NEW YORK — Mayor Bill de Blasio loped into a Brooklyn homeless shelter one day late last month, eager to demonstrate his command over a mushrooming homeless crisis that had already forced out two of his top advisers.
Folding his 6-foot-5 frame in half, the Democratic mayor crouched down to hand out gifts to children, praised his team for “extraordinary work” and then faced a pack of reporters, one of whom asked why it took “so long” to make homelessness “a top priority.”
“It’s been a priority from the beginning,” de Blasio insisted before adding, “No administration has cracked the code” on homelessness.
“It will take time,” the mayor conceded. “We will turn the tide.”
Two years ago, de Blasio’s victory as an unrepentant progressive in the nation’s most populous city was evidence of the electorate’s shift to the left, a harbinger, perhaps, of Sen. Bernie Sanders’s surging presidential campaign, now threatening to overtake Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton.
After eight years of Republican Rudolph Giuliani and three terms under billionaire Michael Bloomberg, New Yorkers embraced de Blasio’s “Tale of Two Cities” mantra, his opposition to police aggression, and the biracial cool projected by his marriage to a black poet. He was New York’s version of Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), who had vaulted to national prominence assailing moneyed interests.
Yet, midway through his term, as he rolls out his budget Thursday, de Blasio, 54, is buffeted by sagging poll numbers and rebukes from an ever-clamorous spectrum of New Yorkers. Allies on the left complain he’s not progressive enough. Editorial writers deride him as more dreamer than manager. And at least one fellow Democrat — Andrew M. Cuomo, New York’s notoriously sharp-elbowed governor — seems to delight in needling the mayor.
The mayor’s problem is not his progressive message. It’s the mayor himself, the way he talks, executes his policies and presides over the city.
“The achievements are there,” de Blasio said in a recent interview. “I have to go out and talk to people about them.”
His initiatives bear the liberal stamp: establishing universal pre-kindergarten for 68,000 children, raising to $15 the minimum wage for city workers, and engineering a first-ever rent freeze for hundreds of thousands of tenants. Crime has declined despite predictions that police would be handicapped by phasing out “stop and frisk,” the tactic that a federal court ruled violated minorities’ constitutional rights.
“From my vantage point, as someone who supported him over a black candidate, he has delivered,” said the Rev. Al Sharpton, whose neutrality during the mayor’s race amounted to an endorsement of de Blasio.
Yet, for all his accomplishments, the mayor’s approval rating fell to 38 percent in November. Among whites, his support was below 30 percent. A poll released this week showed de Blasio creeping upward among all New Yorkers, even as the vast majority of whites remain unsatisfied.
His allies point out that Giuliani and Bloomberg polled poorly before winning reelection and that De Blasio’s support among blacks has reached as high as 70 percent. They attribute his overall decline to challenging New York’s status quo and a tabloid press that treats the mayor with less respect than a dog shows a fire hydrant.
“There’s an ‘out-to-get-him’ attitude,” said Doug Muzzio, a Baruch College political science professor. “But there’s also a record. He ain’t doing as badly as he’s doing.”
Yet, de Blasio has provided his critics plenty of fodder, arriving late to public events so often that newspapers felt compelled to report when he was on time.
In recent weeks, the mayor has scrambled to manage a homeless crisis that he played down months before. And with real estate prices on steroids, his plans to push developers to include affordable housing in market-rate projects has stoked fears that poor neighborhoods would be gentrified.
In Brooklyn’s East New York, among the struggling areas where the mayor hopes to spur development, Lorna Blake, 57, volunteered for de Blasio’s campaign two years ago, certain he would advocate for low-income New Yorkers.
Now Blake is afraid that the development the mayor seeks will jack up rents and force her out. “He’s not for the poor people,” she said. “We really believed in him. That’s why it hurts so much.”
De Blasio’s troubles are paradoxical: He is a seasoned campaign operative, but his policy initiatives often are overshadowed by his political stumbles.
He courted Sharpton, who is reviled by whites. He waited months before endorsing Clinton, though he served as her campaign manager when she ran for the U.S. Senate. He tried to dictate the types of questions reporters could ask him, which, in New York, may be as practical as teaching a rhinoceros to pirouette.
His feud with Cuomo began early in his mayoralty. The governor agreed to fund the mayor’s universal pre-K program. Rather than take the victory, de Blasio pushed Cuomo to pay for it by taxing the wealthy. The governor, facing reelection, refused.
Months later, an anonymous Cuomo adviser told the Wall Street Journal that the mayor was “bumbling and incompetent.”
“As the governor likes to say, you can’t flush the toilet in New York without going to Albany,” said George Arzt, who was Mayor Ed Koch’s press secretary. “When you’re mayor, you don’t alienate people for no reason.”
De Blasio has shown he understands the power of political imagery, burnishing his Everyman credentials by riding the subway to his inauguration and shoveling snow outside his townhouse.
But he has failed to establish himself as a bullhorn voice in a city accustomed to mayors with outsize personas. Koch shouted “How’m I doin’?” as he greeted strangers, and Giuliani brawled with just about anyone (“There’s something deranged about you,” he told a New Yorker asking for a lift on the city’s ban on ferrets).
“New Yorkers like big strong daddy mayors — loudmouths who are obnoxious but who push people to get things done,” said Bill Dobbs, a gay activist. “This one doesn’t have something strong. There was this period when I hardly knew he was there.”
During appearances, de Blasio favors words such as “transcendent” and “historic,” verbiage that makes him sound like a “graduate student,” said Ken Sherrill, a Hunter College political science professor. “He doesn’t speak to people in language that makes sense to them. In terms of day-to-day politics, there’s massive ineptness.”
De Blasio, in the interview, vowed to “spend a lot more time” in the city’s neighborhoods and “do a better job communicating our vision.” He said he remained committed to a progressive agenda, one that he said is flourishing with the election of left-leaning mayors in cities such as Philadelphia and Houston.
“The number one issue that comes up is affordability,” he said. “Doesn’t matter if my popularity is up or down.”
The framed photo at Goodfella’s pizzeria on Staten Island is of the city’s 109th mayor committing a New York faux pas: eating pizza with a fork.
The fork that de Blasio used 10 days after taking office is also part of the exhibit, tucked inside an NYPD evidence bag, beneath lettering that reads, “FORKGATE.”
“Uncool,” said Anthony Lepori, 44, awaiting his own slice as he considered a transgression that raised questions about the Boston-born mayor’s New York bona fides (New York Post: “Yo What da Fork is Wrong with Dis Guy?”)
Yet two years later, Lepori said de Blasio is “starting to undo the damage Giuliani and Bloomberg did to the city, making it a playground for the rich.”
Across the table, Eddie DeLorenzo grunted.
“He’s a doofus, looks like a doofus and makes decisions like a doofus,” he said, reciting gripes that include the mayor displaying “more concern for horse carriages than terrorism,” a reference to de Blasio’s quest to limit the Central Park tourist staple (tough town: De Blasio’s proposed compromise on the carriages this week prompted pedi-cab operators to chant “one-term mayor” outside City Hall).
De Blasio’s trips around the country and to Rome to promote a progressive agenda also have irritated New Yorkers. In November, the liberal advocacy group he founded canceled a presidential forum in Iowa after no candidate agreed to attend.
“How can you go to Iowa when you haven’t met with people in your own back yard?” asked Jei Fong, 34, a Chinatown community organizer. “You’re the mayor. Don’t you care about the people in your own city?”
Even in Brooklyn’s Park Slope, de Blasio’s neighborhood and the base of his support, there are traces of discontent. To avoid looking at the mayor’s visage, patrons at the Purity Diner have been known to turn over a framed article about him.
But Jim Callanan, 62, a cinematographer who lives nearby, said he’d reelect de Blasio “in a nanosecond.” “I knew everyone would beat up on him,” he said. “He’s bucking vested interests. But he’s trying to fix stuff.”
After winning 73 percent of the vote, de Blasio told supporters that his landslide victory meant New Yorkers had “chosen a progressive path.” Yet, less than a quarter of the electorate voted, the lightest turnout in decades.
“He was hyping it,” said Bill Cunningham, a former Bloomberg adviser. “A lot of people didn’t bother to vote, which may explain the polls.”
Yet de Blasio remains convinced that New Yorkers elected him to narrow economic disparities that exploded during Bloomberg’s era.
He launched a plan to create 200,000 units of affordable housing. But after years of unbridled construction and soaring prices, advocates predict the plan will further choke neighborhoods and create housing too expensive for the poor.
The mayor insists “gentrification will affect many more neighborhoods” if government doesn’t do anything, “and a lot of people will be priced out.”
De Blasio’s identity as an advocate for the poor also suffered because of the pace of his response to a homeless crisis that seemed as obvious as the encampments springing up on city streets.
Last summer, he told reporters, “We’ve had a reduction in street homelessness.” But even his own police commissioner disagreed, saying the mayor had made a “mistake” by not “validating what we were seeing.”
After a poll found 62 percent of New Yorkers disapproved of his handling of homelessness, de Blasio announced a new plan.
A few days later, a reporter asked de Blasio whether, all things considered, he missed shoveling snow.
“I miss all the things that went with my previous life,” the mayor said. “But, you know, life changes sometimes.”