New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio (D) reprised his role as a left-wing agitator on the presidential debate stage in Detroit on Wednesday night, picking fights with more moderate rivals in the absence of Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), progressive contenders with much higher standings in the polls.
De Blasio came out of the gate swinging, warming to his self-appointed status as a booster of progressive ideas and merciless mocker of more cautious presidential candidates.
“There are good people on this stage, but there are real differences,” he said in his opening statement, before launching into an attack against former Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Kamala Harris of California.
“Joe Biden told wealthy donors that ‘nothing fundamentally would change’ if he were president. Kamala Harris said she’s not trying to restructure society,” de Blasio continued. “Well, I am.”
Harris and Biden’s discussion about health care grew heated as the two candidates exchanged blows over their respective plans’ price tags and effectiveness at achieving universal coverage.
But neither Biden’s public insurance option proposal nor Harris’ plan for a public-private hybrid version of “Medicare for All” eliminates the role of for-profit insurance companies.
De Blasio called them both out for being insufficiently bold.
“I don’t know what the vice president and senator are talking about,” he said, referring to Biden and Harris. “The folks I talk to about health insurance say that their health insurance isn’t working for them.”
“There’s this mythology that somehow all these folks are in love with their insurance in America. What I hear from union members and from hard-working middle-class people is they wish they had better insurance. And they’re angry at private insurance companies that skim all the profits off the top and make it impossible for everyday people to get coverage like mental health care, dental care,” he added, drawing loud applause from the audience at Detroit’s Fox Theatre.
De Blasio reserved particular ire, though, for Sen. Michael Bennet of Colorado, who attacked Harris for a plan that he claimed would require middle-class tax increases and the prohibition of private health insurance.
“I don’t understand why Democrats on this stage are fear-mongering about universal health care. It makes no sense,” he declared before confirming in a follow-up inquiry that he was referring to Bennet. “Ask the American people: They are sick of what the pharmaceutical companies are doing to them. Ask them what they feel about the health insurance companies ― they feel it’s holding back their families because they can’t get the coverage they need.”
De Blasio was equally unrestrained in his indictment for former President Barack Obama’s deportations of undocumented immigrants, which he used to put Biden in the hot seat. He asked whether Biden had agreed with Obama or objected when the former president embarked on a campaign of then-record deportations of undocumented immigrants. Obama had ramped up immigration enforcement in the hopes of building credibility with Republicans, but their support was never forthcoming, prompting immigrant rights activists to view the policy as a devastating mistake in retrospect.
Biden responded by invoking Obama’s work to protect Dreamers and pursue comprehensive immigration reform in his second term. He also repeated a deflection from the first presidential debate in Miami: “To compare [Obama] to Donald Trump I think is absolutely bizarre.”
De Blasio did not relent though, pressing him in a follow-up to say whether he spoke up against the deportations or not.
“Mr. Vice President, you want to be president of the United States, you need to be able to answer the tough questions,” de Blasio said. “I guarantee you, if you’re debating Donald Trump, he’s not going to let you off the hook.”
Biden still demurred. “I was vice president. I was not the president,” he replied. “I keep my recommendation to him in private.”
The exchange teed up Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey, who often notes that many of the country’s problems predated President Donald Trump, to hammer home the point.
“Mr. Vice President, you can’t have it both ways. You invoke President Obama more than anybody else in this campaign,” Booker said. “You can’t do it when it’s convenient and then dodge it when it’s not.”
De Blasio’s pugilistic performance was marred, however, by dissatisfaction with the New York City Police Department’s continued employment of Daniel Pantaleo, an officer who killed unarmed cigarette seller Eric Garner in 2014. Pantaleo used a chokehold while arresting Garner, who is African American, causing him to suffocate and die as he said, “I can’t breathe.”
Protesters interrupted both de Blasio and Booker’s opening statements with shouts of “fire Pantaleo.” De Blasio has argued that he does not have authority to dismiss Pantaleo before the conclusion of an NYPD disciplinary hearing, but critics note that the NYPD only began the disciplinary process in July 2018.
Julián Castro, the former secretary of housing and urban development, later brought up Pantaleo’s case. He began by citing it as an example of inadequate civil rights enforcement by the Department of Justice, which announced earlier this month that it would not press federal civil rights charges against Pantaleo. But Castro went on to link it to de Blasio, who is under pressure to remove the officer from the force. (Pantaleo is now relegated to administrative duty.)
Pantaleo “knew what he was doing, that he was killing Eric Garner, and yet he has not been brought to justice,” Castro said. “That police officer should be off the streets.”
The controversy over Pantaleo, fanned by progressive New York City lawmakers and activists, exemplifies the dissonance between de Blasio’s skill as a national progressive spokesman and the low esteem with which he is held in his home city.
Although New Yorkers reelected him handily in November 2017, thanks to accomplishments like the establishment of universal pre-K, de Blasio’s awkward personality, ethical troubles and tense relationship with the local press have often made him the subject of mockery. When de Blasio announced his presidential bid in May, many city residents just laughed it off.
And for a progressive candidate critical of the monied elite, de Blasio lacks the small-dollar fundraising base of Sanders and Warren. He raised one-third of his presidential campaign funds from donors who have business with the New York City government, according to an analysis by the New York Daily News.
The controversy over Pantaleo exemplifies the dissonance between de Blasio's skill as a national progressive spokesman and the low esteem with which he is held in his home city.
But de Blasio has always been a complex political figure, with his bluster and poor political instincts coexisting alongside a sincerely held left-wing ideology and a fair number of achievements. While he backed Hillary Clinton for president in 2016, he has since cultivated a relationship with her former primary opponent, Sanders. At the same time, his ability to speak personally about the toll of anti-black racism in American life — his wife and children are black — sometimes makes him more adept about speaking to the intersectional struggles for racial and economic justice than Sanders.
De Blasio’s appearance on Wednesday night is likely to be his last moment onstage with his fellow candidates. He has neither the poll numbers nor the number of donors required to meet the Democratic National Committee’s eligibility criteria for the third debate in September — and there’s no sign that he’ll be able to obtain them in time.
But the legacy of his presidential run may be in his role as a feisty bomb-thrower whose strong debate performances bolstered the candidacies of his closest ideological allies, Sanders and Warren.
In his closing remarks on Wednesday night, de Blasio made a plea for the Democratic Party to return to its mid-20th-century roots as an unabashed champion for social democracy and workers’ rights. To make his point, he borrowed from Sanders’ line that Trump already embraces a kind of socialism for the rich. But de Blasio also came up with a gimmick of his own, inviting viewers to visit TaxTheHell.com, a website showcasing the mayor’s plan to “tax the hell out of the super-rich.”
Alexis Arnold contributed reporting.
This story has been updated with additional background on de Blasio’s campaign and his time as mayor of New York City.