There are a lot of places New York City mayors want to be when widespread power outages strike.
Waterloo, Iowa, is not one of them.
And yet, there was Mayor Bill de Blasio on Saturday night, campaigning for the Democratic presidential nomination, when the lights went out on Manhattan’s West Side, dimming Broadway and Times Square, after a reported malfunction at an electrical substation set off a chain of disturbances in the grid.
In the mayor’s absence, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo was the one, front and center, explaining what went wrong. New York City Council Speaker Corey Johnson, a potential mayoral aspirant himself, also filled the void left behind by de Blasio, tweeting updates and explanations throughout the early evening and into the unusually dark night.
By early Sunday, power had been restored. But outages like this – which utility company Con Edison said affected 72,000 people at one point – are major political events in New York and its leader, already unpopular in large parts of the city, had a different kind of crisis on his hands. The situation underscored the dangers of campaigning for higher office while currently elected and employed, especially as an executive running a major city.
“Mayors are important and situations like this come up,” Cuomo, de Blasio’s longtime nemesis, said on Saturday night. “And you have to be on site.”
In an interview with CNN’s Jake Tapper on Sunday morning, de Blasio, who decided to return to the city late Saturday night, praised the work of city officials and workers who identified the problem and fixed it.
“I’m responsible for making sure everything in New York City is handled quickly and well,” de Blasio said. “The whole team responded immediately the way everyone is trained to do.”
But he made no apologies for his Iowa swing and argued that the government infrastructure had functioned as it should.
“When you’re a mayor or a governor, you’re going to travel for a variety of reasons,” de Blasio said. “The important thing is to have the hand on the wheel and make sure things are moving effectively and communicate to people even from where I was. I was able to do that right away with the people in New York City.”
Talk of de Blasio’s presidential bid was greeted with skepticism by his own constituents. In a Quinnipiac poll conducted about six weeks before he jumped in, more than three-quarters of them, 76%, said it was a bad idea.
“Every listed party, gender, racial, borough and age group agrees that the mayor should not hit the campaign trail,” the pollsters noted, underscoring the overwhelming opposition to his ambitions.
Mary Snow, the polling analyst for the Quinnipiac University poll, memorably described it as “a rare moment of unity among New Yorkers.”
There was unanimity on the tabloid front in the aftermath of the blackout, too, with newspapers like the New York Post and Daily News – no de Blasio fans during the best of times – roasting the mayor over his absence.
The Post was especially, if unsurprisingly, scathing in an editorial board piece calling for the governor to “fire” de Blasio.
“Bill de Blasio does not care about New York City. He does not care about its people. He does not care about how it’s run. He does not care about you or your taxes, creating jobs or improving lives. All Bill de Blasio cares about is Bill de Blasio. And so, for the good of the city, Gov. Andrew Cuomo needs to remove the mayor from office,” they wrote, before ticking off a litany of grievances and unearthing an arcane process that would, potentially, allow the governor to unseat the mayor.
The Daily News was slightly more forgiving as it acknowledged that “any mayor of the largest city in the country is a national figure. They go out of town sometimes; it’s inevitable.”
But the sympathy stopped there. De Blasio, the paper’s editorial board wrote, is a different case – and that his unlucky absence was emblematic of some deeper disdain for his job and the city.
“It’s that de Blasio, rather than going away sporadically, appears committed to vacating the city every damn chance he gets,” it said, “as though the demanding daily grind of overseeing police and schools and public housing and parks and safe streets and all the rest, for which he is paid $258,750 by taxpayers, is well beneath his stratospheric talents.”
The anger, at least among local media, was also apparent on television. In an appearance on the local Fox affiliate Monday morning, Cuomo was asked, “What do we do about our mayor, seriously?”
“That’s up to you and the people of the City of New York,” the governor said. When it was suggested he suspend de Blasio for 30 days – one of the paths mentioned in the Post editorial – Cuomo, who had spoken earlier in the interview about the importance of public officials being at home when a potential disaster hits, mostly passed up the chance to turn the screws.
“New Yorkers are opinionated and they speak their mind, and they will make their voice heard,” he said. “I will do my job. Anything you need in New York City, I am there – I am always there – and I’ll do my job the way I promised the people of the State that I will and the way I have.”