Politicians with national ambitions often bring a circus with them when making testing-the-waters trips to Iowa. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio was no exception when he visited Des Moines on Tuesday evening, but the commotion he brought was as unique as they get, even by Iowa Caucus standards.
A group of a dozen New York City cops sat waiting by a giant Christmas tree in the lobby of the upscale Des Moines Marriott hotel, awaiting the mayor’s arrival. They had flown in to protest their contract dispute with de Blasio’s office, hitting him with some not very “Iowa Nice” accusations.
“He’s a liar. He’s not progressive. He’s not a friend of labor,” said John Puglissi, the first vice president of the New York Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association. “We’re going to follow him around wherever he goes and let everyone who will listen know the true Bill de Blasio… So, no matter what he decides to run for, no good.”
For his part, de Blasio reiterated his pledge to Iowa reporters that he wasn’t running for president in 2020 and would serve out his full term as mayor. That didn’t keep a contingent of the combative New York City press corps from following him to the leadoff caucus state, which de Blasio has now visited three times in three years.
The mayor was nearly an hour late to his own press conference, not exactly helping the long-running tension he has with his local reporters. Some joked he had the time zone wrong.
During his 15 minutes with the press, he compared his past efforts to bolster the national progressive movement to Bernie Sanders’ success, sidestepped a question on whether he’s interested in being a future Democratic National Committee chair, and mused on whether he was like Jack Kerouac, out trying to understand America. He also defended the optics of his visit to Iowa.
“I can walk and chew gum at the same time,” de Blasio insisted multiple times. “I can do my job as mayor of the city and still work on my core beliefs, work to advance causes I believe in.”
To hammer home this metaphor at the end of his interview, de Blasio literally took a pack of gum out of his coat pocket, popped a piece in his mouth, got up and walked out the door with a wave goodbye.
The protesting police officers were still in place to greet the mayor as he arrived to the fundraiser he was headlining that night. The cops blared the Star Wars Imperial March song from a nearby billboard truck as he headed in.
And yet for all the ruckus involved in de Blasio’s half-day trip, there wasn’t a lot of pre-event chatter from Iowa activists about the mayor’s appearance at the annual holiday dinner for Progress Iowa, a statewide issue-advocacy group.
“Oh, he’s in town tonight?” commented one top Democratic campaign official when asked about the event.
Throughout 2017, Iowans have seen an influx of lesser-known presidential potentials come into town hoping to boost their profile, but nothing from the heavy hitters like Kirsten Gillibrand, Elizabeth Warren, or Cory Booker. The mayor of the largest city in America would seem to be a notable get, though he was largely an unknown to nearly all the attendees.
“I didn’t know much about him before tonight,” said Ryan Crane, a nonprofit fundraiser from West Des Moines.
“I’d be curious to see what his track record looks like on infrastructure and policing before making a determination on whether he’d be the best person going forward for us,” added college student Dan Klein.
Many questioned whether the mayor of New York was the best Democratic messenger for a state where the party has lost significant ground in rural counties. Others were just curious about de Blasio’s plans.
“A trip to Des Moines sure seems like a presidential run,” noted Lauren Johnson of Des Moines. “I know that Martin O’Malley and others have been actively campaigning for congressional races in states, and I think that’s a good thing. But I have not seen anyone yet who has grabbed the passion of voters like Obama has or Trump has.”
It all added up to a peculiar reintroduction to Iowa for the first half of de Blasio’s visit.
The second half of his trip, though? Not too bad.
“It is a good time to be a progressive. Things are about to change, and we’re together for the beginning of a new era,” de Blasio said in an optimistic, forward-looking speech to the crowd.
The mayor’s presentation had all the hallmarks of an Iowa Caucus-like speech. He had his local connection: His grandmother was born in tiny Blanchard, Iowa. He related his family’s immigrant story. He did his Iowa homework, bringing up the state’s worsening mental-health-care crisis. He gave a shoutout to former Sen. Tom Harkin and “prairie populism.” And he added in some gentle ribbing of the Iowa House Minority Leader for the red sweater the legislator was wearing for good measure, too.
“Some people last year thought that we were an elite party. That’s not what the Democratic Party is. We’re not the party of elites. We’re not the party of big donors. We’re the party of working people,” de Blasio said to applause. “Now we have to show it… I don’t want us hung up by who people voted for last time. All I care about is who they’re voting for next time. But we got to show them something real.”
His speech was well-received by the Democratic activists in attendance.
“I thought his experiences in New York related to Iowa. It surprised me,” said Molly Clausen, a retiree from rural Madison County. “He did his own research about us as a state.”
“He had a clear vision,” noted Mitch Henry, a leader of Des Moines’ Asian and Latino Coalition. “I think we need more progressives like him thinking about running for highest office.”
Many of the Democratic candidates in the audience—from local legislative races to gubernatorial contenders—added their appreciation for de Blasio’s visit.
“If national speakers can come in and inspire and help get out the vote, the more the merrier,” said Leann Jacobsen, one of the Democrats running against U.S. Rep. Steve King. “I see a lot of moderate Republicans, a lot of independents coming over to support our campaign, but it’s really going to be critical to have our entire base energized.”
And that might be enough for someone like de Blasio, hoping to forge a national leadership profile as a progressive champion, even in states where his profile doesn’t seem like a good fit. The New York City bubble came to Iowa, stuck around for a few hours and then left, but the mayor’s message just may have stuck around enough with a party desperate for inspiration.