Bill De Blasio’s Wisconsin Reception Shows Potency as Election Force

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New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio delivers his State of the City address at Baruch College on February 3, 2015 in New York City.

Photo by Andrew Burton/Getty Images

New York Mayor Bill de Blasio attracted the biggest crowd to Wisconsin Democrats’ annual dinner on Saturday since Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama attended seven years ago. The foray to the home state of expected Republican presidential candidate Scott Walker shows de Blasio’s determination to affect the 2016 election.

“I’m certainly going to be doing this with some regularity,” de Blasio said after getting a standing ovation for his speech in Milwaukee.

The 53-year-old mayor has in recent weeks ventured from the most populous U.S. city into the Midwest to inveigh against tax breaks for corporations, attacks on unions and income inequality. He has withheld a quick endorsement of Democratic candidate Clinton, emphasizing his power as leader of a city of 8.4 million and ensuring that his intentions remain a topic of speculation and conversation.

De Blasio’s rise as the first Democratic New York mayor in 20 years and appeal to progressives can influence his party’s broad agenda while also being a thorn in the side of Republican candidates, said Mike Tate, chairman of the Wisconsin Democratic Party.

“Outside of anyone named Obama or Clinton, I think Bill de Blasio and Elizabeth Warren are the two biggest draws in the Democratic Party,” said Tate, referring to the Massachusetts senator who also champions progressive issues. “People are really looking at what he did and what he is saying as a real path forward.”

Standing Ovation

De Blasio drew 360 people as keynote speaker at the $5,000-per-table fundraising dinner in Milwaukee, where Walker was a county executive before becoming governor in 2011.

The speech followed trips this month to Nebraska and Iowa, which holds the first presidential contest, to push progressive leaders to crystallize how they will fight income inequality and to make it an issue in elections at all levels.

After a jaunt to Washington in May to convene a group of mayors seeking a bill for transportation funding, the mayor said he expects to travel to California and other states where he’s invited and there are opportunities.

De Blasio said he’s trying to arrange a presidential forum in the fall where candidates of all parties would be invited as long as they come with specific proposals and policies for dealing with income inequality.

The mayor and other progressive leaders also are creating a new “contract with America,” a reference to the 1994 Republican set of limited-government proposals with the same name, to draw 2016 candidates to their agenda.

The policies include higher taxes on the rich, including elimination of preferential treatment that hedge-fund managers get on investment income, a push for early-child education, a $15 minimum wage, college scholarships and job training.

“That does mean challenging people in my own party to come up with real solutions, and it certainly means challenging Republicans to reverse course on a lot of policies that have failed,” de Blasio told reporters in Milwaukee.

Slamming Walker

De Blasio in his speech chided Democrats for a “muddled message” in previous elections, while blistering Walker’s policies.

“I’m not saying Scott Walker set out to destroy Wisconsin’s middle class,” de Blasio said during his speech. “But if that were his mission, I can’t think of a damn thing he’d done differently.”

Julie Jansch, 62, a retired police evidence technician and president of a retiree local chapter of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, drove 120 miles (193 kilometers) from Green Bay to hear de Blasio. Jansch said that while she didn’t know a lot about the New York mayor, she wants a voice “for the common man.”

While de Blasio advocates positions that resonate, he’s untested on the national scene, said Steve Elmendorf, a Democratic strategist in Washington who was deputy campaign manager for presidential candidate John Kerry.

The mayor’s lack of an endorsement of Clinton, the presumptive frontrunner for the Democratic presidential nomination, also has been a gamble. De Blasio managed Clinton’s successful 2000 bid to become a U.S. senator from New York and in 1997 he worked for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development in her husband’s administration.

‘Head Examined’

“What’s crucial is a vision, a very sharp, tangible vision of economic change,” de Blasio told reporters in Milwaukee when asked about Clinton. “I’m hopeful that we’ll hear that from her, but I think that’s what people are waiting for.”

The mayor’s non-endorsement took some Democrats by surprise.

“Bill de Blasio should have his head examined,” U.S. Representative Sean Maloney of upstate New York said in a radio interview. “I don’t understand why my friend Bill de Blasio would have any reservations about a person he worked for, about a champion for New York.”

By not immediately backing Clinton, de Blasio may boost his appeal as a critic of Walker and other Republicans, said Robert Shrum, a professor of politics at the University of Southern California who has advised Democratic presidential campaigns.

“A lot of people were scratching their head about why he didn’t endorse Hillary Clinton,” Shrum said. “But the truth is, not having endorsed her makes him a more credible critic, makes him more independent. He doesn’t look like a surrogate of the Clinton campaign.”

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