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NYC mayor's message sidelined by 'sideshows'

Wednesday - 2/26/2014, 1:10pm  ET

FILE - In this Feb. 10, 2014 file photo, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio delivers his State of the City address at LaGuardia Community College in the Queens borough of New York. De Blasio’s agenda to fight the city’s income inequality has taken a backseat in recent weeks to a series of political stumbles that have become tabloid fodder. (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan, File)

JONATHAN LEMIRE
Associated Press

NEW YORK (AP) -- New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio's ambitious agenda to fight income inequality -- a campaign he famously titled "The Tale of Two Cities" -- has taken a backseat in recent weeks to a series of political stumbles that have become tabloid fodder and shaken his everyman image.

First, there was his late-night call to police on behalf of a political ally who was arrested but didn't spend a night in jail. ("BAIL OF TWO CITIES: Blaz's call to cops springs pal," the Daily News blared.)

Then came widespread second-guessing -- led by TV weatherman Al Roker -- over inconsistent snowplowing of the tony Upper East Side in one heavy storm and the decision to keep schools open in another ("LET THEM EAT SNOW!: Rage as Bill keeps schools open," the New York Post chided.)

And most recently, a TV news video caught de Blasio's motorcade speeding through stop signs, two days after he introduced a sweeping traffic safety program. ("It's another tale of two cities," the Daily News wrote, "one set of traffic rules for Mayor de Blasio, and one for the rest of us.")

The mayor has often responded by being defensive and snippy when dealing with the media, and then chastising reporters for focusing on the blunders.

"There has to be a different examination about what matters and what doesn't matter," de Blasio, a Democrat, said in a news conference this week. "Too much of the time the debates veers into sideshows and I'm not shocked by that."

Some political observers say the controversies -- all small, but seemingly one after the other -- could add up.

"You might think it's nonsense but it does have an effect," said Bill Cunningham, former communications director for Mayor Michael Bloomberg. "They likely won't impact the long-term prospects of success of administration, but it kinds of clouds over your message you're trying to get out from City Hall."

Ironically, the strength behind de Blasio's mayoral campaign may have produced some weakness in his first two months in office. The campaign's hallmarks were remarkable discipline and focus: Even when he trailed badly in the polls, he honed his message of battling income inequality and largely ignored the day-to-day distractions on the trail, including the rise and collapse of Anthony Weiner's bid.

But as mayor, it is far more difficult to just stay on a preconceived message without reacting to the daily dramas inherent to the job, Cunningham said.

"He has a young staff -- the schedulers, the advance team, the press shop -- and they are all coming out of the campaign environment," Cunningham said. "Government is different. They have had trouble taking a story and keeping it a one-day story."

Some believe that the mayor has prolonged the bad headlines on a few occasions by refusing to initially answer questions about what happened. And as the media has devoted resources to de Blasio's blunders, the mayor's staff feels it has neglected to focus on the administration's agenda, including the traffic safety plan and his push to have Albany authorize a tax hike on the wealthy to fund universal prekindergarten.

De Blasio has not deployed a uniform strategy to address the incidents. With the driving footage, he deferred to his NYPD drivers and refused to question whether they had driven recklessly. He downplayed his call to the police on his friend's behalf, insisting he was simply trying to learn more about what happened. But he did acknowledge that the Upper East Side was not sufficiently plowed and appeared on "Today" to make nice with Roker.

"We live in a town and a culture where things can become distractions," said mayoral spokesman Phil Walkzak. "But I will say I do not think these hiccups have distracted from our larger policy agenda."

Some political observers agree, believing that de Blasio's agenda -- fueled by the mandate he captured with his landslide win -- will not be seriously impacted.

"These are minor bumps. He is settling in and there's a natural adjustment period," said Bob Liff, a longtime Democratic consultant. "The press can be self-serving at times: in actuality, the most important things he's done so far aren't these scandals, but his appointments, and they have been top-notch and reassuring. ... This is a man who wants to do a good job running the city."

Even Rudolph Giuliani, the Republican former mayor who frequently trades barbs with de Blasio, came to the current mayor's aid during the flap over the call to the NYPD.

"I don't see that it's a big deal," Giuliani told The New York Times. "He's a new mayor. Give him a break."


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