Can a Lame Duck Mayor Get New Yorkers to Believe in Him Again? – The New York Times

Mayor Bill de Blasio ended his presidential campaign in September, returning to New York City to find that little had changed: He was still unloved, and, in his mind, unappreciated.

His approval rating had sunk to a new low of 33 percent. His relationship with Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, a fellow Democrat and frequent adversary, was beyond repair.

His thinning influence over the City Council had eroded even further; when the mayor pushed one of his top priorities from last year — a paid vacation proposal for private-sector workers — the Council ignored it.

As Mr. de Blasio enters his last two years in office, he will look to guide New York through a series of pressing challenges, from homelessness to public safety.

But his biggest challenge may be getting New Yorkers to believe in him again.

In 2013, Mr. de Blasio used a progressive platform to catapult past better-known candidates to become mayor of America’s largest city. He vowed to narrow the income inequality that he said had led to a “tale of two cities” under his predecessor, Michael R. Bloomberg.

But other than universal prekindergarten, much of Mr. de Blasio’s agenda has failed to register with New Yorkers.

When he delivers his annual State of the City speech on Thursday, the mayor is expected to outline his vision for the rest of his term and highlight the areas where he believes he has succeeded, in an effort to counter the criticism and reach New Yorkers who are not satisfied with path the city is on.

“Look, I have no delusions of grandeur, I just have numbers,” Mr. de Blasio said in a recent interview. “I won two Democratic primaries, and I won two general elections overwhelmingly. And there’s a whole lot of people out there who agree with me and support what I’m doing.”

The mayor contended that his “basic vision and platform is where most Democrats in New York City are.”

He has already started to identify priorities like overhauling the property tax system to force residents in affluent neighborhoods to pay more, and reducing the homeless population — perhaps the most daunting and persistent problem of his tenure.

“We know how successful Bill de Blasio can be when he marshals all of his resources,” said Christine C. Quinn, the former City Council speaker who lost to Mr. de Blasio in the 2013 Democratic primary. She recalled how surprised she was when the mayor managed to get prekindergarten funded and implemented in his first year in office.

“So why, six years later, has he not marshaled the same resources and brought the same organizing intensity to one of the biggest issues in the city right now: the homeless crisis?”

In an interview at Gracie Mansion, Mr. de Blasio insisted that he was energized and had plans for “a two-year race to the finish.”

“When you actually can see the end, you start running,” he said, citing the 700 or so days left before he leaves office at the end of 2021.

He added that his efforts to reduce homelessness countered any notion that he was a lame duck mayor whose political power had waned.

“Honestly, if we were in a slow down or ‘Let’s get ready to pack up mode,’ we would never have presented a plan to end long-term homelessness — that’s going in the other direction,” he said. “That’s a very risky concept.”

About 79,000 people now live in the city’s shelters or streets, up from about 64,000 people the year before Mr. de Blasio took office. He recently announced a new homeless plan, known as “the Journey Home,” that aims to add 1,000 beds at safe-haven shelters to help the 3,500 or so people who live on the streets.

On a recent afternoon, Mr. de Blasio held a meeting at City Hall to discuss how the plan was going. Two dozen members of his administration, from a deputy mayor to the head of the subway police, sat around a giant table as the mayor peppered them with questions.

Could outreach workers get more time to talk to people living on the streets when the workers are getting close to a “breakthrough moment,” where someone finally accepts services? When could the city begin to retire certain “hot spots” that they monitor as gathering locations? Were faith leaders offering space for safe-haven beds at former convents?

Mr. de Blasio said the meeting reminded him of the all-hands-on-deck effort on prekindergarten. When everyone is in the same room, he said, there is “nowhere to hide” when questions arise. “It’s worth it on those hard-to-solve issues,” the mayor said later.

But some of the mayor’s critics say that he seldom devotes that level of attention to other issues. Indeed, there is a perception, one that Mr. de Blasio and his aides brusquely reject, that some of the mayor’s inaction is related to his work ethic: He appears to spend fewer hours at City Hall than his recent predecessors, holds fewer news conferences and gives the impression that he does not particularly enjoy his job.

He has also stubbornly resisted calls to discontinue his frequent trips from Gracie Mansion to his YMCA in Park Slope, Brooklyn, where he can be found many mornings, often not arriving at City Hall until after 10 a.m.

“What he really needs to do is pick one or two things and devote all of his energy to that,” said Bill Cunningham, who served as communications director for Mr. Bloomberg. “That means he has to stop the caricature of ‘He doesn’t seem to be working.’

“He needs to change that visual and be seen like Mayor La Guardia, his hero, who was everywhere all the time.”

The mayor has no shortage of hot-button issues to focus on, including pressing matters related to public safety. Crime and traffic deaths have generally been dropping during his tenure, but murders were up last year, leading to doubts over the mayor’s policing strategy, and new rules on bail passed by state lawmakers have raised concerns about crime. Pedestrian and cyclist deaths also increased, prompting calls for more bike lanes and enforcement of drivers.

Other legacy-building ideas have been floated, from reimagining the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway as a smaller highway, or perhaps trying to wrest more control of the subways from the state. But the broader question is whether the mayor has the political capital to get any of it done.

There is little historical precedent for New York mayors to be highly productive at the end of their terms, said Kenneth Sherrill, a professor emeritus of political science at Hunter College. While there are some things the mayor can do on his own, many Council members are searching for their next job and have little reason to work with the mayor.

“They have no need to ingratiate themselves with him, and he doesn’t have much to dangle before them,” he said.

The Council speaker, Corey Johnson, is also running for mayor in 2021, and has his own agenda. And Mr. Cuomo, as always, is a wild card: He could upend the mayor’s budget by forcing the city to pay more toward Medicaid.

Mr. de Blasio said that reports of tension with Mr. Johnson, the Council speaker, were untrue. The leaders could continue to work together, like they did to gain approval to close the Rikers Island jail complex, because, he said, they share similar values.

As for his future after he leaves City Hall, Mr. de Blasio said he was not planning to run for office again.

“I’m not saying it’s impossible one day to run for something,” he said. “I’m saying I have no plans to run for anything.”

Some wonder if he might challenge Mr. Cuomo in a bid for governor, try for a cabinet position if a Democrat wins the White House or settle into a nonprofit or teaching job.

They point to his presidential run — along with his numerous political trips to states like Iowa and California, even before he declared his interest in the White House — as evidence that Mr. de Blasio still has ambitions beyond New York.

Indeed, when his office sent a list of three people to vouch for his record, only one — Greg Berman, a criminal justice advocate — was a New York resident.

Bill McKibben, a prominent environmentalist, praised the mayor’s efforts on climate change while noting that he lives in a city of a few hundred people in Vermont. Ai-jen Poo, the director of a national group for domestic workers, praised his paid vacation policy; she lives in Chicago.

And then there is the matter of Mr. de Blasio’s wife, Chirlane McCray, who has expressed some interest in running for Brooklyn borough president next year. Asked about her plans, Mr. de Blasio could not hide a smile.

“I think she’d be amazing — totally objective,” he said. “I think she’d be absolutely wonderful and contribute a lot to the city as she already has. That’s a decision she is pondering and she has to make in her own time.”

As for who might replace Mr. de Blasio in two years?

Whoever it might be, the mayor said it would be nearly impossible to run as more progressive than him, and unwise to run against his record.

“Does someone want to run against pre-K?” he said. “Do they want to run against neighborhood policing? Do they want to run against rent freezes and stopping evictions?”

The mayor appeared satisfied that the right answer was no.