The 109th mayor of New York City sits in a souvenir T-shirt and running shorts, grinning over a salad bowl. No nervous aides or police flank him. He excuses himself briefly from the Park Slope café to fetch his phone charger.
When Bill de Blasio returns, he’s in a reflective—even expansive—mood. “I don’t miss the totality. It was just entirely draining,” he tells me of his time governing America’s largest city. “There were some absolutely joyous moments and triumphant moments and moments that were everything you could have dreamed of. There were some incredibly tough moments, painful moments—it’s not one thing.”
“I think you end up, in an executive position, in a bubble and in some isolation. It’s a crazed video game—there’s tons incoming, an ever-changing dynamic. I think the antidote is to sort of be out there, be connected with people, keep it very human.”
For anyone who covered Mayor de Blasio over the course of eight years, this latest itineration is borderline unrecognizable. The gangly former mayor is positively ebullient. The conversation, improbably, drifts past the one-hour mark.
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De Blasio is exactly, it seems, where he always wants to be—competing in another race, this time for dramatically less power than he possessed before. He is yet another Democratic candidate knocking on doors for an open House seat: the newly created 10th Congressional District, uniting brownstone Brooklyn with a portion of Lower Manhattan.
“It’s an interesting kind of return. It’s like going back to roots in every sense. It is very refreshing,” he says. “This morning, I was at PS 107 and I was just hanging out, talking to people. No filter, no entourage. It is where I started, how I started, and in some ways it’s very refreshing to come back.”
The de Blasio for Congress campaign can be read as a desperation move: John Lindsay, Herman Badillo, Mario Biaggi, and Ed Koch all left the House to run for mayor—not the other way around. Before declaring in the 10th, created out of the recent redistricting chaos, the term-limited mayor strongly contemplated a run for governor. But de Blasio, strangely or not, has fully taken to his quest, stumping hard in the brownstone Brooklyn neighborhoods that once made up his old city council district. He is, by far, the most famous Democrat running in the crowded primary for the Lower Manhattan and Brooklyn seat, which has attracted the likes of a sitting congressman from Rockland County, the lead attorney on the first Trump impeachment trial, a trailblazing ex-congresswoman, and several other formidable local officials. The winner of the August 23 primary is all but guaranteed victory in November.
The arguments against de Blasio’s congressional bid are easy to make. He had significant failures as mayor, including his halting and belated attempts to solve the city’s homelessness crisis. He did not radically reform the NYPD as promised. Rikers Island, the city’s notorious jail complex, remains a cauldron of violence. Housing was built—but not nearly enough for the working-class and poor. At many times throughout his time in office, he seemed to resent the job itself, and clashed frequently with the media and even ideological allies. His unpopularity only grew as time wore on.
Yet candidate de Blasio, as he’s fast to point out, does have a record to run on. His run-ins with the media and his ham-handed attempts at establishing a national profile—a bid for president in 2019 went nowhere—obscure a tangible list of achievements few modern mayors can readily match. De Blasio established a nationally renowned universal pre-K program and started up efforts to add free schooling for 3-year-olds. He signed into law the bill guaranteeing paid sick days for all city workers, which Michael Bloomberg refused to support. He backed legislation that successfully established a right to counsel for low-income tenants facing eviction and froze rents multiple times on rent-stabilized tenants. And he curtailed the NYPD’s use of stop-and-frisk, winning a bet against a conservative media establishment and Bloomberg himself that the city’s crime rate could fall without aggressively employing the discriminatory tactic.
The pandemic tore through New York in de Blasio’s final two years, inflicting a horrifying death toll and undoing his successes on crime. Democratic voters are souring on de Blasio’s successor, Eric Adams, but that doesn’t mean they’re in a nostalgic mood. To actually win the primary, de Blasio will need to win back many of the white, affluent voters who once supported him—and have since moved on. It will not be the easiest of tasks.
What does de Blasio want to do in Congress as one of 435 lawmakers, a freshman who could be plunged into the minority next year? “Even in the minority, you can get federal agencies to respond to your district,” he argues. “I would not see the job as just federal. I think my job would be to get the city government to respond to my district, the state government to respond to my district, individual agencies, MTA, you name it. That is constant problem-solving.”
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De Blasio has enjoyed a close relationship with Adams, a fellow Brooklynite he quietly helped elect last year. Nodding to how unpopular Adams has probably become in the liberal district, de Blasio deferred an assessment of whether his successor had been a good mayor so far. “He’s taking the right direction on a number of things, but it’s just too early to judge any new mayor at this point.”
As a candidate, de Blasio is attempting to walk an ideological line between the center-left progressivism he touted as mayor and the leftist, socialist-infused wing of the party that remains skeptical of him. De Blasio said he supports Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s Green New Deal and would make it a priority in Congress to hike taxes on the wealthy. To fight inflation, he’d try to lower prescription drug costs. He wants a federal rent-regulation policy for every tenant.
Yet de Blasio, who told me he’d rather join the Congressional Progressive Caucus than the Squad, seems more hesitant to back, full-throated, the good-cause eviction bill in Albany that would give all tenants across the state some of the rights rent-stabilized tenants enjoy in the five boroughs. A landlord himself, the former mayor calls himself a supporter of the legislation—with caveats.
“What I would want to make sure is that the smallest landlords, the real family-based landlords, their needs and rights are also respected.”
Like yourself, I ask.
“Absolutely. But, you know, my experience has been if you work with tenants openly and honestly, people resolve things. I have had tenants…for quite a while. But I do think there are some particular needs of the smallest folks who have one unit, you know, three units that need to be respected in the process.”
If elected to Congress, de Blasio will also have to consider foreign policy, a domain that rarely intersected with his old role, unless he was courting Orthodox Jewish voters with his hawkish statements on Israel. For most voters in the district, foreign affairs now means the war in Ukraine, where Russia’s invasion has incurred massive casualties and destabilized the global economy. Ukraine has become a cause célèbre for the left of late, and de Blasio is no exception.
The former mayor says he’d vote for increased military aid for Ukraine beyond the $40 billion already authorized by Congress and celebrated the reinvigoration of NATO under Joe Biden.
“Ukraine was a democracy that was being attacked. If Ukraine defeats Russia or holds Russia to a very limited game, I think that inhibits other acts of imperialism in the world,” de Blasio says. “I don’t think it’s about capping the amount of money. I do think it’s about continuing to deepen that process, that alliance, the number of nations involved that are contributing to balance the equation.”
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For now, the former mayor has enough free time to contemplate the state of the world and his campaign at home. One poll showed him with universal name recognition in the district but limited support. Several former staffers are working on the campaign of one of his top rivals, Mondaire Jones. The question will be whether de Blasio can raise enough cash and coax a skeptical electorate into giving him one more chance in elected office, the only life he has known for the past 20 years.
“If the race is won by more than 1,000 votes, I’ll be shocked,” he says. “A lot of the other candidates are going to have to introduce themselves to people on a very, very tight timeline. I don’t have to introduce myself to people.”
Ross BarkanRoss Barkan is a Nation contributing writer. He also writes a column on national politics for The Guardian and is a contributing writer at New York magazine.