New York Mayor Bill de Blasio had to know that the decision would prompt conflict. In late February, he said he would block three of the 17 charter schools that the Bloomberg administration had approved to use public-school space. All three happened to be tied to the charter-school empire run by former councilwoman Eva Moskowitz, who happens to be a longtime de Blasio foe. Whatever the merits of the decision, this was an ostentatious slap—one that, according to prominent charter-school opponent Diane Ravitch, could have been avoided had the mayor followed up on a campaign pledge. “He had promised community hearings, there were none,” she told me. “There would have been the legitimacy of a democratic process, in which the community stepped up and said, ‘We don't have any room.’”
Instead, de Blasio forged ahead, and led a pro-pre-K rally in Albany. Moskowitz, in turn, mustered her coalition for a pro-charter rally. She won over both the New York media (aided by Rupert Murdoch’s New York Post) and Andrew Cuomo, who stopped by her rally (and may have even planned it). De Blasio backed down weeks later—reportedly after being cautioned by Bill Clinton—and New York’s new state budget, released this past weekend, provides unprecedented funds and protections for charters. This defeat damaged both de Blasio’s leverage with Cuomo and his own prestige—and it wasn’t the only time during de Blasio’s first 100 days1 as mayor that he failed to understand both Albany and the New York City media.
He's paying the price for it. His approval rating fell from 53 percent in mid-January to 45 percent in mid-March, while his disapproval rose from 13 to 34 percent, according to a Quinnipiac poll. (He was elected with 72 percent of the vote.) His plummeting numbers are especially remarkable given that, in instances where he could act unilaterally or with the cooperation of a sympathetic City Council, he has fulfilled a slew of his progressive campaign promises.
This disparity suggests that part of de Blasio's early struggles lie in his messaging. It was no surprise, for instance, when the New York Times reported Wednesday that his administration is casting about for a “newly created position of communications director.” It’s a position that apparently should have existed from the beginning. (Lis Smith, the communications specialist revered for her work in Obama’s 2012 campaign, was jettisoned just as de Blasio began his term, reportedly because she was dating Eliot Spitzer.) “If you are judging him on his ability to always control the media narrative, it was maybe not the greatest,” said one consultant friendly to the administration. “But if you are grading him on his ability to execute the agenda he ran on, I think it’s much sunnier.”
Here’s what de Blasio has done since taking office:
- Wound down stop-and-frisk, the controversial police tactic, by appointing a new police commissioner, dropping a Bloomberg-era appeal of a federal court decision, and withdrawing a Bloomberg-era lawsuit.
- Signed a paid-sick-day law that significantly expanded a similar law passed last year over then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s objections.
- Announced he would drop a lawsuit Bloomberg had filed over a living-wage law.
- Negotiated a high proportion of affordable housing units at the site of south Williamsburg’s old Domino Sugar factory, setting an important template for future developments.
- Launched Vision Zero, a patchwork of policing priorities, regulations (including a lowered speed limit), urban development, and awareness-campaigning with the goal of reducing traffic fatalities to zero—a bold, Kennedy-pledges-the-moon gesture given that cars killed 156 pedestrians in New York City last year.
- Secured $300 million in state funding for universal pre-Kindergarten in 2014.
“If you want to be objective, one could argue it’s been tremendous,” said veteran New York City pollster Jef Pollock of de Blasio’s first few months. “It’s buried underneath a lot of tabloid noise.” That noise has included de Blasio possibly helping spring a pastor from jail (“De Blasio Calls a Top Cop After Pal Arrested”); getting caught speeding and running a stop sign and then refusing to answer questions about it at the next news conference; and bumbling his pledge to ban carriage horses, earning the ire of his allies at the Central Labor Council as well as the Irish community, including Liam Neeson. The Post even caught de Blasio violating the spirit of Vision Zero by jaywalking: “He talks the talk—but won’t walk the walk.”
But no misstep compares to his push for his signature campaign issue, universal pre-Kindergarten, on which he lost control of both the agenda and the narrative—in Albany, in the press, and likely with the public.
De Blasio, the candidate, had pledged to fund universal pre-K and an expansion of after-school programs by implementing a .5 percent marginal income tax increase on residents making more than $500,000 a year. His rivals alleged that this would be impossible, because it would require Albany’s approval in an election year for Cuomo, a fiscal moderate with national aspirations. Sure enough, soon after de Blasio went up to Albany and asked for permission to levy his tax, he proceeded to get played like a six-string.
De Blasio had budgeted for $340 million this year; Cuomo initially offered $100 million from existing state funds, but refused to bend on a new tax. De Blasio kept pushing, claiming that only a tax would ensure annual funding. Cuomo offered a vague “whatever he needs.” In the ensuing month, the Republican-controlled state Senate—with Cuomo’s tacit approval—killed the tax, despite the fact that it only would have applied to New York City, where it was dramatically favored. The new budget allocates $300 million for universal pre-K in New York City. Even de Blasio is suggesting that the tax—an inherently redistributive, progressive measure—is a dead letter. “Peace With Honor," Newsday cheekily called the pre-K deal from de Blasio’s perspective, using the phrase Nixon deployed to describe a wise retreat from the quagmire of Vietnam.
The mayor’s allies note that he received $300 million from the state, which is $300 million more than any other mayor has ever received for pre-K. This is true. But the fact that this success must be painstakingly pointed out by de Blasio's team—in desperate emails to the Times, for instance—confirms the failure. If it’s so wonderful, why must the administration labor to make everyone see it that way? It's partly because the administration failed to frame the funding as a victory, and partly because de Blasio failed to do the smart thing: immediately call Cuomo’s “whatever he needs” bluff, declare victory, and use that momentum to negotiate more money. In other words, this was as much a strategic failure (a misunderstanding of the Albany game) as a communications one (a misunderstanding of New York City media). “He came back from his battle with Albany with one leg broken,” said Hank Sheinkopf, a consultant who advised de Blasio’s primary rival Bill Thompson.
All in all, it’s not a bad record. And many—New York’s proud Irish-American community, for example—seem willing to grant de Blasio a learning curve. “It is required to cut him, as they say, a bit of slack,” Sheinkopf said. Certainly de Blasio has learned from his bruising: Even for a savvy former operative and councilmember like him, it must have been a jolt to realize that your landslide victory means precisely squat once you become mayor. “He learned the lesson mayors around the country learn,” Sheinkopf added. “The state capital is where the power lies.” But it's been a lesson for more than just de Blasio. The progressives in the city who voted for him—as well as the millions around the country who are looking to him as a harbinger of broader change—have learned, too, that winning an election is just the beginning of getting what you want.