Is ‘Hillary Clinton for mayor’ crazy talk?

Editor’s Note: Errol Louis is the host of “Inside City Hall,” a nightly political show on NY1, a New York all-news channel. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

Story highlights

Errol Louis: It's true she'd have a good shot, but not likely she'd try

Louis: The right has cooked up the rumors, more intended to unseat de Blasio

CNN  — 

If there’s any glimmer of truth to the rumors that Hillary Clinton is considering a run for mayor of New York City, it would be evidence that she might have tripped and bumped her head during one of those long walks she’s been taking in the woods of Westchester County.

It’s not that she couldn’t make a credible run. Clinton is enormously popular among city voters, who came out for her in overwhelming numbers during two runs for US Senate and two more for president. The incumbent mayor, progressive Bill de Blasio, enters this election year with a razor-thin 51% approval rating, giving rise to the idea that he could be beaten by a fellow Democrat.

But as the common political expression goes, you can’t beat somebody with nobody, and only a handful of low-profile local officials have declared they will run against de Blasio.

In truth, it appears that the chatter about a Clinton candidacy started as a bit of mischief cooked up by right-wing publications like Newsmax and the New York Post, the latter of which published an editorial urging Clinton to run, while openly acknowledging its true agenda: to keep de Blasio from coasting to a second term unopposed (“He needs to be challenged, indeed needs to be replaced,” the paper said).

But it’s safe to assume that nobody in her right mind – certainly, nobody as familiar with the workings of government and politics as Clinton – would lightly take on the headaches of the nation’s largest city for such nakedly political reasons. And while Clinton isn’t likely to seek another shot at higher office, she’s surely aware that serving at City Hall has been a frustrating, career-ending feat for one promising politician after another.

Start with the fact that our city has 8.4 million people crammed into 322 square miles. If we were a separate state, we’d rank 11th in terms of population, smaller than the state of New Jersey but larger than Virginia.

We’re the quintessential city of immigrants, with 37% of our residents – more than 3 million people, about the number of people in Chicago – who aren’t American citizens. And we’re a city of economic extremes, home to Wall Street and more billionaires (79) than any city on earth, and also home to the poorest congressional district in America and host to more than 60,000 homeless people in shelters on any given night.

The city runs 11 public hospitals and America’s largest school system, with 1.1 million kids who speak a dizzying 180 languages at home. More than 400,000 people live in the city’s public housing developments – a city-within-a-city that is larger than Oakland, California; Minneapolis; St. Louis or Orlando.

The mayor attempting to steer this vast enterprise is only one player in a local government with an $82 billion budget and unique, frustrating complexities.

The city itself is an amalgamation of five counties (called boroughs), each with its own independently elected district attorney. The five prosecutors often treat crimes differently, so the same offense that might result in a ticket and small fine in the Bronx could result in a jail sentence in Manhattan.

The subway system – the city’s lifeline, carrying nearly 6 million people a day – is actually owned and run by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which is controlled by the governor of New York. But most New Yorkers mistakenly believe the mayor runs the subway, and he inevitably gets blamed when the trains are late, crowded, dirty or dangerous.

Ditto for the roads and bridges. Only one of the city’s five boroughs is geographically part of the mainland of the United States, but many of the 700-plus bridges in our city of islands are actually operated by the MTA or the Port Authority, which is run by the state governments of New York and New Jersey. Guess who gets the blame for potholes or traffic jams on those bridges?

Being mayor of New York is, in part, a running series of deals and duels with 51 city council members, five party leaders (one for each borough), a dozen members of congress, 212 state legislators – and one powerful governor who has the power to make any mayor’s life miserable.

The whole scrum takes place in the nation’s media capital and the home of the United Nations, giving national and international visibility to local disputes.

Every New York mayor emerges from the experience with lasting political baggage. John Lindsay in 1972 and Rudy Giuliani in 2008 were twice-elected mayors who at first were seen as formidable contenders for the White House but soon fizzled. Ed Koch in the 1980s and Mike Bloomberg in the 2000s each served three terms and openly considered running for president, but never pulled the trigger.

New York, so heavy on immigrants and elites, so filled with homeless and hedge funds, produces mayors who are forceful but tolerant, welcoming to immigrants (including undocumented ones) and accustomed to playing hardball with political rivals.

A successful mayor is also adept at striking deals that tax the very rich to benefit the very poor while allowing a wide range of lifestyles and culture to thrive in close quarters. It’s a formula that works well in New York, but rubs many outside the city the wrong way.

All of which will surely come into play if Clinton gives serious consideration to replacing de Blasio. My guess is that she’ll shudder at the thought, and keep strolling through the woods toward whatever life has in store for her.