Mayor Bill de Blasio addresses 150-plus supporters of the liberal advocacy group Progress Iowa at the Temple for Performing Arts in downtown Des Moines on December 19th. A speech to the group in 2014 helped launch Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign. Photo: Eric Phillips / Mayoral press secretary
It doesn’t happen every day. Or even every four years. But every once in a while, political lightning strikes in Iowa. Could such a bolt hit Mayor Bill de Blasio? And might he make good presidential timber?
T. M. Franklin (Frank) Cownie ponders the question. The $52,000-a-year mayor of Des Moines, a folksy and popular Democrat in a nonpartisan post, has seen a lot of contenders come and go in 14 years in office.
This New York mayor is a tad different. Cownie has known him since 2014, and as co-trustees of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, they’ve worked on “parks, potholes, curbs, gutters, street lights and public safety,” he says.
Yes, but this is a political question. There’s a brief pause. Cownie, who lists his home number on the city’s website and runs his family’s fur business on breaks from running Des Moines, finally answers:
“Heck, if a TV game show host can become president, I don’t think it’s out of the realm of possibility for a mayor of the largest mega-city in the country to start thinking about it,” he says in a phone interview.
New York’s mayor vows, unconvincingly and ad infinitum, that he’s not thinking about it. Yet there he was — fresh off a landslide reelection, two weeks before his second-term swearing-in — blitzing the Hawkeye State, glad-handing small-town mayors, quaffing beer with local pols, revving up his national profile.
“No, I’m not running for president,” he said. For good measure, he repeated, “No, friends, I’m not running for president. I’ve got four years and 13 days left to serve as mayor.” He used the line at least four times.
Now, it may have been factually true when he uttered it on December 19th at the Temple for Performing Arts, a former Masonic lodge built in 1913.
But equally true is that he said it moments before headlining the fifth annual holiday party for liberal advocacy group Progress Iowa — the same crowd Bernie Sanders wooed in 2014 as he prepared to launch his presidential campaign in 2016.
No one expects it to be his last trip. “Our folks are already saying they want to see more of him,” said Polk County Democratic Party Chairman Sean Bagniewski, a powerbroker in Iowa’s most populous county, which is home to 430,000 people, including 215,000 Des Moines residents.
Adds Cownie, “I don’t know what his ongoing political aspirations might be, but I always tell him, ‘Any time you’re traveling from coast to coast, if you have time, stop by.’ He knows the invitation is always open.”
De Blasio’s speech was a stew of “prairie populism,” an old-fashioned agrarian radicalism once common in the Midwest, and new-fangled political pandering so epic it could inspire a textbook on the topic.
“Leave no stone unturned” in the battle against Trumpism, the mayor preached. “Leave no seat uncontested” in the effort to recapture control of Congress from the GOP. “Know that we are at the beginning of a new progressive era,” he proclaimed.
This was red meat to 150-plus listeners. He won a standing ovation. Less effective was when the Park Slope pol, who’s long embraced the Italian heritage of his maternal grandparents, talked about, believe it or not, his rural roots in the fertile topsoil of Iowa.
The mayor seldom speaks of his father’s German ancestry. Years ago, he legally changed his birth name, Warren Wilhelm Jr., to Bill de Blasio, taking his mother’s maiden name, in part to cope with his father’s suicide. But political expediency trumps personal trauma.
So here was the mayor surprising his audience with an exploration of the family patrimony: “I have my own personal grassroots connection to Iowa,” he said. “It’s pretty far back in time, but very important to me personally.”
Turns out, his paternal grandmother, Nina Warren, was born in 1888 in Blanchard, on the Tarkio River near the Missouri border, to a “father who loved his farm” in rustic Page County, he said.
Lest there be any doubt, he added, “I am not making this up!” There was a point to the story that speaks to his great-grandfather’s respect for the transformative power of education, de Blasio said.
“He was a Civil War veteran who fought for the Union, loved his farm, but decided his daughters needed the education they could only get if they moved to the city,” he said.
The part about “farmer de Blasio’s agricultural roots” was “a bit of a reach,” said one local Democratic leader who heard the speech and asked that her name not be used to avoid offending the organizers.
The pandering continued as the mayor unpacked the failings of Hillary Clinton’s campaign. “Sure, the donors gave money, and sure, the party came up with something that seemed, kind of, maybe, like a message,” he said. “And we lost ... I don’t want the money if the money is going to stand between us and the people.”
Hello? It was probably lost on the Iowans, but de Blasio narrowly escaped criminal charges on pay-for-play fundraising practices, and was excoriated by prosecutors for soliciting campaign donations from people who sought official favors from the city, then granted them access.
Nonetheless, the event, doubling as a fundraiser for Progress Iowa, was a smash. Not bad in a state where residents routinely see presidential candidates in the supermarket and the local feed-and-seed.
At one point, caught up in the moment, de Blasio stripped the tie off his neck and auctioned it off. After four low bids, it reaped $250.
Of course, there were sour notes played by union “truth squads.”
The mayor was greeted by a full-page attack ad in The Des Moines Register, courtesy of NYC-based Transport Workers Union Local 100, which branded him as “phony as a $3 bill.”
He’s “no Bernie Sanders,” the ad exclaimed, slamming his “all-granola, no-grits phony progressivism” as harmful to America’s working families, and noting his efforts to kill the horse-carriage industry.
Not to be outdone, the Correction Officer’s Benevolent Association, a longtime city nemesis, declared the mayor “missing in action, again.” Said union president Elias Husamudeen in a statement, “Our message is this: ‘Enough is enough. Do your damn job already!’”
Meanwhile, a dozen cops from the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association came out and rented a mobile billboard with sound and lights, cranked up the theme from “Star Wars” arch-villain Darth Vader, “The Imperial March,” and blared it outside the Progress Iowa event to protest a bitter contract dispute.
Local boosters refer to the state’s culture and kind-hearted citizens as “Iowa Nice.” There’s a reason for this: A measure of those good vibes may have rubbed off on de Blasio and his PBA antagonists.
After the speech and demonstration, they all had a beer together at the Des Moines Marriott bar.
The moment won’t last. They’re all back in New York. They’ll likely be at each other’s throats again by the New Year. There’s that “damn job,” after all. But count on one thing. He’ll be back.
Why did he ever come in the first place?
Bill Peard, Democratic mayor of Waukee, a town of 20,000 named for Milwaukee, offered his own theory. “I think he was just trying to figure out America,” Peard said.