NEW YORK—Public Advocate Bill de Blasio ordered his coffee at Le Pain Quotidien, the morning hub for New York City’s public officials. He had seats reserved for him and his entourage in a corner, four tables away from Speaker Christine Quinn.
Dressed in a navy pinstripe suit and orange tie, de Blasio recalls the person who influenced his life the most, an old Italian man with an accent that was nearly incomprehensible.
“He only had 70 years to get comfortable with English,” de Blasio jokingly defended his grandfather.
Although his grandfather passed away in 1977, the memory of him plays a large role in de Blasio’s decisions today. De Blasio’s family has come a long way since his grandparents emigrated to the United States with little in their pockets. De Blasio believes that the further he takes his career, the closer he must stick to his roots.
De Blasio knows that his grandfather’s olive skin and thick curls would face scrutiny under Arizona laws if he were alive today. “That gives me perspective,” he said.
De Blasio wished to do more for immigrants and other underserved Americans, and thought he could accomplish more through government.
Now, as public advocate, de Blasio said his job is most fundamentally that of a watchdog: “Ensuring that all New Yorkers receive the City services they deserve and have a voice in shaping the policies of their government.”
While many might lose hope in the government and stories of corruption, de Blasio sees hope in the disclosure of extortion.
A scandal that de Blasio was unusually inspired by was the Watergate incident in 1973, which led to the resignation of President Richard Nixon.
“It could have been incredible negative, but the democratic system functioned on such a high level,” he said. “So many heroes emerged out of Congress, Senate, and the judiciary.”
Nixon remains the only president to be successfully pressured to resign after a scandal.
To de Blasio, it was an unprecedented event that signified hope for humanity. It showed that justice could prevail, even if it meant having to go against the most powerful and resourceful people.
“It was all about morality. Even though I was 12, I was incredibly interested in politics and history, and I really think that [scandal] did it,” he said. “The elected officials involved were noble, it gave me an input of what a public servant could do.”
De Blasio became involved in student government in high school and college. After completing his undergraduate studies at New York University, he obtained his master’s degree at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs.
He began his career in public affairs working for New York City’s first African-American mayor, David N. Dinkins.
One of the moments that stands out to de Blasio in his public office career is the role he played in revitalizing the towns near the Erie Canal that runs from Albany to Buffalo.
Completed in 1825, the Erie Canal encouraged trade between the Midwest and the Northeast, creating new markets that promoted trade throughout the nation. But, due to the advent of railroads, the Erie Canal was no longer used to transport goods after 1910.
The cities surrounding the canal declined into ghost towns.
“A lot of them have really been left behind and were hurting… Cities along the Erie Canal such as Utica and Rome have lost nearly half their population in the past 50 years,” de Blasio said. In the mid-’90s, de Blasio was regional director for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) for New York and New Jersey.
He and Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who was secretary of HUD at the time, pushed to get federal funding for revitalize the waterfronts of the Erie Canal and turn them into tourist attractions to create jobs.
“The concept of our work was to make sure this precious, decisive history, of developing America be turned into historical tourism sites,” he said. “We’ve had some success with that… It was inspiring to see towns that had lost all hope to find hope in their history and heritage.”
At the end of the day, de Blasio said his efforts as public advocate would be futile if he did not place family first. “What people do in their personal life is a reflection of their values,” he said.
“If you don’t treat your family right, then you can’t have a pretense of serving a larger part of the world,” de Blasio said. “For me, it is really important to carve out a lot of focus on family.”
In 2010, de Blasio took his children to Italy so they could connect with their heritage. His wife, Chirlane McCray, has family in the Caribbean and Ghana.
“We have been systematically taking our children to both cultures, to both of their homelands,” he said. The family visited Ghana in April.
“That connection to that part of my heritage has been a very important part of my life…We think that makes them stronger.”
Bill de Blasio is not a morning person, yet his perfect morning consists of waking up at 5:30 a.m. to go to the gym, so that he can make it back in time to take his children to school.
“The thing I want to succeed the most at is as a member of my family,” he said.