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Bill de Blasio to Iowa Democrats: Move left and win

New York Mayor Bill de Blasio speaks during an event hosted by Progress Iowa in Des Moines on Tuesday. (Charlie Neibergall/AP)
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DES MOINES — “No,” said Bill de Blasio. “I’m not running for president.”

The mayor of New York City, fresh off a 39-point reelection victory, would answer versions of the 2020 question all day. Media back home, media that had followed him to America’s 102nd largest city, had been asking the question since de Blasio’s first trip to Iowa in 2015. He was asked again at a press gaggle before his speech to Progress Iowa, giving a definitive answer to a question that is asked whenever a politician travels to Des Moines.

“Look, seriously, mayor of New York City is one of the best public service jobs in the nation,” de Blasio said in an interview before the gaggle. “I can do big things, and do them quickly. I’ve got four years and 13 days left.”

But de Blasio intended to spend many of those coming days helping elect progressive Democrats around the country — in New York, but also in any congressional district that would have him, “with a focus on economic populism” to rebrand his party. In the afternoon gaggle, when asked how he could juggle his job and his campaign travel, de Blasio literally stuck a piece of gum in his mouth and began walking.

“It’s the only way we win back a lot of these seats we need,” he said, pointing out that Iowa Republicans were defending two competitive districts in 2018. “I don’t care if some pundits want to read something into it. I’ve devoted my whole life to community activism.”

De Blasio, who pleasures in the gap between his media coverage in New York (terrible) and his election margins (landslides), was invited over the summer to speak at Progress Iowa’s gala. He agreed to come shortly after securing his second term, readying a political action fund, but traveling light. On Tuesday morning, he walked through Des Moines’s airport without attracting many double-takes; a small staff and security detail piled into two SUVs that moved anonymously around the city, evading members of the NYPD’s union, who had flown in to draw attention to contract negotiations.

Once he faced the press, de Blasio suggested a Democratic future based on his own work in New York — pure economic populism, with taxes on the very wealthy paying for health care, pre-K education, and cheaper housing. De Blasio, who endorsed Hillary Clinton for president in 2016, was excited that his party seemed to be leaving neoliberalism behind.

“We cannot let the last couple of decades cloud our judgment,” de Blasio said. “If people see government working effectively, spending tax dollars effectively, improving their lives, then they get very open to government.”

De Blasio rattled off the Democrats’ biggest 2017 wins, occasionally giving them extra credit for boldness. In Virginia, he said, Gov.-elect Ralph Northam (D) had been “bold” and avoided a Republican trap on “sanctuary cities” by staying consistent. (Northam, in the campaign’s final week, clarified that he would sign legislation banning cities from ignoring immigration law if any city tried to do so.) Democrats, said de Blasio, needed to “realize they have the high ground” on immigration, and that the president had discredited himself with swing votes.

“He’s lost them,” said de Blasio. “On the economic populist issues, where he could have been a crossover figure — that train left the station. They just did the largest corporate giveaway possible. Sure, he could swing back on NAFTA or infrastructure, but they’ve given people the imprint now.”

On Tuesday evening, de Blasio repackaged that pitch for Progress Iowa’s donors and many of the party’s federal and statewide candidates. The group always booked potential party stars at its holiday parties — Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) was the 2014 guest of honor — but de Blasio arrived early to work the crowd. Some of the people who crowded in for a photo or a quick word confessed that they were just then hearing about him.

“I knew a lot more about Rep. Tim Ryan,” said J.D. Scholten, a Democratic candidate for Congress, referring to the Ohio congressman who had been to Iowa for two party events this year. “He’s a Midwestern guy, so I felt like I knew him already.”

In Iowa, de Blasio was a fresh face, which only helped him win the room over. He dissected the Hillary Clinton campaign, without naming the candidate or how he had backed her, by saying the party had sold out ahead of 2016.

“We were decimated,” said de Blasio. “Sure, the donors gave money. Sure, the party came up with something that seemed, kind of, maybe, like a message. And we lost. I don’t want the money if the money’s going to stand between us and the people.”

In the back of the room, and on Twitter, New York reporters pointed out that de Blasio had spent an inordinate amount of time fighting the charge that he gave easy access to donors. That story had not made it far out of New York, allowing de Blasio to tell Iowans a cleaner story, about how progressives proved that police reform and universal pre-K were doable if politicians were willing to lead.

“Change can happen anywhere, and it most certainly can happen here in Iowa,” said de Blasio. “Leave no stone unturned! Leave no seat uncontested! Go to the people. It’s the perfect moment to throw off some of the burdens that held us back.”

On the story of the day, the expected passage of a $1.5 trillion tax cut in Congress, de Blasio assured Iowa Democrats that they were already winning the argument against it. He cited the Des Moines Register’s final poll of the year, already famous among local Democrats, which had shown Trump’s approval rating slumping to the 30s. A year earlier, he had won the biggest Republican victory in Iowa since Ronald Reagan.

“The people of this state have taken stock of Donald Trump and his presidency, and have rejected it out of hand,” he said. “All the miraculous imagery you can create when you say the word tax cut. We’ve seen tax cuts held out before people, and we understand the siren call of tax cuts. People were sold a bill of goods over and over and over, and they did not buy it.”