Running from New York

Mayor Bill de Blasio joins the tradition of NYC politicians who have tested presidential waters

  • Mayor Bill de Blasio speaks at a May 13 event in Trump Tower in Manhattan, days before he announced his presidential campaign. Photo: Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography

John Lindsay, the only other sitting mayor to have left City Hall for the presidential campaign trail, wasn’t gone for long.

With his announcement last week that he would seek the Democratic Party’s nomination for president, Mayor Bill de Blasio followed in the footsteps of a long line of fellow New York politicos who have had designs on occupying the Oval Office over the last half century — without much success to speak of. In seeking to translate political victories in the nation’s biggest city to triumph in the Electoral College, de Blasio hopes to buck both history — no former New York City mayor has won any federal office, much less the presidency, in over 150 years, and no mayor of any city has ever ascended directly from City Hall to the White House — and the current prevailing sentiment in his hometown, where one recent poll showed he has the approval of just 42 percent of city residents.

Mayor de Blasio will find little reason to be encouraged by the examples set by his forebears.

John Lindsay, the only other sitting mayor to have left City Hall for the presidential campaign trail, wasn’t gone for long — he withdrew from the 1972 primary race after failing to earn more than seven percent of the vote in any of the first four contests.

De Blasio, whose intermittent feuding with Gov. Andrew Cuomo has parallels to Lindsay’s rivalry with his Albany counterpart Nelson Rockefeller (who himself sought the Republican presidential nomination three times), will seek to the avoid the spillover of provincial politics onto the national stage. City issues became a liability for Lindsay on the campaign trail, as a group of disgruntled Forest Hills residents, protesting plans for a low-income housing project in their neighborhood, followed the mayor to Florida to heckle him at a campaign event.

Lindsay was also hampered by concerns over partisan loyalty, having departed the Republican Party and registered as a Democrat just a few months before announcing his bid for the party’s nomination. His example perhaps served as a cautionary tale to Michael Bloomberg, himself a former Republican who toyed with the idea of an independent bid in 2016 and considered running as a Democrat in 2020.

“I believe I would defeat Donald Trump in a general election,” Bloomberg wrote in a column earlier this year announcing his non-candidacy. “But I am clear-eyed about the difficulty of winning the Democratic nomination in such a crowded field.”

Referendum on America’s Biggest City

That more than 20 other Democrats had already launched their 2020 campaigns did nothing to dissuade de Blasio from leaping into the fray — after much equivocation — with his May 16 campaign announcement video, in which he cast himself as a champion of the working class.

Seen in one light, New York-based presidential bids can serve as something resembling a referendum on national attitudes toward America’s biggest city — recall Sen. Ted Cruz’s ultimately fruitless attacks on Donald Trump’s “New York values” in Iowa during the 2016 campaign, which echoed the insinuation that Al Smith’s “urban values” as a Catholic governor of immigrant-rich New York put him at odds with the interests of rural voters in 1928.

In launching his presidential campaign, Rudy Giuliani sought to capitalize on his reputation as “America’s Mayor” and New York City’s positive post-9/11 image, but much of that luster seemed to have faded by the time of his 2008 bid for the Republican nomination.

After a torrid start fundraising and in national polls, which he led for months in the pre-primary early going, Giuliani was swiftly humbled once actual voting began. He dropped out before Super Tuesday without so much as sniffing victory in a single primary state, doomed in part by conservatives’ unease with his multiple marriages and his history of liberal-for-a-Republican stances on issues like abortion and gay rights.

The same questions of conservative conscience that dogged Giuliani proved all but irrelevant eight years later when Trump, Giuliani’s former constituent and future client, crushed the GOP primary field en route to the nomination and the presidency.

The incumbent president de Blasio hopes to unseat, while a fellow New Yorker, is unquestionably the product of a different Gotham milieu than the others on this list”H.

“Hamlet on the Hudson”

Bloomberg’s flirtations with the presidency evoke the epic indecision that tortured Mario Cuomo — who during his governorship was twice pressed by top Democrats to campaign for the party’s nomination. Cuomo, buoyed by his keynote speech at the 1984 Democratic National Convention, was widely seen as a frontrunner in 1988 and 1992, but he declined to run in both instances.

(Cuomo fils may well be biding his own time for a potential presidential bid in 2024 or beyond. The governor has already thrown his support for 2020 behind Joe Biden, and many observers believe Cuomo would have run had the former vice president opted to sit out.)

The elder Cuomo’s “Hamlet on the Hudson” moniker was cemented after he famously held a press conference mere hours before the ballot deadline for the 1992 New Hampshire primary to announce that he wouldn’t enter the contest due to an ongoing state budget crisis.

“It seems to me I cannot turn my attention to New Hampshire while this threat hangs over the head of the New Yorkers that I’ve sworn to put first,” Cuomo told reporters in the Capitol as the chartered plane that was supposed to whisk him to the Granite State idled on a nearby runway.

Mayor de Blasio kicked off his presidential bid last weekend with a jaunt that brought him to campaign stops in Iowa and South Carolina. If the mayor can meet polling and campaign finance qualifications set by the Democratic National Committee, he’ll head to Miami for the first Democratic presidential primary debate on June 26 and 27. To advance, he’ll need to best his more than 20 competitors — and overcome the dismal legacy of his political predecessors.

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