If you can’t figure out why New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio is running for the Democratic presidential nomination despite there being 22 candidates already in the race, less than one percent of Democrats supporting him (and just 14 percent seeing him favorably, against 35 percent who see him unfavorably), and 76 percent of New Yorkers saying he shouldn’t do it, you could take him at his word:
That he’s been counted out before and won, and that he’s the only candidate who’s proven he can fight for working Americans and against Donald Trump.
Or you could follow the money, as the mayor tries to escape from New York, where his money games keep catching him up, even if they haven’t quite brought him down yet.
Despite mulling a run for months—de Blasio didn’t have a website, let alone a policy platform or a big new idea he’s bringing to the table, when he finally announced in a slickly edited video that hinted at the conflicts and problems to come. This video included footage recorded in Gracie Mansion (after checking with city lawyers, de Blasio says), where no mayor had recorded an ad since John Lindsay.
De Blasio’s one applause line on the stump now—repeated at each stop where so far staffers and New York reporters have tended to outnumber supporters—has been that “there’s plenty of money. It’s just in the wrong hands.”
He’d know! De Blasio—born Warren Wilhelm Jr.—was elected mayor with a huge under-the-table assist from UNITE HERE, the national hospitality workers union previously run by his cousin John Wilhelm. This organization gave $175,000 to a group crusading to ban carriage horses from New York and is led by a real-estate executive who insists that cause has nothing to do with the insanely lucrative development opportunity that would open up if Manhattan’s horse stables were to close.
That group, New Yorkers for Clean, Livable and Safe Streets, or NYCLASS, promptly cut its own check for $175,000 to New York City Is Not for Sale, an outside PAC whose potent ads helped take down frontrunner Christine Quinn. No other candidate had any comparable outside money operation, and none of that money—which appeared to be a naked attempt to evade the city’s strict cap on direct donations to candidates, and ban on coordination with outside groups—was disclosed until after the election.
Even as the FBI began looking into that set-up, Mayor de Blasio was, well, off to the races, setting up the Campaign for One New York to raise money for his political agenda and direct-dialing fat cats with city business to get them to “donate” to his cause.
He finally shut that operation down as the feds and local prosecutors and city agencies investigated it, before prosecutors reluctantly decided not to charge him even as they publicly scolded him—no “allegedly”—for hitting up people with business before the city for big bucks for his political operation.
As the bribe-taker got off, his bribe-makers keep going to prison, with one of them sentenced to four years and two others pleading guilty the same week that de Blasio announced his presidential run.
Meantime, de Blasio, a staunch supporter of getting money out of politics and a politician immune from shame, went back on his vow to cover his own roughly $3 million defense bill after a city board ruled he couldn’t hit up donors who wanted the mayor’s help for big bucks, to pay for getting off the legal hook for hitting up donors who wanted the mayor’s help for big bucks.
That left de Blasio with a $300,000 personal bill for his non-city-related activity, including an attempt to get donors to pump money into state Senate races in 2014. The firm the mayor is indebted to, and that helped keep him from facing prison time, currently lobbies the city on behalf of seven clients, including the Walt Disney Co.
The presidential announcement came just a couple of weeks after de Blasio—who’s yet to say how much his presidential campaign has taken in, let alone who’s given to it—refused to disclose who was attending a Boston fundraiser for his new outside money operation, Fairness PAC. The Times broke the news that—despite de Blasio’s pledge to no longer take money from people with business before New York City—it had been hosted by Suffolk Construction. This firm, which was trying to expand its business in New York City, had recently hired Shola Olatoye, the former New York City Housing Authority chairwoman who’d served as the mayor’s political rod when it emerged that children had been poisoned by lead paint in public housing on their watch.
Pressed on all of this and lots more, de Blasio repeats endlessly that he’s been investigated and given a clean bill of health (which is his spin on not being criminally charged), and that he gives the same constituent service to his donors that he would you or me, and that you should hate the game, not the player:
“I’m going to continue to do the work I’m doing to try and create progressive change here and elsewhere. But I—every government decision is made on its merits. I’ve been really consistent about that. I’ve been really clear about the changes we need to make including things that make a lot of wealthy people very uncomfortable. I’m going to keep doing that. But if you have a different understanding of how American politics works and can tell me a way to put together resources to get a message out—you know, that’s the problem, we have system that requires it and I look forward to the day when that won’t be true anymore.”
That would be a joke, but it’s seriously, literally not funny.
De Blasio, who’s very smart, has been outsmarting himself for years now, and surviving to do it again. And, yes, his presidential run seems like a trap of his own making. Starting at zero, he’s got nowhere to go but up—but if he goes up, his shady money business won’t stay in the shadows.
Then again, a New York hustler who just wanted to up his Q rating and make a few bucks in 2015 is president of the United States now.
Maybe de Blasio, who’s now calling Trump “Con Don,” is hoping that he can rise fast enough to escape New York, and prosecutors eager for a second bite at him, and get too big to jail.