2015 Year in Review: For Bill de Blasio, It Was a Year of Political Combat

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New York City mayor’s staff cites progress on his big themes, but advisers say privately they are glad the year is drawing to a close 

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s second year in office was dominated by a series of bruising political fights and a continual struggle to control the perception of crime, homelessness and the city’s quality of life.

For most of the year, the mayor and his aides labored to highlight the expansion of prekindergarten, progress on developing affordable apartments and the sharp curtailment of the New York Police Department’s street stops in largely minority neighborhoods. The city’s unemployment rate kept dropping and its finances remained largely on solid footing.

But through much of 2015, the 54-year-old Mr. de Blasio found himself mired in public conflict, with police union leaders, executives of Uber and, most visibly, with fellow Democrat Gov. Andrew Cuomo.

The midpoint of the mayor’s four-year term finds him contending with poll results that indicate many voters disapprove of his leadership and many simply dislike him—a finding that confounds some of his advisers. A deep racial gap has persisted, with white voters overwhelmingly disliking the mayor and black voters liking him.

“This is a very hardworking mayor and it doesn’t come across in the everyday story,” said Sid Davidoff, a lobbyist and close adviser to Mr. de Blasio who also advised former Mayors David Dinkins and John Lindsay.

For many seasoned observers of City Hall, Year Two of the de Blasio era displayed his administration’s inability to maneuver well when attacked. For them, it came as a surprise because Mr. de Blasio has built a reputation over the past two decades as a savvy veteran of the city’s political scene.

Many aides and advisers say privately they are happy that 2015 is drawing to an end.

People close to Mr. de Blasio say they have learned many difficult lessons and are planning to spend more time touting his accomplishments and focusing on New York. And the mayor, who thrives in campaign settings, is likely to find renewed energy as a re-election bid looms. Staging a challenger against a Democratic incumbent with labor support and fundraising prowess could be difficult. As 2015 progressed, Mr. de Blasio moved to address some of the biggest problems that confronted him.

Early in the year, the mayor tried to deal with his lingering conflict with the city’s biggest police union over accusations he had made antipolice comments that fed the motive of a man who fatally shot two police officers in Brooklyn last December. But as winter yielded to spring, Mr. de Blasio spoke more positively about the police force.

The mayor took criticism for the trips he took across the U.S., largely to build his national profile in the left wing of the Democratic Party. He has been cutting back on travel.

At the same time, Mr. de Blasio diminished his national standing, political observers and advisers said, when he waited months to endorse Hillary Clinton for president, then was forced to scrub a presidential-candidates forum in Iowa when no candidates agreed to attend.

Other battles absorbed large chunks of the mayor’s time—what to do about topless panhandlers in Times Square without violating their constitutional rights and the growth of Uber, the app-driven car service.

One of Mr. de Blasio’s longtime advisers said a primary goal for 2016 should be avoiding “stupid political fights” that punctuated 2015, including the panhandlers and Uber. Mr. de Blasio needs to focus on making friends instead of enemies, the adviser said.

Aides agree they’ve sometimes spent too much time on pointless political combat. “There isn’t a government or an elected official on earth who wouldn’t want a few do-overs in their tenure,” said Phil Walzak, a senior adviser to the mayor.

Recent months have found Mr. de Blasio focusing more on the nuts-and-bolts of government, showing up on time to events and speaking directly to voters, according to his aides and advisers. He has cut back on freewheeling question-and-answer sessions with the City Hall press corps.

The mayor has begun to read obscure transportation blogs as he worries about advocates who criticize him, and he urged aides to schedule more visits to Staten Island, where his approval ratings are especially low. He closely studies polls even as aides publicly dismiss them.

On the politically problematic issue of homelessness, the 2016 goal is clear: Reduce the number of people living in the shelter system and on the street. Mr. de Blasio also must contend with crime, a tricky issue. Overall, crime has dropped, but the issue has re-emerged because murders are up.

“What he calls a perception gap is something that’s very often fatal for politicians,” said Ken Sherrill, a political scientist emeritus at City University of New York-Hunter College.

The mayor has blocked parts of legislation that members of the Partnership for New York City don’t like, which pleased them, said Kathy Wylde, who runs the business group. He now seems more interested in making friends, she said, though there is a “hangover effect” from his campaign rhetoric.

Even so, one important friendship remained elusive in 2015: Mr. Cuomo’s. The men sniped at each other much of the year, and the rift hasn’t mended.

Two people close to the mayor said City Hall had no strategy to deal with the governor, who controls much of what Mr. de Blasio wants. “And that’s going to be the biggest thing we have to figure out,” one of these people said.

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