With a population of approximately 8.6 million residents, New York City is the most populous city in the United States by far. But that doesn’t make its mayor a shoo-in for the presidency. In fact, judging by the dismal performance in the polls by Mayor Bill de Blasio, one might logically draw the opposite conclusion. Ever since launching his campaign on May 16, making him one of the last candidates to vie for the Democratic nomination, he has averaged just 0.3% support nationally. Perhaps even more disappointing is that he was one of ten candidates who failed to qualify for the third Democratic debate, to be held in Houston on September 12. In fact, the mayor announced just before our 40-minute-plus conversation last Wednesday that he might call it quits if he doesn’t qualify for the fourth debate in October.
Yet despite his poor showings he is still in the race, and many people who know him believe that he’s campaigning more to garner national recognition than the actual nomination. According to current law, the mayor is limited to two consecutive four-year terms, meaning that when his term concludes at the end of 2021 he will need to find another job. A federal position, especially in a Democratic administration, would suit him just fine.
That the mayor of New York City even needs to bolster his name recognition may take some New Yorkers by surprise. Not only does he have a long history in New York politics, but he also served as a regional director for the Department of Housing and Urban Development during the Clinton administration, and he managed Hillary Clinton’s Senate campaign. Of course, he was also elected mayor in landslide victories both in 2013 and 2017. The Jewish community certainly knows who Bill de Blasio is and considers him a friend as well as an upstanding politician who keeps his campaign promises.
Bill De Blasio began his career as an elected official by serving on the New York City Council as a representative of the 39th District of Brooklyn from 2002 to 2009, an area that includes the neighborhoods of Boro Park, Carroll Gardens, Cobble Hill, Gowanus, Kensington, Park Slope and Windsor Terrace. During that time he was a big proponent of Priority 7 childcare vouchers, which were eliminated by the Bloomberg administration in 2009 as a result of budget cuts. Running for his first term as mayor, he made restoring those vouchers a top campaign priority and kept his promise early in his tenure. His mayoral record also includes establishing universal pre-K and expanded paid sick leave, both of which have benefited New York’s Jewish population.
There was also good news for New York’s Jewish community last week when the measles outbreak that has sickened many of its members since last October was declared officially over. Over 75% of the 650 measles cases recorded in 2019 were the result of two outbreaks in the heavily Orthodox enclaves of Williamsburg and Rockland County. The city’s response, at a cost of over $6 million, was phenomenal, hiring over 500 staff members to disseminate pro-vaccine booklets, publish service ads and host community events. The mayor’s diligence in combating the outbreak as well as the anti-vaxxers is truly commendable.
Although his tax-the-rich liberal philosophy may make many Jewish people uneasy, he has a decent record of pragmatism and understanding the needs of business people. And whenever the Orthodox Jewish community has wished to have its position heard, as a rule, the mayor has lent a sympathetic ear.
Then in early 2019 Amazon canceled its plans to build a second headquarters in Long Island City in response to community pushback, a move that many people blamed on the mayor, even thought he initially courted them. More recently, there has been a spate of anti-Semitic attacks in the city.
There’s also the mayor’s strident criticism of President Trump, a fellow New Yorker, who also enjoys strong support in the Orthodox Jewish community. He frequently refers to the president as “Con Don,” saying that New Yorkers know a con artist when they see one. In the video launching his presidential campaign Mr. de Blasio talked about how he had stood up to Mr. Trump in the past, on issues ranging from immigration to climate change.
As expected, Mr. Trump has given as good as he got. On the day of Mr. de Blasio’s presidential announcement, Mr. Trump tweeted a video, apparently filmed aboard Air Force One, in which he called him the worst mayor in the city’s history. But politics aside, Bill de Blasio is a formidable force to be reckoned with.
When I spoke with him recently I found him to be highly engaging, smart and articulate, so regardless of whether or not he ends up being the president he will undoubtedly have a prominent position on the national stage.
Mr. Mayor, it’s an honor and pleasure to speak with you.
I appreciate the opportunity. Tell me what’s on your mind.
You have so many fans in the Orthodox community, all of whom are hoping and praying that you will continue to do more good things in the future.
That’s the plan. You know that I’ve developed a very warm and deep relationship with the community.
Yes. You represented the Boro Park neighborhood, which is where I live.
Yes, for a very long time.
When you first ran for mayor in 2013 you called New York “a tale of two cities.” Six years later, do you still feel the same way?
I think we’ve made progress, but there are still too many ways that there is deep inequality. In terms of the relationship between the communities and the social fabric, we’re in a much stronger place. I think that in general people in this city are getting along better, and the relationship between our police and our communities continues to improve. Some of the things we look at as indicative of fairness, such as educational opportunities like Pre-K for All, have created much more equality. But when it comes to economic factors we have a lot more to do.
The good news is that we’ve taken over 200,000 people out of poverty in the last few years, and in many ways people are doing a little better economically. However, the cost of housing is still way too high for so many people. And obviously, the rich have gotten richer. I don’t begrudge people for doing well, but the question is, what about everyone else who works so hard? Where is their opportunity? So I would say that we’re doing better, but we have a lot more to do.
It’s interesting that you are now campaigning for the Democratic nomination to run against a fellow New Yorker who represents the other one of the “two cities.”
That’s exactly right. It’s important to recognize that some of the inequalities that have held people back have been exacerbated by President Trump, particularly through the tax legislation, which took away state and local deductibility. That hurt middle-class and working-class New Yorkers deeply, along with people all over the country, and it was really a tax giveaway to those who were already doing very well. That’s one of the things I would immediately work to repeal. So yes, we’re both New Yorkers, but we have a very different view of what kind of society we should have.
Would it be fair to say that you have been very much opposed to the immigration policies of the present administration?
Yes, and we’re a city that makes this point in so many ways. This is the ultimate city of immigrants, and by respecting people we have only gotten stronger. We know that there are hundreds of thousands of people here who aren’t documented, but they are still part of our community. This is as much a matter of realism as it is compassion. It’s an American myth that we somehow don’t acknowledge the presence of 11 or 12 million people who are part of our country’s fabric and are certainly essential to our economy. It’s very strange to see such a raging debate grounded in a lack of reality.
I say to people honestly, “Look, not only are these folks not going anywhere, but why don’t we start to acknowledge that they aren’t the cause of the problems in this country? Most of them work very hard and get paid very little, and we actually depend on them quite a bit. Let’s get to the core of the matter.” We can do that. We can have comprehensive immigration reform that normalizes and legalizes those who are already here with a proper process. And we should also have a guest worker program, because there are still millions of jobs that we aren’t able to fill, and we need them to keep our economy strong. We could have a very coherent conversation and make the country better, but we aren’t going to do that if we stick to the politics of division.
Would this also include future would-be immigrants or only those who are already here?
Again, let’s call it 11 or 12 million people who are here, the vast majority of whom work hard and are already part of our community and economy. Let’s give them a pathway to citizenship. Then we need a functioning immigration system that allows people to enter the country legally, as well as those who only want to come for limited periods of time to work, such as many people do from Central America. Let’s acknowledge that we need the work and a lot of them are looking for work. They aren’t necessarily intending to stay, so let’s set up a system that’s legal and open. When you think about it, it’s very strange that there are crops all over America that can’t be harvested and other jobs that can’t be filled, and you have folks living across the border who are ready to fill them, and we can’t figure out a simple legal mechanism to make that work because of our politics. It’s not like we don’t have the ability to conceptualize and create it, it’s that our politics stand in the way. My argument is, why don’t we resolve this in a very practical way that will be good for our economy and also stop this division so we can move forward as a country? This country has to do well not only for the good of Americans but also for the whole world, and we aren’t helping ourselves by having this endless division for no purpose.
You certainly make an articulate argument against the current administration, but at the moment you aren’t running against the president, you’re running against your fellow Democrats. What do you think you bring to the table that’s new?
A couple of things. The first and most important is that the President of the United States is the ultimate executive role, and it is based on the ability to do things for people on a huge scale. There is no better preparation for that than being the mayor of New York City. This is one of the toughest environments in the country and the entire world. It’s the most diverse place on earth. We deal with profound challenges in terms of security issues and keeping people unified and respectful as a society. There are so many things happening here that reflect the same challenges faced by our country as a whole, such as creating an economy that gives people opportunity, which I’m very proud to say we have done over the past six years. Half a million new jobs have been added—the most we’ve ever had.
The irony is that many of those running for president are very good people with very good ideas, but they’ve never run anything of any size, and they want to make the jump to running the entire country. I argue that what I bring is real experience, taking these good ideas and putting them into action to deal with the issues and crises to help people. I also have a different view of what we can achieve. There are different visions within the Democratic Party—that’s only normal—but my vision is one that creates a fairer and equal society.
For example, I believe that what we did with Pre-K for All in New York City can be done for the whole country. I’m someone who believes in a universal healthcare system, which we all know works in a number of European countries and Canada, but there are still too many Democrats who act as if it’s impossible to do here. I don’t believe it’s impossible; I believe that there are tens of millions of Americans who aren’t getting enough healthcare even with the health insurance they have. What I bring to the table is a combination of a different vision that is also rooted in experience and the ability to produce, which is ultimately what people want in a president.
The New York Times has described you as a tax-the-rich progressive candidate. Do you agree with that characterization?
Yes. It’s a strong majority view in America, and it’s the truth that the wealthy aren’t paying their fair share in taxes. The amount being asked of the wealthy has been consistently reduced over the past few decades. And it’s not only most Democrats who feel this way. Even among Republicans and independents there’s a broad view that something has gone astray, and the wealthy aren’t paying their fair share. Many big corporations are literally paying nothing in taxes with all the loopholes. So yes, I think that one of the things that would restore fairness is to ask the wealthy to pay their fair share to show people that everyone is contributing, and to give us the resources to do some of the things we need the most.
Let’s go back to housing; this country has no affordable housing policy. All we have are the remnants of previous affordable housing, which is falling apart. Public housing is crumbling, the Section 8 program has been reduced and reduced, and senior housing programs hardly exist anymore from the federal government, even though our senior population is growing. If we were to tax the wealthy at a higher level, one of the great priorities of what we could do with that money would be to create an affordable housing strategy so millions of people could afford to live in their own cities. That’s an example. So yes, I do consider myself in that camp.
Bernie Sanders would openly concede that he’s anti-big corporations. Do you differentiate yourself from him in that regard?
I don’t want to speak for him and how he characterizes himself. To me, it isn’t anti- anything; it’s insisting that there be fairness and some actual rules that need to be followed. A lot of corporate America hasn’t been sensitive to people’s needs, whether you’re talking about the environment, people’s health or what they pay workers. There are all sorts of examples of corporate America taking advantage of people, but my answer is not to say that we aren’t going to have corporations; it’s to say that they need to be strongly regulated, pay their fair share in taxes and be held accountable, and there have been many times when government at its best has done that effectively. What I resent now is that the government is giving a free pass to corporate America, even when it does things that are very harmful to our communities. So I would categorize myself as someone who understands that of course we live in a free enterprise system, but it’s the role of government to ensure that there’s fairness and to protect people’s health and safety, and that’s not happening right now.
Do you regret the fact that Amazon didn’t move to New York?
First of all, I found it very troubling and sad that Amazon behaved the way it did. There was no indication that they would ever conceive of just up and leaving. It was horrible and very unfair to the people of New York City. We dealt with them in good faith, and then they just turned around and walked away. In retrospect there are different ways we might have approached it, but that’s not the essence of the problem. To me, the essence of the problem is that they weren’t acting in good faith.
A lot of people blame the city for having had an anti-corporate approach in their negotiations with them. You characterize that differently, correct?
One hundred percent differently. Let’s talk fact: we came to a deal. The governor and I and one of the executives of Amazon announced it together, so clearly they believed that they had gotten a deal worth accepting. I kept my end of the deal, the governor kept his end of the deal, and then suddenly they walked away. Now they can try to blame the fact that there was controversy or people who disagreed, but who comes to New York City and expects everyone to agree? The slightest research could have told you that something of this magnitude would generate some controversy, particularly in the local area that was affected. I was astounded at how thin-skinned they were. Both the governor and I consistently backed the deal and explained it, and the number of people who opposed it was relatively small. This was borne out by the polling numbers, which is all the more reason why I was appalled when Amazon just walked away.
At the time I said that they unfortunately confirmed the worst assumptions of their opponents. For all the folks who were opposed to Amazon because they just don’t like big corporations, Amazon could have done something that would have been impressive and counterintuitive, and they could have been a good neighbor and shown that they were going to be there for the community and help our young people get jobs in technology. It could have been a wonderful thing, but instead they did something very greedy, simply confirming people’s worst assumptions about them.
What is your view on the new rent laws from Albany?
Let me put it this way: the previous laws were too lax. The tenants had to pay for the improvements to their buildings, but much more than the improvements actually cost. So the laws allowed some landlords to take advantage of their tenants in a very unfair way. That had to be changed, and we clearly needed stronger rent laws because so many people were being displaced, and we had to make sure that every kind of person could stay in New York City, including the backbone, which is working people. That being said, as with all legislation a lot of it was thrown together at the last moment, and there were some unintended consequences in the final wording. This is something we need to figure out how to address, because we want to make sure that the many good landlords are improving their buildings and helping their tenants live a better life. At the same time, we have to stop the not-so-good landlords from taking advantage of tenants. We have to figure out how to strike that balance.
Would you tell the state legislators, “Let’s take a second look at this legislation”?
I think that the legislation itself was the right idea, and I know that there are a lot of good things in it. The question now is, are there some unintended consequences that have to be addressed? That’s the conversation we need to have with the legislators going forward.
Last week I had the opportunity to interview the commanding officer of the NYPD Hate Crime Task Force, Mark Molinari. There’s been an uptick in hate crimes in New York City, and a greater uptick in anti-Semitic crimes. To what do you attribute that increase? And what can be done to reverse it?
Anti-Semitism is growing throughout the world; it’s unacceptable, and we have to fight it with everything we have. It’s not just in America; we’re seeing it in Western and Eastern Europe as well. I believe that it’s directly related to the rise of nationalism, white supremacy and anti-immigrant feelings. All of those things go together, and they always have. It’s too simplistic to say, “Look at the 1920s and 1930s” and be fearful that we’re repeating the same patterns. I wouldn’t argue that, but I would say that those times are very instructive. Nativism was a very strong force in those dangerous times, and now it’s back. Although I hasten to say—and I said this at a speech I gave at Yad Vashem—that we have to be really clear that it never went away. It’s not as if anti-Semitism died down and then a new variety came up out of nowhere. No. The anti-Semitism that pervaded Europe in the ’20s and ’30s didn’t go away. It was submerged for a period of time and has now emerged back into the open, including some political parties that literally have their roots in fascist and Nazi parties of the past. That is why I have stated very clearly that it is first and foremost a right-wing, dangerous phenomenon. That doesn’t mean there aren’t dangers from the left as well, but I firmly believe—and I think that history backs me up—that the greatest danger to the Jewish people has come from right-wing nativism and nationalism, which is reconstituting in Europe and America. It is a clear and present danger to the Jewish people, and that is one of the reasons—not the only reason—we are seeing it in New York.
I would also say that the difference in New York is that the majority of incidents we are seeing don’t involve violence, thank G-d. We just spoke about this at the police press conference today. That doesn’t make them acceptable, but they aren’t violent and don’t appear to be organized by any particular group of people; the perpetrators seem to be individuals. But as far as the question you’re raising, the thing we should all be concerned about the most is actual premeditated violence directed at Jewish people, such as occurred in Pittsburgh and Poway, California.
A lot of people are blaming President Trump. Do you believe that he’s responsible for any of this?
Yes. Not because he created the underlying problem; it’s been there for a long time. But he gave permission to white supremacists to come out into the open. Look, no one could have conceived that on the first day of his presidential campaign a candidate would call Mexicans criminals and rapists. And the things that he has said openly—anti-Latino, anti-black, anti-Muslim sentiments that are just overt racism—have clearly sent a message to the white supremacy movement that what they’re saying is becoming more acceptable. That’s incredibly dangerous, and this is where I am very resolute. I’m proud to be the mayor of the city with the largest Jewish population on earth, and it’s my job to protect this community. But we also have to wake up to this reality.
The white supremacy movement is growing, and it isn’t only interested in attacking Muslims, African-Americans, Latinos or immigrants; historically it has been anti-Jewish as well, and some of that has played out in these attacks. There has to be a real soberness about the fact that this language is unacceptable, and coming from the president it endangers all of us. So it isn’t the underlying cause or the reason for every single attack, but it’s creating an atmosphere that increases the likelihood of these attacks happening and being more violent.
The city just appointed someone to head the new Office for the Prevention of Hate Crimes.
Yes, Deborah Lauter.
What can you tell the community to reassure them that this is the right step, and what message would you have for her regarding where the city stands?
Deborah is someone who has worked to foster understanding and fight against hate crimes for decades. She has worked for major Jewish organizations that are focused on ending stereotypes and building closer bonds between communities, so she has tremendous experience. I support this new office and think it’s an important new part of our city government that will build a strategic approach. The NYPD works hard every day to respond to these incidents and demonstrate that there will be consequences for anyone who commits a hate crime. We’ve been very aggressive about that, and I give them tremendous credit. But we are now realizing that there is also a need for a proactive strategy—an educational, grassroots strategy to get the word out about what the consequences of this hate will be for all of us and to build alliances between communities, with a special focus on our young people. We know that some of these crimes, particularly the vandalism, is coming from young people. This means that something was missing from their education. Kids aren’t born biased; they pick up the biases from the adults around them.
It isn’t in their genes.
It’s not in their genes at all, which means that we have more work to do to educate and sensitize. But it can be done, which is why this office is so important.
You’ve gotten a great deal of support from the Jewish community. How did you react to the president saying that Jews who vote for Democrats are disloyal Jews?
It’s unacceptable. I’ll draw the obvious parallel: When Representative Omar talked about dual loyalty in the Jewish community, I immediately criticized it, identified it as an age-old anti-Semitic trope and said that it’s unacceptable. That kind of language has been used against Jewish people all over the world for centuries. So now we have the right-wing equivalent essentially saying the same exact thing, alleging dual loyalty if a Jewish American votes Democrat, implying that somehow he isn’t loyal to the United States. It’s disgusting and literally unfathomable that any president could say that. It’s ironic that another anti-Semitic construct is coming out of the mouth of the President of the United States.
Many Jews are concerned about the views of Omar and other Democratic politicians. What would you say as a potential nominee to reassure them of the Democrats’ good will?
As I said at the AIPAC conference, I believe that it is very important for Democrats to stand up proudly and express our support for Israel, which I feel deeply, as well as our opposition to the BDS movement. The fact is that the Democratic Party has historically supported Israel and the Jewish community and continues to do so. That’s why I attended the conference, and I disagreed with those Democrats and progressives who stayed away. I don’t have to agree with everything AIPAC has ever done, and I certainly don’t agree with everything Netanyahu has ever done. I disagree with him on many things, but I nonetheless consistently support Israel. I also believe that where I stand is where the vast majority of Democrats stand. There’s a small group of Democrats—very small—who aren’t supportive of Israel, but the vast majority are. If you were to take a poll of every Democratic senator, congress member and mayor of a major city, you would find overwhelmingly strong support for Israel and the Jewish community. I’m not going to let a handful of people with whom I disagree define my political party or who I am.
This interview will appear in our September 11 issue. You weren’t mayor at the time of the attacks, but what have you learned from them that you can apply on the national and international level?
There are a couple of things. We are still the number one terror target in America, and it has been a sobering, eye-opening experience over these last six years to have to defend and protect 8.6 million people under that constant threat. I’ve worked very closely with the NYPD and our federal partners, and I am consistently briefed about these threats, so I’ve gained a whole new understanding about what we face. That would definitely inform my actions as president. There is still a huge threat. Part of it is from outside our borders, but it is increasingly from within as well, particularly from the violent elements of the white supremacy movement and individuals such as ISIS sympathizers.
My approach, which I believe is different and necessary, is to send a message of respect and inclusion in this country, which is very important because we want every community to feel comfortable, and that’s also the way increase maximum cooperation with police and security officials. That’s one of the things I’ve learned from setting a more respectful tone in the city. This is something that has been proven to be effective, because people of all different backgrounds come forward and report potential terrorist acts. That has helped us stop a number of them. Creating that atmosphere is very important from the perspective of security.
I would also say that our police and security officials—and I’ve learned this from the very best professionals like Bill Bratton and Jimmy O’Neil—cannot be at their best if the people aren’t on their side. We have to build a much deeper bond between the police and the community because it makes it much easier for those tips to flow. Since we’ve improved those lines of communication, countless crimes have been stopped because neighborhood residents helped identify where a problem might be brewing. That has certainly been true with regard to fighting crime as well as terror. We need to devote ourselves to that approach to policing as a country.
Switching to a completely different topic, I know that city officials just announced that the measles epidemic is over.
Yes. We’re very proud of that.
That was going to be my question. Do you believe that your administration should be given the credit?
There are many people who get the credit, but let’s be clear: this was a tough battle. For a while we thought it was something that would be contained, but then it got to the point where it became a crisis. What I am proud of is our collaboration with the Jewish community, because even though there was a very small number of anti-vaxxers trying to push the other way, the vast majority of Jewish leaders, both institutions and rabbis, worked very well with the city to ensure that everyone who needed a vaccination got it.
And I’m proud to say that our publication also played a role.
Yes, and I want to thank you for that. Your magazine played a very important role in getting the word out. We saw a sea change, a really wonderful communal effort to address the problem. At one point a lot of lives were in danger, and the fact that we managed to stop the crisis and protect people without any fatalities, thank G-d, is something that everyone should be proud of.
The New York Post attacked you today.
[Chuckles.] That happens almost every day.
Today they attacked you about something that goes to the heart of what we’re discussing, claiming that you’ve abandoned the City of New York because of your presidential run. Is it true?
Of course not. You can tell that just from this discussion; you’re raising a whole host of issues, and I’m giving you instant responses. I take this job very seriously. I work on it every hour of every day, and I always have.
Are you able to do that even when you’re on the campaign trail?
Yes. When I’m on the campaign trail, when I’m in the car, when I’m on a plane and when I’m in-between events. There are always issues coming up that I have to address. There’s almost a willful effort by some in the media to ignore the reality. How can I respond to every single one of their questions if I weren’t focused on the issues every single day? The City of New York is a huge, complicated enterprise. I couldn’t possibly be able to answer them unless I was involved, which means that I’m putting in a huge amount of time and energy to deal with these issues. The measles is a great example. We put a lot of effort into trying to refine our strategy and figuring out what would work. I obviously spent a lot of time talking to community leaders and health officials. That’s what leaders do, and I’ve been doing that throughout. Many people throughout the ages have had to continue their work while simultaneously running for another office. It isn’t some novelty.
Walking while chewing gum…
Yes, but the proof is in the pudding. In the last month alone we had a very successful legislative session in Albany and got a lot of things done. We passed a great city budget and addressed a whole host of issues. We also just received great test score results from the schools, including real proof that the Pre-K initiative is having a profound impact.
I’d also like to take this opportunity to remind your readers that I’ve always enjoyed a very close relationship with the Jewish community. In fact, when I first ran for City Council it was the support of the Jewish community that allowed me to become a councilmember. As president I would bring that understanding with me, and I doubt you’d be able find many presidents with as rich, deep and emotional a relationship with the Jewish community as mine.
That is why I am asking everyone to help me get the kind of name recognition and understanding of what I offer out there. Under the new rules, the way you get into the debates is based on the decisions of everyday people who donate to political campaigns. It isn’t about how much; it’s about how many people donate. And the simplest way to do so is to go to my website, billdeblasio.com, and donate at least $1. Even this amount is a step towards giving me the opportunity to continue to be on the debate stage, raise my ideas and talk about the experiences I’ve had in New York and the things we’ve been able to achieve. I ask everyone who believes in the kinds of things I’ve been doing to help me get that message out.
You have a very important voice. I certainly think you can be a model of tolerance and even-handedness, and that people should emulate your compassion and passion. I read that you were considering ending your run for the nomination. I hope it’s untrue.
I said it in the spirit of honesty, because it’s crucial that I get on the debate stage. The first two debates gave me a huge opportunity to introduce myself to the nation, and especially the first. A lot of people heard what I was about and it generated a lot of interest. I’m obviously disappointed to not be able to participate in the September debate, but there’s another bite of the apple in October, and that’s where there’s the biggest chance to reach the most people. I’m setting my sights on that, and if people want to help me get that opportunity, a donation as small as a dollar goes a long way.
It’s been a great honor to speak with you.
Thank you. You’re very kind. I appreciate what you and your publication do, and I’ve enjoyed this conversation quite a bit.