New York City Mayor-elect Bill de Blasio does not just offer a sharp contrast to the policies of predecessor Michael Bloomberg — he will run the nation’s largest city with a very different leadership style: a hands-on approach that draws upon two decades in politics, with significant input from his poet-activist wife.
“I think it’s fair to say the most important voice in my life is Chirlane McCray,” de Blasio said after his landslide victory last Tuesday that made him the city’s first Democratic mayor since 1989. “In terms of a formal role, in terms of what kind of specific issues she may focus on, that will take some time to work out.”
De Blasio, who is white, and McCray, who is African-American, met while they both worked for former Mayor David Dinkins in the early 1990s. She sat in on strategy meetings when de Blasio ran for public advocate and during this campaign joined her husband at the top of the organizational flow chart.
The couple often draw comparisons to Bill and Hillary Clinton — both of whom de Blasio has worked for — during their time in the White House.
DeBlasio and McCray — nicknamed “POTUS and FLOTUS” by staff after the acronyms for the President and First Lady — worked closely on strategy during de Blasio’s stunning mayoral win. McCray joined most political meetings and had the final edit of major speeches.
Their working relationship is of a kind unseen in City Hall.
“It’s unusual for New York City,” said Jamie Chandler, political science professor at Hunter College. “He’ll need to be careful: if people see her get a huge portfolio, or it looks like a ‘two-for-one,’ that could backfire.”
“She is not mayor, he is. They need to walk a fine line.”
De Blasio, an unabashed liberal, ran as the anti-Bloomberg candidate, pledging to listen to those working-class New Yorkers who felt Bloomberg’s 12 years in office were biased toward Manhattan elites.
And their styles couldn’t be more different.
Many feel that Bloomberg ran the city like the billionaire CEO that he was, sitting largely above the fray, empowering his commissioners and deputy mayors to handle day-to-day operations and enlisting corporate headhunters to help fill out senior staff.
Bloomberg, who never worked in government before taking office in 2002, surrounded himself with like-minded people from the corporate world, who believed that data-driven solutions could be found for most city problems.
That engineer-like approach, which helped drive down crime and improve most city services, had its trade-offs. Its implementation sometimes seemed cold, leaving Bloomberg tone-deaf when it came to reassuring citizens feeling unfairly targeted by police or forgotten in a snowstorm.
De Blasio, 52, pledges to be in the trenches and wants it clear that all lines of authority run to him.
“Having worked in New York City government as long I have, I’m going to take a very hands-on approach,” de Blasio said while announcing the first members of his transition team. “A lot of the people who would be very obviously nominees for the different positions are people I’ve worked with personally.”
Consolidating power further, he also plans to knock down Bloomberg’s famed bullpen, the wall-less space on City Hall’s second floor resembling a Wall Street trading floor where Bloomberg himself and his staff conducted business.
He learned his management methods from some of his party’s power players: after being an aide to Dinkins, he worked in Bill Clinton’s administration, where his boss was Andrew Cuomo, now New York’s governor. And de Blasio later managed Hillary Rodham Clinton’s Senate campaign, though he was eventually stripped of some power for being judged indecisive.
De Blasio’s first four appointments to his transition staff — three women, two of them minorities — were an obvious nod to make his team look like the city it serves. But more tellingly, the way those people were selected revealed the outsized role his wife could play in the administration.
“The people who are standing here are standing here because she and I made that decision together,” de Blasio said, “and we’ll continue that practice.”