New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio addressed a crowd here on Sunday that could have easily fit into a subway car back home, with room to spare for the people he met a night earlier on his first stop of the year in Iowa.
It wasn’t just a weekend snow and ice storm that complicated his visit. It’s also a traffic jam of his fellow Democrats already eyeing a presidential bid, most of whom have beaten him to the punch.
“I’m certainly not ruling out a run for the presidency,” de Blasio said after a young man finally raised the question about his White House ambitions. “Right now, it is a decision I have not made.”
That decision is precisely what led the mayor to speak at a union hall where 42 chairs were filled and about 10 other people were standing — more than 1,100 miles away from his own City Hall on Sunday afternoon. It followed a visit to Sioux City on Saturday night, where a couple dozen Democrats braved a blizzard to meet him at a downtown bar.
He was hardly the only game in town.
Sens. Kamala Harris of California and Michael Bennet of Colorado, former HUD Secretary Julian Castro, former Gov. John Hickenlooper of Colorado and Rep. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii also were in Iowa.
Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota spent her weekend in South Carolina and New Hampshire, joining Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts who was already in the Granite State, along with Rep. Eric Swalwell of California. Sens. Cory Booker of New Jersey and Sherrod Brown of Ohio both visited Nevada.
And that’s not even counting the half-dozen other Democrats already making plans to potentially jump into the race.
So what does de Blasio offer that the rest of these Democrats do not? That was a question he seemed less than eager to answer.
“Look, I’m not in a position to compare against the rest of the field because I am not a candidate at this moment,” he told CNN. “I can only say what I hope for my party is we have to have a progressive as our nominee, we have to be able to speak to working people across the whole country, we also have to have a nominee that is believable as a leader.”
When asked whether Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders or others in the race weren’t believable, he tried to move on, growing impatient.
“No, look, each candidate has strengths and again, today is not the day to do comparisons among candidates ‘cause I’m just not in that status,” de Blasio said. “I have a lot of respect for all those folks, but I’m simply saying our party has to get a couple of things right. We have to have a clear progressive message, we have to be unapologetic about it, we have to show people we can produce results for them.”
There’s hardly a clamoring for de Blasio, an often-embattled, two-term mayor, to seek a presidential candidacy. His tenure raises a series of questions that would be fodder for rivals, including Amazon pulling its proposed headquarters out of New York.
But he makes the argument that he could do for the country — as an executive — what senators could only talk about.
He spends considerable time talking about after-school programs, expanding paid sick leave and health care plans in New York, while barely addressing how such progressive initiatives could be achieved nationwide, let alone paid for.
It’s not easy to pin down whether the mayor is on a vainglorious mission, hoping to add his name to the national conversation and steer a progressive debate — or whether he’s serious about mounting a viable candidacy.
“I’ve said many, many times about the fact that I do not rule out a run, but I also have a sense of mission,” de Blasio said, stopping short of explaining what, exactly, that mission actually is.
His weekend was hardly a glamorous one, considering ice and snow caused him to take shelter Saturday night at a roadside Super 8 motel in Onawa, Iowa. And on Sunday evening, he spent nearly two hours on the tarmac at the Des Moines airport, with his 6-foot-5 frame crammed into a window seat in the second to last row of an American Airlines regional jet, awaiting a ground stop at O’Hare International Airport in Chicago.
“I am here to talk about these issues,” de Blasio said. “If at some point my status changes, we’ll have the discussion.”
His two public events over the weekend drew smaller crowds than nearly any other contender, which can be only partially blamed on an unusually wicked mix of snow, wind and ice. Yet he also met privately for coffee with Des Moines Mayor Frank Cownie and for breakfast with former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack, discussing a potential candidacy.
After canceling a visit to New Hampshire earlier this month, his trip to Iowa, which opens the presidential nominating contest in less than a year, was hastily arranged.
He spoke to the Asian and Latino Coalition, a group of activists whose leader, Prakash Kopparapu, said he received word from de Blasio’s aides late last week. He and other volunteers scrambled to arrange a Sunday meeting, setting up a buffet including egg rolls, a salami and cheese tray, and fortune cookies.
A day earlier, Kopparapu hosted Harris during a meeting at the State Capitol, which drew a few hundred people. He said he was pleased to host de Blasio, but added that he was eager to see whether the mayor was simply exploring or serious about running.
But he did find a recording of “New York, New York,” to play as the mayor shook hands, signed autographs and posed for pictures.
“I like the musical theme here,” de Blasio said, noting that the tune “is unfortunately associated with the Yankees too often.”
But then, he did something he said he has never done: autographed a Yankees batting helmet, despite being a well-known Boston Red Sox Fan. He did so because he was asked by an Iowan, whose vote he may one day ask for.