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Clash of the New York titans: Tensions rise between onetime allies Adams and de Blasio

POLITICO logo POLITICO 6/15/2022 By Erin Durkin
Former Mayor Bill de Blasio is back in the spotlight as he wades into the crowded free-for-all for the new 10th Congressional District created by a court-ordered redistricting plan. © David Dee Delgado/Getty Images Former Mayor Bill de Blasio is back in the spotlight as he wades into the crowded free-for-all for the new 10th Congressional District created by a court-ordered redistricting plan.

NEW YORK — Bill de Blasio is fighting a crowded contest for Congress and scrapping for every advantage he can find. But the former New York mayor is holding back when it comes to one the city’s biggest names: Mayor Eric Adams.

The progressive former mayor’s bid for Congress is testing the strength of his longstanding relationship with Adams — a moderate Democrat who he quietly supported in last year’s mayoral election, only to see Adams unravel some of his progressive policies and rail against the “broken” and “dysfunctional” city he inherited.

De Blasio had avoided publicly criticizing Adams, and they’ve largely shadow-boxed around one another in statements to the press. But tensions came to a head Monday, when de Blasio participated in a protest against school budget cuts championed by Adams.

After the rally, de Blasio said in an interview that he’s not afraid to take a proverbial swing at Adams — but he’s not spoiling for fights, either.

“I will take each issue one at a time," de Blasio said. “I believe the right way to approach something like this is to call them like you see them. As a member of Congress, you have to produce for your community, and obviously working with the mayor is part of that. But you also have to advocate for your community, and when I think it’s important to raise concerns, I’ll certainly do that.”

He reiterated his respect for Adams, as he highlighted their good relationship.

“I want to help him succeed in every way,” de Blasio said. “But when I think there’s something that needs to be said, I’ll always be willing to speak up. But in a very respectful way.”

Their first overt clash came over Adams’ plan to cut the schools' budget by $215 million in response to declining student enrollment, which became a sticking point in negotiations over the fledgling mayor’s first budget.

“It’s been incredibly difficult for school communities, and they need more investment,” de Blasio said. “I respect [the mayor], obviously, and he’s a product of public schools. I just think given this moment where school communities are hurting, they need extra help. And the fact that enrollments have declined, that’s not anyone’s fault.”

Adams, who has insisted the funding reductions do not amount to a cut, lashed back through a spokesperson.

“A drop in enrollment means we need to reallocate funds, just like any budget would do,” Adams press secretary Fabien Levy said in response to de Blasio's appearance at the protest. “Anyone saying otherwise is being disingenuous and is simply taking part in political theatre in an effort to get some clicks. New Yorkers deserve better than politicians playing the role of demagogues.”

De Blasio is back in the spotlight as he wades into the crowded free-for-all for the new 10th Congressional District created by a court-ordered redistricting plan. He will want to tout his accomplishments as the city’s top executive, but may bump up against his more moderate successor — who has anointed himself a new standard-bearer for the Democratic Party.

Since taking office in January, Adams revived a controversial NYPD unit that de Blasio disbanded during police brutality protests in 2020 — citing at the time the unit’s frequent involvement in shootings of civilians and a long history of excessive force complaints. Adams has also ratcheted up enforcement against lower-level quality-of-life offenses, such as public urination and alcohol consumption, which de Blasio scaled back during his two terms.

On top of that, he ended de Blasio’s marquee Covid-19 policies, carved exceptions to vaccine mandates for private employers, reversed course on rent hikes and scrapped a plan to eliminate the city’s Gifted and Talented school program, which de Blasio blamed for causing racial segregation in the classroom. Instead, Adams has opted to expand the program as he has staked out a more supportive position on charter schools than his predecessor.

“They actually really like each other,” said one person in the current mayor’s circle. “But they’re incredibly different people and very different mayors.”

Even more daylight has shone through between the longtime Brooklyn political allies now that de Blasio is gunning for Congress. Adams appears to be backing off a plan to host de Blasio at City Hall after welcoming former Mayor Mike Bloomberg there in April.

Adams won’t host an in-person meeting with his predecessor until after the August congressional primaries to avoid the tête-à-tête appearing political, according to the mayor’s office.

“While it’s not our practice to share private conversations, Mayor Adams speaks with diverse voices to allow for balanced policy and initiatives that best impact and reflect all New Yorkers,” Levy said. "From time to time, Mayor Adams speaks with both former Mayor de Blasio and former Mayor Bloomberg to discuss a variety of issues. He is grateful to both former mayors for their service to New York City."

De Blasio said he’s confident his relationship with Adams will survive any disagreements on the campaign trail.

“I think the relationship will be fine, because it’s longstanding, and there is mutual respect,” the former mayor said, adding he has spoken “pretty frequently” with his successor since Adams took office.


Video: Former Mayor Bill De Blasio Running for Congress (Bloomberg)

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“He understands that you have to advocate for the community. I think he would do the same thing if he were in my shoes,” de Blasio said.

Adams’ recent proclamations about the state of the city, however, have been anything but an endorsement for de Blasio’s time in office.

“I’ve inherited a broken city with broken systems,” Adams told reporters at an affordable housing event last month. “We can either put a Band-Aid on top of these broken systems, or you can go to the core and fix them.”

It’s a mantra he has repeatedly invoked, especially while on the defensive.

“I inherited a dysfunctional city. What more could I say? My city is dysfunctional, and taxpayers deserve better,” he said while discussing the homelessness crisis.

Despite similar comments during last year's mayoral campaign, de Blasio supported Adams behind the scenes in that primary and praised him as a fellow champion of combating inequality.

“It was just an insane decision to make,” said one former City Hall aide, granted anonymity to speak freely about the high-profile relationship. “People in City Hall were like, ‘This guy’s insulting you every day. He’s running ads every day trashing your city and your management of it. Helping him become mayor will not look good for you.'" But de Blasio “made a different calculus, where he saw Eric Adams as a longtime friend,” the aide said.

Veteran political consultant George Arzt said cracks in their cordial relationship may grow as the congressional race intensifies.

“He’ll be espousing leftwing proposals in Congress,” Arzt said of de Blasio. “And Eric has already taken his stance as not being one of the woke nation. However, saying that, they do have a personal relationship. But in politics the personal relationships sort of dissipate with political stances, so you never know.”

De Blasio is “now a candidate, and he sort of has taken a big step down from having a platform at City Hall, and so their relationship changes a great deal,” Arzt added.

Another expert predicted the men will do their best to keep it civil ahead of the August primary.

“Their predisposition is not to go to war with each other,” said Joseph Viteritti, author of “The Pragmatist: Bill de Blasio's Quest to Save the Soul of New York.” "They're both smart enough politicians to understand that there's no benefit in such a battle."

Aside from the school cuts, de Blasio has been measured in his response to Adams — suggesting Adams’ criticisms are a result of the growing pains any fledgling mayor experiences, rather than an indictment of his policies.

“I want him to succeed. It’s just been five months,” de Blasio said.

They have disagreements on the NYPD’s anti-crime unit, but de Blasio believes Adams is taking steps to rein in abuses, he said. And despite the reversals of his pandemic policies, he said Adams is appropriately following the advice of health officials but should be prepared to reimpose restrictions if necessary.

“I’ve said to him, and I’ve said publicly, 'keep those tools available,'” de Blasio said.

A new poll shows New Yorkers divided on whether Adams is doing a better job than his predecessor, who was unpopular when he left office. In the NY1/Siena College poll, 36 percent said Adams is doing a better job than de Blasio, while another 36 percent said they are performing about the same and 17 percent said de Blasio did a better job.

“That’s pretty good to me. If you’re a New Yorker, and you only have 17 percent that state you’re worse than anything, I’m happy for that,” Adams said last week.

De Blasio and Adams have long shared a base among Black voters in the city. But de Blasio is now running on very different turf: the 10th Congressional District is about half white, covers several affluent neighborhoods, and has significant Asian and Latino populations.

It has little overlap with the neighborhoods that propelled Adams to victory in the mayor’s race, instead encompassing mostly areas won by his rivals Kathryn Garcia, Maya Wiley, and Andrew Yang.

Adams is unlikely to make an endorsement in the congressional race, according to a person familiar with his thinking. He was diplomatic when asked about de Blasio's congressional bid.

“A great country called America, where everyone has a right to present their case to the people, and the people will make the determination who they want to represent them,” he said in an appearance on Fox 5. “That’s what he has to do, present his case to the people of the congressional district.”

Staying out of it is his best political move, said political consultant Hank Sheinkopf.

“Supporting anyone in that race would not be wise for one reason: He’s going to have to live with these people,” Sheinkopf said. “De Blasio gains nothing by attacking the mayor” either. “Taking a shot at the mayor doesn’t help, and the mayor taking a shot at any of the candidates doesn’t help.”

When asked last week whether he plans to make endorsements in any congressional or state level races, Adams said he’s thinking about it.

“These are important times for us, and I need help,” he told reporters. “I’m going to look at everyone that's running and I'm going to zero in on where their stances are around public safety, where their stances are on other quality of life issues. So based on that, if I get in the races, I'll make an endorsement."

Despite their disagreements, Adams graded de Blasio a B-plus during a general election mayoral debate, and has demurred when asked who is to blame for the dysfunctional city he says he inherited.

In a CBS2 appearance in April, he recalled how former Mayor Ed Koch once told a voter “the city never worked.”

“And that's the reality,” Adams said. “We've adjusted to a failing city across America. It's not only New York.”

Danielle Muoio Dunn contributed to this report.

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