ANKENY, Iowa — Bill de Blasio is mayor of New York City, one of the world’s arts, sports and financial epicenters, and with a population of 8.6 million, the most populous city in the United States.
But he’s traveling through Iowa — an entire state that has less than half the residents of New York City — because that’s what you do when you’re running for the 2020 Democratic nomination for president.
“My friends, this is actually the most important election in our lifetime,” he tells a crowd of 300 in Ankeny. “This is the real one. You hold the key, in Ankeny, in Iowa. You hold the key.”
Iowa does hold the key for de Blasio, because if he can do well on Feb. 3 in the Iowa Caucuses — the first vote of the Democratic primary season — he could have a real chance of winning the nomination.
Being mayor of New York is both a curse and a blessing for de Blasio.
Let’s begin with the curse: The last mayor to win a major party nomination was New York Mayor DeWitt Clinton in 1812. Clinton was the Federalist Party candidate who lost to incumbent James Madison. More recent attempts by other NYC mayors — John Lindsey in 1972 and Rudy Giuliani in 2008 — did not end well.
There is also the issue of the problems of New York following de Blasio to Iowa. Billboards are up in Cedar Rapids and Des Moines proclaiming, “Hey Bill de Blasio! It’s New York … Remember us? What are you doing in Iowa?”
There’s also the simple question of whether rural Iowans can identify with a big-city mayor. De Blasio argues that’s not a problem, telling reporters in Ankeny, “I found immediately, the first day on the ground in Iowa, is that there are many common issues between urban and rural.” He adds: “I’ve been talking to everyday people who are going to be caucus participants, and they don’t care where I come from. What they want to know is what will I do? How can I improve things and make change?”
On the plus side, de Blasio is basing much of his campaign on the argument that what he’s done in New York can be done for America. “I have a huge advantage. I’ve already changed the nation’s largest city.”
In Ames, he tells the crowd: “I have been mayor of New York, the biggest, toughest, most diverse city in the nation. And we have had a very clear vision: Put the money back in the hands of the working people. How about the government being on the side of the working people for a change?”
In Ankeny, he says: “I think we all agree that Iowans are the best interviewers. Being able to prove it — with actions, not words — is really going to matter to Iowans. I’m talking about something I actually did.”
With that in mind, de Blasio stresses accomplishments he had as mayor that he wants to take nationally:
• Child care for all: In Ames, de Blasio explains, “Pre-K for every single child. Today in New York City, pre-K is a universal right. Every child gets it for free. That has lifted an economic burden off of so many families. Imagine the day when every child starts at the same starting line, every child has the opportunity to achieve their potential.”
• Health care reform: In Ankeny, in response to my question about health care: “Universal health care system. We’re doing it now in New York. We’re reaching everyone who doesn’t have insurance. So we need a universal system. We should aspire to be a country where everyone gets the health care they need, including mental health care and dental health care.”
De Blasio argues that providing health care also saves taxpayers money: “People are gonna get well the first time rather than waiting until they’re so sick they end up in the hospital.”
• Paid sick days: “Most people in the U.S. cannot afford to lose a day’s pay. So what do we do in New York? We gave paid sick days to hundreds of thousands of people who didn’t have them. Paid sick so they could be healthy.”
• Paid time off: “We are in a wonderful country, but we are the only industrialized country that does not give working people any guarantee of time off. In New York this year we’re passing a law: two weeks paid vacation for every working person guaranteed. So people can actually have a life.”
De Blasio says that when he talks about these programs, he always hears the refrain that there’s not enough money to pay for them. Throughout Iowa and also in his national debate appearances, de Blasio vociferously argues that money is not the problem.
In Cedar Rapids, he says, “Here’s what I tell them every time: There’s plenty of money in this world and there’s plenty of money in this country, it’s just in the wrong hands.” In Ames, he says: “It should be in the hands of the people who did the work. And if anyone tells you, well, that’s nice, but it can’t happen, then I just want you to take a look at what we’ve done in New York the last half decade.”
De Blasio argues that it is federal tax policies and other national laws — or lack of laws — that hold people back. “Something is wrong, my friends. America is not working for working people right now. The policies of our government are making the rich richer and not letting working people get ahead. It’s not an accident.”
At 6 feet, 5 inches tall, de Blasio cuts an imposing figure in Iowa as he campaigns, but he has yet to loom large in the polls. He says it’s still too early, that his plan is to meticulously build support, and that 90% of Iowans will not decide until January. “It’s like the last two minutes of a football game — anything can happen. Two very long minutes.”
So de Blasio tunes out his critics in New York and his low poll numbers and continues to put forward his experience and vision to voters, remaining confident and hopeful.
“There is so much change that we can make in this country,” he says as he wraps up his remarks in Ames. “I am a profound optimist about America. I think this place is full of possibility. When the American people believe in something, great things can happen.”