On Wednesday, Hillary Clinton and Chirlane McCray sat elbow to elbow, drenching each other in praise, nodding affirmatively at the other’s words.
“Thanks to Secretary Clinton for not just being here today but for your years of advocacy,” said McCray, the wife of New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio.
Clinton recalled being up in Harlem for a similar event with the mayor and first lady last year.
“Let me return the favor, and it’s not just because you and Bill are my friends, although that does have something to do with it,” Clinton replied.
The two were at a Brooklyn children’s center to herald a joint Clinton Foundation/City Hall initiative to get more parents to read to their infant children.
They had better get comfortable. The Clintons and the de Blasios could be seeing a lot of each other in the coming months.
That’s because Clinton is on the cusp of another campaign for president, one in which she finds herself as the overwhelming favorite for the nomination but facing deep skepticism from some corners of the party who doubt her commitment to a progressive, populist agenda.
The leader of that charge, Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, isn’t likely to run herself but has historically been a decided Clinton skeptic, singling the former secretary of state out for criticism in one of her books and expressing surprise at Clinton’s email scandal.
De Blasio, meanwhile, is not just running New York City but vying to become a major voice of the ascendant left himself. Could he become Clinton’s go-to surrogate to progressives and liberal groups? Such a move could benefit them both, convincing Clinton’s nervous left flank of her liberal bonafides while giving the mayor the platform he appears to crave.
“I do think it would be helpful,” said Bertha Lewis, the head of the Black Institute and a longtime de Blasio ally. “Look, he is the mayor of a city that is the center of the universe. I mean, New York City! Seriously! A progressive that won talking about income inequality and that fought the 1 percent who he dragged home kicking and screaming over the possibility of his mayoralty. He has a lot of cred with progressives. He was not supposed to win this. This is where the 1 percent live. So hell, yeah!”
All New York City mayoralties are about something beyond just running a city. Rudy Giuliani became the national spokesman for new tough-on-crime measures. Mike Bloomberg toured the country promoting political independence.
De Blasio’s New York is meant to stand as proof that government can address major progressive priorities and still function effectively, and he has not been bashful about making that point, traveling as far afield as Manchester, England, to address a Labour Party conference about the politics of income inequality.
This month, de Blasio is scheduled to travel to Iowa and Nebraska to push the point. After the Democrats’ midterm drubbing in November, he wrote a scathing op-ed in the Huffington Post in which he warned the Democratic Party against going wobbly: “Don’t Soul-Search. Stiffen Your Backbone,” read the headline.
But despite all this, de Blasio still lacks Warren’s punch. When progressive groups like Democracy for America or MoveOn.org send out mailers or hold rally-the-troops conference calls with their members, it is Warren who is featured, not de Blasio. There is no “Draft de Blasio” movement to speak of, though four out of the last six New York City mayors have at least flirted with running for president.
Last month, de Blasio met with Clinton privately at her foundation headquarters, the news site Capital New York reported. His Brooklyn home is blocks away from her likely campaign headquarters, and even though no campaign surrogacy has been scheduled—there is, after all, not yet a Clinton campaign—Phil Walzak, his senior adviser, told The Daily Beast that “Mayor de Blasio intends to use his voice and the bully pulpit to encourage Democrats to embrace progressive values and a progressive vision. The mayor will also demonstrate that you can pursue a progressive agenda in a municipal setting and still have an effective, well-run city.”
Political strategists say Clinton needs someone who can energize the liberal base while she tries to position herself for a general election and avoid antagonizing the Wall Street types that fund presidential campaigns.
“You can’t be a fake-ass Republican. You just can’t be. The game has changed,” said Lewis. “It’s not about who can whisper to the candidate and do the pillow talk. It’s who is out there as the surrogate. The mayor is going to be on the record.”
And if there are any concerns that de Blasio fears tarnishing his political brand by championing a moderate, one need only recall the 2014 midterms, when de Blasio rushed to the full-throated defense of New York Governor Andrew Cuomo against a progressive challenger. Cuomo, like Clinton, is a longtime friend of the mayor’s but also has seemingly taken great sport in toying with his party’s progressive wing. No matter. De Blasio was even one of the first politicians to endorse Cuomo’s choice for lieutenant governor, Kathy Hochul, a pro-gun, tough-on-immigrants former congresswoman, calling her “a true progressive.”
Clinton’s and de Blasio’s political careers have been practically intertwined since they both began in New York. She plucked him from obscurity to run her unlikely 2000 Senate campaign. He then used the chits and contacts he acquired to run for the City Council the next year, and 13 years later for mayor. And when de Blasio was sworn in as mayor, standing alongside him on the dais was Hillary Clinton. It is a setup the two would like to replicate, if reversed, in 2017.