On March 11, with the novel coronavirus bearing down on America, Bill de Blasio, the mayor of the country’s biggest city, had something to say. It was the day the NBA suspended its season and President Trump implemented a travel ban on Europe to slow the further spread of the deadly pandemic.
Hizzoner took to NBC News’s opinion site to make an important pronouncement: “The Democratic primary isn’t over, and neither is Bernie Sanders’ candidacy.”
De Blasio’s piece, which attempted to resurrect the Sanders candidacy, argued that Sanders was a better choice than Joe Biden to be the Democratic nominee. It contained this gem: “Here’s the truth: Most of those people don’t understand how politics work anymore.”
Here’s how politics works for de Blasio. He glides through the city on his own time, late for event after event. He famously commutes between boroughs to go to his favorite gym — despite having a gym inside his mayoral home of Gracie Mansion. He talks about caring deeply about road safety but failed to report when his own caravan was the cause of an accident because it was driving the wrong way down a one-way street. Diversity in schools is important to him, though his own children went to majority-white schools. He wants to get rid of testing and other screens to get into New York City’s elite schools, the same screened schools both of his children attended. And on and on.
The rules don’t apply to Bill de Blasio.
And that’s likely why he decided to wander into the Democratic presidential primary with no chance of winning while neglecting his day job. Bill de Blasio is Walter Mitty, if Mitty were a political executive. He wakes up each morning — late morning, famously — wondering what he’ll pretend to be today.
The New York daily papers had a field day reporting on their missing mayor. The New York Post counted the hours he spent at City Hall during the month he launched his presidential campaign: seven. The New York Daily News credited de Blasio with 92 hours of total work, if you count time supposedly spent working outside the office.
His campaign went nowhere, and after dropping out, he returned to New York wondering what to do with all of his free time, while others, such as Gov. Andrew Cuomo and City Council Speaker Cory Johnson, handled mayoral responsibilities.
Asked about his absenteeism after ending his campaign in September, de Blasio said, “We’ve been doing plan after plan, progress of all kinds. I think everyday New Yorkers get it. I think the insiders like to talk about it a certain way, but everyday New Yorkers see things happening all the time. You’ll be seeing a lot more over the next two years, three months, and 11 days.”
Classic de Blasio: aloof, dismissive word salad.
When there was a serious uptick of anti-Semitic attacks on Jews in New York City last year, the mayor blamed “the right wing” to widespread mockery. When asked what role white supremacism played in the 60% rise in attacks, de Blasio was forced to admit finally that “I think we see a difference in New York City than in the country as a whole.”
In February, at a town hall in Queens, he called the link between a spike in crime and New York’s no-bail law, which de Blasio had touted, what else, “right-wing propaganda.” A month later, he conceded there was, actually, a link, saying, “There’s a direct correlation to a change in the law, and we need to address it.”
He never explains exactly how the right wing, in dark-blue New York City, manages to be so vast and effective. He couldn’t quite figure out how to blame his own distracted coronavirus response on the “right wing,” though he has spent a lot of time trying to deflect from his own poor handling of it by pointing at Trump.
On March 11, the same day his Bernie op-ed hit, City Hall had released a statement from the mayor criticizing the president. “After weeks of minimizing what has now become a global pandemic, we were hoping for concerted action.” He added, “Our ‘leader’ is more preoccupied with who to blame than how to protect people now that it’s in our communities.”
De Blasio could easily have been talking about himself. Also on March 11, the mayor appeared on MSNBC to, well, minimize the global pandemic. “Some places are closing schools en masse — we think that’s a mistake, because so many parents are depending on the schools, not just for education, for a safe place for the kids, for food for their kids. They don’t have an alternative. What we’ve decided with the state is, if a school has a problem, close it briefly, clean it, get anybody who might’ve been exposed directly out in quarantine, notify parents with kids with preexisting conditions that they may want to hold their kids back, but the rest of the school can continue on, and that’s the kind of balance we have to strike.”
He also defended not yet canceling the St. Patrick’s Day parade because “it’s an outdoor event — outdoor events are inherently safer than crowded, small-space indoor events.” The very next day, March 12, the mayor declared a state of emergency but adamantly refused to close New York City schools, even as other school systems around the country moved to shut down. The outcry was swift. Teachers wondered why their lives were being treated so casually. One noted on Facebook that “basically all the precautions that the city has laid out for people to take, teachers and students are unable to take those precautions and that’s being ignored.” De Blasio swung wildly between scary rhetoric, telling people, “This will not be over soon. It’s going to be a long, tough battle,” to total inaction.
On March 15, a Sunday evening, after much pressure, the mayor finally decided to close schools. The move was late, by any measure, but deciding to do it finally, hours before school would begin again on Monday (leaving parents with limited time to find child care), was a very de Blasio move. There had been days of protest from school officials, teachers, and parents. Had he not closed the schools, there likely would have been a mass sickout among teachers, in which they call out sick on the same day, that Monday.
And then, the next day, he went to the gym as if it were a regular Monday. It was a shocking display, even for those of us who didn’t expect much from the mayor. His lack of seriousness rippled through his staff. A subsequent piece in the New York Post told the story of a mayoral staff deeply concerned about their incompetent boss. The gym incident “is just one example of the mayor’s disregard for the health of his staff during the crisis … There’s also growing frustration from senior aides, who fault the mayor for dithering instead of making decisions, micromanaging instead of leading, and insisting he knows best instead of listening to others, three sources said. ‘Thank god for Cuomo,’ is a common refrain among the mayor’s staff, made only partly in jest, sources said.”
The relationship with Cuomo, strained at the best of times, had become openly combative. Cuomo had emerged as the steady voice during this crisis, and it was in sharp contrast to the mayor’s dithering. Two days later, on March 17, when de Blasio speculated that New York would enact a “shelter-in-place” order, Cuomo quickly smacked down the idea. “That is not going to happen, shelter in place, for New York City. For any city or county to take an emergency action, the state has to approve it. And I wouldn’t approve shelter in place.” And on March 22, when de Blasio was on Meet the Press opposite Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, Hogan made it a point to note that the requests de Blasio was making of the president, to send in the military, could only be done by the governor.
The governor, meanwhile, has become a national celebrity, and the contrast between him and the bumbling mayor has become that much starker. Cuomo’s updates are calm and reassuring. He is behaving like the adult in the room, supplying factual information to comfort scared New Yorkers. Cuomo has been working with the Trump administration, even amid tension, instead of yelling at it on TV.
Media continued to have de Blasio on to rant and rave about Trump without answering for his own lack of action. “He’s not acting like a commander in chief because he doesn’t know how. He should get the hell out of the way,” de Blasio told MSNBC on March 20. That same day, a New York Post story broke the news that City Hall had only ordered emergency protective gear on March 6. The failed mayor had taken the crisis less seriously than housewives across the country who had ordered an extra case of toilet paper on Amazon. New York was becoming an unmitigated disaster.
Cases in the city continued to spike. Deborah Birx, response coordinator for the White House Coronavirus Task Force, has been sounding the alarm. At a briefing on March 24, she noted that more than half of all coronavirus cases in the country were in the New York metro area and that “we remain deeply concerned about New York City.” This is not a coincidence. This is the direct result of a mayor who enjoys going on TV and speaking in platitudes, especially if he gets to point fingers at his political opponents, but does not actually enjoy governing.
During his Meet the Press appearance, Hogan said that everyone was working as hard as they could to fight this virus. An eye-rolling, sighing de Blasio shook his head and argued this just wasn’t true. He called for the military to be mobilized and said “the White House is in denial.”
De Blasio knows all about denial. It’s de Blasio’s world. Unfortunately, New Yorkers are living in it.
Karol Markowicz is a columnist for the New York Post .
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