Bill de Blasio is the only candidate running for president whose entry into the race is perhaps a tad surprising. With the others, even those with miniscule odds of actually securing the Democratic nomination, there is some modicum of sense: get your name out there, promote your pet issues, accrue some political capital to burnish a future bid for another elected office, and if worst comes to worst you’ll still have ‘former presidential candidate’ in your title – which is sure to bring forth generous speaking fees and book deals. MSNBC might even give you a TV show. But with de Blasio, at least at first blush, the logic gets much hazier. His liabilities are so manifestly obvious that even his own staff reportedly begged him not to run. A combination of bewilderment, irritation, and laughter seems to be the primary reaction to the fact that he’s actually going through with it. New York City elected officials and media are already maligning his inflated ambitions with ruthless glee. And you can bet Andrew Cuomo, his longtime nemesis, will be weighing in with some artfully-constructed jabs at any moment.
But when the laughter subsides and you step back, the grounds on which de Blasio is operating becomes clearer. It all stems from the corruption cloud that has long engulfed his mayoral administration. People might not even remember (if they ever knew in the first place) that he ended up embroiled in serious legal jeopardy for much of his tenure in office. It peaked in early 2017, a time when the national news cycle was so frenetic – constant Trump-related leaks about Jeff Sessions, Michael Flynn, and so on – that even New York City political obsessives were probably distracted.
On March 16, 2017, prosecutors took the unusual step of promulgating a public rationale for why they were not bringing charges against de Blasio, despite a protracted probe into his seedy fundraising tactics, and eviscerated the good mayor. (Set aside the civil liberty implications of this zealous prosecutorial move, which seems to be getting more common, at least with high-profile political cases. See: Clinton, Hillary.) There were two simultaneous investigations happening at the time; both federal and state. De Blasio clearly avoided the federal charges by the skin of his teeth, with the acting US Attorney for the Southern District of New York, Joon Kim, indicating that a Supreme Court decision the previous year had narrowed the scope of what constitutes official bribery-related misconduct. Only due to that precedent, Kim suggested, was any prosecution of de Blasio untenable. The Court had unanimously ruled to vacate the corruption conviction of former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell, who had done favors for one of his most cherished donor-patrons and was lavished with all kinds of wonderful gifts in return, such as a Rolex watch, exclusive golf outings, and a high-end shopping spree for his wife. De Blasio evidently was under similar scrutiny as McDonnell for his fundraising jaunts, which demonstrably resulted in him taking official governmental action on behalf of well-heeled donors – some of whom are now incarcerated.
De Blasio himself was questioned in the wide-ranging federal probe in February 2017, and clearly prosecutors had a zealous desire to see him charged, but just couldn’t work out the legal minutiae beyond a reasonable doubt.
The state investigation was arguably even more damning for de Blasio. Cy Vance, Jr., the Manhattan District Attorney, released a blistering 10-page letter that same day in March 2017 – in a coordinated move with the Feds – outlining de Blasio’s various misdeeds, which Vance alleged violated ‘the intent and spirit of the laws’ governing campaign contributions. De Blasio had mounted a fundraising blitz in 2014 to funnel money to Democratic State Senate candidates for the ostensible purpose of wresting that body from GOP control. It failed, but de Blasio got to unleash his highly creative fundraising acumen to great fanfare. Ironically, the Democrats did finally seize the State Senate majority in 2018 – but only when De Blasio was less aggressively involved in the effort.
Then there are scattered other examples of sleaze that never resulted in charges, but could come back to bite de Blasio as the scrutiny on him intensifies. Two of the donors that de Blasio courted during a trip to California to raise funds for his 2017 mayoral re-election campaign – actual New York City residents were evidently not all that interested in handing over cash to someone under multiple criminal investigations – ended up getting destroyed by #MeToo in a matter of months: Russell Simmons, the founder of Def Jam, and David Glasser, president of the Weinstein Company both shelled out a boatload to Bill. Needless to say, that won’t look particularly good going forward.
De Blasio was even caught using a private email address for official business in violation of City regulations, according to a memo released by the Department of Investigation. No evidence as yet has been furnished that he set up a private server, but Hillary Clinton nonetheless looms large. (Clinton-world was famously aggravated that de Blasio waited till relatively late in the game in 2016 to endorse his former boss Hillary, whose Senate campaign he managed in 2000.)
Really, all of this just scratches the surface – more corruption-related leaks are destined to surface in short order. One big de Blasio donor was sent to prison just this week for bribing the mayor; he’d dressed up as an elf to deliver expensive gifts to the wives and children of top NYPD brass, who in turn rewarded the costumed gentleman with a private police chauffeur service. (Free chartered flights to the Super Bowl were also in the mix, of course). Others were granted immunity over the course of the federal investigation. You wonder whether these colorful individuals will come forward with more details about de Blasio’s sketchy record now that he’s chosen, amazingly, to enter the national spotlight, with all the dramatically heightened scrutiny that entails.
In general, the New York City media is sure to gleefully skewer de Blasio at every single opportunity. They already routinely brutalize him, often with good cause, but their wrath will only amplify now that he has the audacity to hightail it out of the city to tour the cornfields of Iowa. De Blasio insists that the gears of municipal government will run just fine without him, and that may well be the case, considering his insouciance and overall weird manner often seems to impede such functions. Nonetheless, there is no easier cheap shot to take than one against a mayor who’s galavanting around the country while there’s still business to attend to on the home front. Questions will also arise about the extent to which NYPD is facilitating his out-of-state campaigning at taxpayer expense. Somehow de Blasio’s approval rating in New York may sink even lower; one poll in March showed him less popular in the state than Donald Trump, which is a truly remarkable feat.
It might be a somewhat trivial metric, but everything de Blasio puts out on social media relating to his presidential run seems to get ‘ratio’d’ – that is, the overwhelming response is negative replies, rather than likes or retweets, even among people who otherwise share his hatred of Trump and are inclined to support his stated ‘progressive’ agenda. A tweeted clip in which he debuts his supremely clever new nickname for Trump, ‘Con Don’, was widely panned. Most YouTube videos of his post-announcement interviews are drowning in dislikes. There simply appears to be no organic sentiment supporting a de Blasio presidential run, which raises the question of why the heck he’s doing it.
Well, if you’re a New York City real estate maven or vendor of some kind, there’s probably no better way to get your contracting process expedited than to write a check to the de Blasio 2020 campaign. Better yet, shell out some cash to his dubious nonprofit, which he runs alongside the official campaign apparatus to promote his political aspirations and which enables him to evade those pesky inquiries from the Federal Election Commission. The latest one he founded, dubbed ‘Fairness PAC,’ subsidized travel for his wife and himself as they shuttled around the country preparing for a presidential bid. De Blasio’s innovative spirit for finding new and creative ways to take in large financial contributions never seems to cease.
The biggest tip-off that de Blasio was always in fact running, even against all odds, was his enthusiastic appearance before AIPAC in March, which most Democratic candidates skipped this year. But not Bill. He continues the proud tradition of conducting a strange quasi-foreign policy on behalf of New York City, which mostly entails grandiosely heralding the unimpeachable virtue of Israel at every possible opportunity. Perhaps de Blasio views his status as mayor of the largest population of urban Jews on Earth as an electoral asset in South Carolina; we’ll have to see how that plays out.
The last sitting NYC mayor to seek the presidency was John Lindsay in 1972, who was also on the tail-end of a two-term tenure. Lindsay went nowhere, but he did attract the support of what the New York Times described at the time as prominent ‘real estate men’ who had an obvious business incentive to curry favor with the mayor. Doubtless, similar opportunities will become available for interested parties over the course of de Blasio’s run. Having already pioneered fundraising tactics that could be charitably characterized as ‘bold’ (to use the word he so often invokes to describe the nature of his ‘leadership’) de Blasio has a proven penchant for leveraging his political aspirations into cash. It may have gotten him into severe legal jeopardy and nearly landed him in prison, but what the heck – you only live once.
It’s also possible that de Blasio is simply an unrepentant egotist, or even just a pure insatiable political junkie. One Twitter commenter recalled a 2015 confab with reporters at Gracie Mansion in which de Blasio eagerly handicapped that year’s Republican primary field for no particular reason. Maybe he just figures that running for president will be a ton of fun and he might as well do it. And anyway, Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Ind. has somehow rocketed to serious contention despite presiding over a city with approximately 8.5 million fewer residents than New York. That alone could easily be what’s impelling de Blasio to override the ‘almost uniform’ counsel of his close circle, who desperately pled with him not to run, Politico reporter Laura Nahmias recounted: ‘He says, “Thank you for your advice, and I’m going to do it anyway.”’.
All of this gets to the fundamental corruption at the heart of the American presidential election system: it’s become a racket, effectively a jobs program for useless consultants. What with the hyper-politicization observed during the Trump era, even the most hopeless candidate at least has a shot to raise significant sums and blow it on sleazy operatives promising that they alone possess the tools to successfully bolster the candidate’s image on TV and the web. Seizing the mantle of ‘former presidential candidate’ offers a boost to speakers’ fees, book deal payouts, and lobbying opportunities well after the campaign fizzles to dust. George Pataki, another unremarkable New York political figure, didn’t run in 2016 because he thought he had a great chance of winning – he ran because running was a lucrative business endeavor. In de Blasio’s case, his city-based fundraising operation has already been basically shuttered by the cops, so why not take that same approach to the national stage and see who bites. It’s too tempting to pass up, especially if you’re operating with boundless hubris to begin with. Reach for the stars, Bill!