SHARPEN UP

03.21.14

Can De Blasio Be Less Blah? The Mayor Who Needs a Makeover

From charter schools to snow-clearing controversies to taxing the rich to pay for pre-K, Bill de Blasio has had a rough first few months as New York’s Mayor. To rehabilitate his battered public image, he needs to do more than take selfies on the steps of City Hall.

New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, who roared into office with 73 percent of the vote, has spent his nearly three months on the job facing up to a cruel reality: Presiding over the nation’s media capital is no day at the beach. (Unless we’re talking about Omaha Beach.)        

The city’s 52-year-old, 6-foot-5 chief executive has served as a human piñata for a local press corps eager to highlight his every rookie mistake and preventable political flap—and de Blasio has obliged with some beauts over the past several weeks. His job performance ratings have taken a hit in recent public opinion polls. And his attempts to soothe the savage media beast—including shooting the breeze the other day with his enhanced interrogators and snapping a “selfie” group shot on the steps of City Hall—have achieved mixed results.

Going over the heads of the local media, he has tried to present a regular-guy image—in stark contrast to the impatient brusqueness of billionaire Mike Bloomberg—with appearances on Comedy Central’s The Daily Show, MSNBC’s Morning Joe and even the most recent episode of  CBS’s The Good Wife, where he allowed himself to be portrayed as a loquacious comic foil, loudly advertising the charms of New York City in a taxicab video while a lawyer played by Nathan Lane desperately tries to turn him off.      

So it’s only natural that Hizzoner would strive on Saturday night to alter a potentially venomous media dynamic by turning in a self-lampooning, laugh-inducing performance during the Inner Circle roast at the New York Hilton. The black-tie evening’s theme: “Stuck with de Bill.”        

 “It’s going to be really funny,” predicted public relations guru Ken Sunshine, who has been among those helping the mayor choreograph his song-and-dance routine for the 92-year-old comedy tradition featuring politicians and denizens of the City Hall press room. “You always have some people helping, like myself, and some people who have showbiz experience. But you know who has the best ideas and the best writing? Bill de Blasio! He’s really good at this.”        

The mayor, a national as well as a local figure by virtue of administering America’s most media-centric municipality, has been working dutifully on his performance—an impression buttressed by a humorous video he made with Boardwalk Empire star Steve Buscemi to tout the charity event.        

“Bloomberg conveyed a sense of professionalism and of someone very much in control. It’s not that way anymore. It seems a little amateurish.”

De Blasio can certainly draw upon plenty of droll material: his slowpoke snow removal operation in the tony yet voluble zip codes of the Upper East Side; his much-derided decision to keep the public schools open amid a blizzard; his move to close three well-regarded charter schools that has provoked a PR firestorm and a $3 million anti-de Blasio ad campaign. There have been awkward interactions with Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a fellow Democrat, over the charter school controversy, and the mayor’s apparently quixotic crusade to raise taxes on rich people to fund the city’s pre-kindergarten programs; a late-night phone call to a top police department official to spring a political ally out of jail; De Blasio’s motorcade’s flagrant violation of traffic regulations, including speeding and running red lights, two days after his City Hall press conference announcing the tightening of traffic regulations in the interest of public safety; and his clumsy attempts to dodge reporters’ questions about that blatant contradiction; and so on and so forth.        

“After the corporate efficiency of the Bloomberg administration, there’s a sense that he is not ready for prime time,” said a Democratic political consultant who asked not to be named so as not to foreclose the possibility of one day helping the mayor. “Everything has been kind of awkward and off-kilter…Some of this is purely aesthetic and visceral. Bloomberg conveyed a sense of professionalism and of someone very much in control. It’s not that way anymore. It seems a little amateurish.”        

Some of the above is reflected in this week’s Quinnipiac Poll, in which the mayor’s overall job approval rating—45 percent—has shrunk 8 points since mid-January, while voters’ disapproval shot up 21 points to 34 percent. That’s still a net positive, hardly a disaster for what is frequently described as “the second toughest job in America.” Meanwhile, de Blasio’s personal ratings remained robust, with healthy majorities agreeing that he possesses strong leadership qualities, is honest and trustworthy, and understands their problems.         

“You’ve got to give the guy some room to maneuver,” said Democratic consultant Hank Sheinkopf. “He wouldn’t be the first politician that did something stupid. Being mayor is a learning experience, and it’s like nothing else you do. So it will take him some time to adjust, and it’s a long time before he has to face the voters again.”        

Sheinkopf said the mayor’s star turn at the Inner Circle—where Bloomberg delighted in performing parodies of Broadway shows, and Rudy Giuliani famously appeared in drag—could “change the nature of his relationship with the press, with whom he’s had some speed bumps.” Indeed the New York press corps, which likes to think of itself as the roughest in the world, can be an unforgiving and sometimes unreasonable filter through which any mayor must communicate with his constituency.        

“No one has had this much scrutiny, because at no time in history has there been this many people viewing a mayor and tweeting and blogging with such intensity,”  Sheinkopf said. “No one has ever experienced it this way, and it’s a tough position to be in. You’re in the shark tank. No one can tell you what it’s like to be mayor—what it’s like to be looked at every day and have every part of your anatomy checked 24 hours a day—unless you’ve been there.”        

Peter Ragone, the mayor’s senior adviser, told The Daily Beast that Hizzoner isn’t fazed. “This is New York City, and it’s the toughest media market in America, so this is to be expected,” Ragone said. “If you take into account the fact that this is a mayor who’s fighting for progressive policies that a fair number of people disagree with, it becomes very simple to understand why we get the situation we have now.”        

He added: “We all know what we signed up for. It’s a tough town in a lot of ways. It’s also the greatest town in the world to get things done.” New York’s media-political complex will decide whether de Blasio gets it done at the Inner Circle.