In his nearly two years in office, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio (D) has sought to become a national progressive leader. However, he may need to look out for a real threat on the home front if he wants to stay in City Hall for a second term.
De Blasio has seen his poll numbers plummet amid a series of recent stumbles. And now, one of his biggest potential rivals is thinking about running against him in the next mayoral election.
A local Democratic insider familiar with her thinking told Business Insider that Public Advocate Letitia “Tish” James (D) is considering challenging de Blasio in the 2017 election.
“She’s being told left and right by people who support her that she ought to consider it, and when you’re told that enough, eventually you start to think about it,” the insider said.
As public advocate, James is the No. 2 elected official in the city behind de Blasio. It’s also the position de Blasio held prior to his underdog victory in the 2013 mayor’s race. James has generally been seen as an ally of the mayor.
The insider cited James’ experience winning a citywide race as evidence she could pose a real threat to de Blasio in a Democratic primary.
“She’s a citywide elected official who has aggressively been working on issues in all five boroughs. She’s an African-American woman who is seen as someone who’d be an effective fighter for everyday people who feel like they’re left out of the highfalutin culture of the politics of power,” the insider said. “The fact is that there is this feeling that working people in communities of colour have been left out of this highfalutin power circle and Tish would get them in there.”
James became public advocate in 2013 after about a decade in the City Council. The source pointed to her push for police body cameras and expanded school-lunch programs as signature achievements during her time in office. The insider also described the fact James has filed lawsuits against the city Department of Education and foster-care system, and the fact she clashed with de Blasio over her school lunch proposal, as evidence she is willing to challenge the mayor.
“There have been instances where she’s taken on the mayor,” the insider said. “It’s just been a little quieter, but that can always change.”
And James isn’t the only politician thinking about taking on de Blasio, even though experts say it’s extraordinary for a New York City mayor to be defeated after only one term.
George Arzt, a veteran city Democratic political consultant and longtime aide to former Mayor Ed Koch, told Business Insider he believes “a lot of people” are eyeing a potential run against de Blasio. Though he acknowledged de Blasio may be in some danger, Arzt said it was “a little early” to predict how much of a challenge his re-election effort may face due to the difficulty of taking on an incumbent.
“I think that there are a lot of people who are watching and waiting for the mayor to what they call crater. That has not happened yet and the mayor still may recuperate,” Arzt said.
Hank Sheinkopf, another political consultant who has worked extensively in New York City, also said de Blasio can still hang on.
“You need a poll that tells you that he’s beatable and right now, based on publicly published polls, ain’t beatable yet,” Sheinkopf said.
Both Sheinkopf and Arzt said it takes a “crisis” to defeat an incumbent mayor in New York. Sheinkopf pointed to the fact that former Mayors Abe Beame and David Dinkins, the two most recent incumbents to lose a general election, both saw large riots in their last years in office. Koch was defeated in a Democratic primary, but Arzt, who was a member of his administration, noted this occurred after three terms and a pair of high-profile racial assaults that sparked protests.
“You have to have an extraordinary act generally that causes people to focus in a way that would get them to do the pathological, which is to oust an incumbent,” Sheinkopf said.
Sheinkopf also said that, at this point, “there is no overwhelmingly violent or extraordinary incident around which people could organise or make a larger argument collectively” against de Blasio.
Along with James, there are four other officials who are rumoured to be thinking about running against de Blasio in 2017: US Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-New York), City Comptroller Scott Stringer (D), Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams (D), and Bronx Borough President Rubén Díaz, Jr. (D).
Jeffries is widely seen as a rising star in Congress. However, Cathy Toren, a senior campaign adviser to Jeffries, definitively said he is “not interested” in running for mayor in the next election.
“Rep. Jeffries remains singularly focused on serving the hardworking people of the 8th congressional district and electing more Democrats to the House. He has no interest in any other position,” Toren said.
Representatives for Díaz and Adams were more coy about their potential mayoral ambitions.
Díaz’s communications director, John DeSio, would not rule out the possibility of a 2017 mayoral bid.
“Right now, the borough president is focused on being borough president and serving the needs of the 1.4 million people who call The Bronx their home,” DeSio said.
Stefan Ringel, who is communications director for Adams, confirmed his boss is interested in running for mayor. However, Ringel did not specify whether Adams would throw his hat into the ring in 2017 or later on.
“Serving the best interests of Brooklyn for eight years in Brooklyn Borough Hall has long been Borough President Adams’s stated goal, with the subsequent hope of earning the opportunity to bring that service to City Hall; that continues to be his plan,” Ringel said.
A spokesperson for James was also coy about whether she might enter the race.
“Tish is focused on being the best Public Advocate she can be, protecting working families across New York. Whether it its being a watchdog for tenants, fighting for children and families, or leading the push for criminal justice reform, she is concentrated on the issues of importance to our City,” said Anna Brower, James’ communications director.
Stringer’s team did not respond to a request for comment on this story. As comptroller, Stringer is one of only three citywide elected officials along with James and de Blasio. A Quinnipiac poll released earlier this month found Stringer has the highest approval rating of the trio.
Arzt, the political consultant, said any of these rivals could be a serious threat to de Blasio.
“I think they’re all dangerous depending on where he is on his favorables,” Arzt said of the mayor’s poll numbers.
Earlier this month, a Quinnipiac University poll found that de Blasio’s approval rating hit a record low. De Blasio’s numbers have declined as the mayor faced what The New York Times described as a “messy second year” that has included an increasingly tense relationship with New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D), a failed effort to cap the growth of the ride-sharing app Uber in the city, and a widely criticised response to a recent outbreak of Legionnaires’ Disease that has left 12 people dead.
De Blasio has also suffered from a series of recent mini-scandals, including questions about a six-figure city job given to the partner of one of his top aides and backlash after he was at the gym as a bloody standoff unfolded in Staten Island last week.
A campaign spokesperson for de Blasio declined to comment on this story.
The insider familiar with James’ thinking alluded to some of de Blasio’s difficulties when they described her rationale for considering a 2017 mayoral bid.
“Look, they come from the same sort of ideological background. But you can be a progressive and you still have to be able to work with other people,” the insider explained. “The longer the mayor hasn’t been able to do that, the more you see her as willing to fill that void.”
In addition to his strained relationship with Cuomo, de Blasio has distanced himself from another prominent Democrat — Hillary Clinton. Though he managed Clinton’s US Senate campaign in New York during the 2000 election, de Blasio has pointedly declined to endorse her current presidential bid. A source familiar with Clinton’s campaign team told Business Insider de Blasio’s actions have left them “befuddled.”
The insider noted this makes James the highest ranking New York City official to endorse Clinton. They also pointed out that James showed up to support Clinton at her June campaign launch event on Roosevelt Island and at a fundraiser in Manhattan later that month.
“She supported Hillary. The mayor hasn’t supported her,” the insider said. “Tish has been out there stumping with Hillary.”
Sheinkopf, the political consultant, said there are two types of opponents that could prove especially dangerous for de Blasio.
“A Republican who looks like [former Mayor] John Lindsay … and an African-American woman,” Sheinkopf said.
James fits this second category. The insider also pointed to her background as a potential asset in a race against de Blasio.
De Blasio’s 2013 victory was aided by overwhelming support from black voters. The same Quinnipiac poll that found the mayor’s approval at a low point earlier this month showed what The Times dubbed a “stark racial divide,” with 64% of African-American voters saying they approve of his performance.
Though support in the black community helped put de Blasio in office and has kept his numbers afloat, there have been reports some African-American leaders are unhappy with the mayor. The insider suggested this could help James poach his base.
“If the conventional wisdom that the mayor is vulnerable among black people holds true,” they said, “one shouldn’t look past the only black citywide elected official.”
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