De Blasio’s ratings sag. Can he make his liberal vision work as NYC mayor?

The number who disapprove of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s job performance has more than doubled since January, when he took office amid the high hopes of the city’s liberals. Some stumbles haven’t helped.

Lucas Jackson/Reuters
New York Mayor Bill de Blasio applauds during a service at Saint Patrick's Cathedral in New York, on March 17.

After electing the progressive firebrand Bill de Blasio in a historic landslide last fall, New York City voters’ opinion of their new mayor, just three months on the job, is pretty much, “Meh.”

The number who disapprove of Mayor de Blasio’s job performance has more than doubled since January, when he took office amid the high hopes of the city’s liberals, marginalized for two decades in its executive halls of power. More than a third of New York voters now disapprove of the freshman mayor’s performance, a jump from just 13 percent two months ago, according to a Quinnipiac survey released Tuesday.

There were little things tripping up the mayor’s first few weeks – wealthy Upper East Siders seeing a delay in their streets being plowed, a late-night call to a precinct captain after the arrest of a political ally, even his being seen eating pizza with a fork.

“At times it seems he’s dying a death of a thousand cuts,” says Kenneth Sherrill, professor emeritus of political science at Hunter College in Manhattan. “It’s been a rocky opening, period.”

But some of the bigger stumbles have led many to wonder whether his grand liberal vision – to transform the “tale of two cities” into an urban story of greater economic equality and evenhanded justice – might make him more of a myopic ideologue, a utopian with a tin ear for political realities.

The mayor has a choice to make, political observers say.

“De Blasio has to decide whether he’s the leader of progressives or the spokesman for a real urban agenda. These are two different things,” Professor Sherrill says. “It may be a question of becoming comfortable, finding the right level of comfort in exercising power, and being in power.”

De Blasio had campaigned on an ambitious “Vision Zero” traffic plan, pioneered in Sweden, that seeks to eliminate all traffic fatalities and serious injuries within 10 years. Just two days after he officially proposed this goal, however, a news crew clocked his mayoral SUV speeding well over the limit in Queens, brazenly blowing two stop signs even as the mayor rode shotgun.

“Of all the stumbles that he’s had, the one that has really defined his early performance most was his motorcade speeding,” says Matthew Hale, a political scientist at Seton Hall University in South Orange, N.J.

“The champion of safety can say, he wants to have zero traffic fatalities in the city,” Mr. Hale continues. “But the reality is, that’s never going to happen. So I do think there’s a learning curve for the mayor.”

The biggest stumble for de Blasio, many observers say, happened as he lobbied the governor and state legislators to pass his signature campaign issue: universal pre-kindergarten and after-school programs for New York’s public schools, paid for by increasing taxes on the city’s wealthy.

Even after New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) offered state funds for de Blasio’s pre-K plan – agreeing with the policy and saying it should be a statewide plan – the mayor insisted on the tax increase, saying it was necessary to have a stable source of funding free from Albany’s annual budget battles.

So he traveled up to the state capital with much fanfare, including a rally with the city’s teachers union, to lobby for the tax increase – an effort many called quixotic, since it had no chance of passing the Republican-controlled Senate and the governor’s crystal-clear opposition to raising taxes during an election year.

But leaders of the city’s beleaguered charter schools, which de Blasio generally has little enthusiasm for, organized a rally at the same time – a rally that was bigger and more boisterous and featured the governor giving an impassioned defense of the charter movement, bristling under an unfriendly de Blasio administration.

“I think that the larger political community ... saw this potentially as an emperor-has-no-clothes moment for de Blasio,” says Sherrill, but adds, “He can recover: He can recover by showing that his people can organize well in the future.”

Indeed, despite his current tepid job-approval numbers, the Quinnipiac survey also found that 65 percent of New York City voters are optimistic about the next four years under their new mayor. And a third of those surveyed believe de Blasio will make life better for their families, while 22 percent think he will make life worse.

They also gave the mayor strong marks for character. Nearly 6 out of 10 voters say he understands their problems and is honest and trustworthy. More than half say he has strong leadership qualities.

And black voters, de Blasio’s most supportive base, continue to give the mayor strong support, with 61 percent approving his job performance and 81 percent optimistic about his tenure.

To these voters, de Blasio’s insistence on his tax increase plays well. “De Blasio had to fight for his constituency that elected him last November, and he had to show them that he fought the good fight,” Sherrill says.

But will this accomplish anything, in the end?

“There’s a really interesting parallel, I would say, between de Blasio and tea party congressmen,” Hale says. “Anytime you have someone who is a true believer on either the left or the right, they’re going to come in and face the reality of having a democratic government. And that means compromise. Our system is not designed to make it easy to get things done.”

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