underwritten by several million dollars in public funds distributed by the city’s Campaign Finance Board (created to ensure that monied interests don’t dominate city politics). The 56-year-old de Blasio can argue that he’s a more attractive candidate for millennial voters than Massachusetts senator Elizabeth Warren, who will be 71, or Bernie Sanders, who will be 78, come 2020. He can also tout his progressive bona fides by pointing to, among other policies, his institution of universal pre-K schooling in New York.
But before he can focus on events outside the five boroughs, de Blasio will turn his attention to undermining New York governor Andrew Cuomo, his rival for state and national power. De Blasio has been quietly backing Sex in the City star Cynthia Nixon, who seems to be preparing a challenge in 2018, when Cuomo will be seeking a third term. Nixon, who has lobbied for more education funding, is an identity-politics triple threat: a gay female with celebrity status who will run to Cuomo’s left. Even if she loses, she could tarnish the governor, thus enhancing de Blasio’s prospects.
What comes of de Blasio’s possible presidential run in 2020 is contingent, of course, on what happens over the next two years. Will his ethical failures come back to haunt him? “Emails, obtained through a records request, show [Jim] Capalino’s stable of lobbyists were so entrenched in the minutiae of de Blasio’s first term, they formed an unofficial, additional layer of government—sometimes instructing staffers how to do their jobs—all while advancing the interests of their paying clients,” Politico reported in August. The de Blasio ethics drama hasn’t seen its last act. Meantime, what becomes of President Trump? Will Hillary Clinton try to run again? Will any Democrat emerge from the heartland? How strong is California’s first-term senator, Kamala Harris? Harris, of Indian and Jamaican descent, is already looking to 2020. De Blasio has his own identity-politics card to play: his wife, Chirlane McCray, is African-American, allowing de Blasio to present himself as the candidate who closes the racial gap. Like Garcetti, de Blasio labors under a historical shadow: no New York mayor has moved on to higher office since the mid-nineteenth century. But no New York mayor has ever had a target quite like Donald Trump.
Illustration by Arnold Roth