It was only recently that Bill De Blasio would spend his Saturdays in the Map Room of the White House, debating political strategy with the likes of Bill Clinton, Harold Ickes and Hillary Rodham Clinton.
These days, he spends his weekends knocking on doors in Park Slope, practically begging residents not to shut the door in his face.
Mr. De Blasio, the rangy, bearded Democratic operative who managed Mrs. Clinton’s Senate campaign last year, has decided that his real dream is to be a City Council member from Brooklyn.
Althoughthe39-year-old consultant had occasionally talked about one day running for office on his own, his decision to enter a six-candidate primary election puzzled many of his colleagues. After all, he had helped make history by electing a sitting First Lady to elective office. It was the kind of triumph that could have led to the most prestigious and lucrative gigs that political consultancy has to offer. Instead, he is furiously trying to succeed lame-duck Council member Steve DiBrienza.
“The fact that he’s doing this means either that he’s having a mid-life crisis, he’s lost his mind, or he just has a fire in the belly to be a City Councilman,” said Democratic consultant Evan Stavisky.
Mr. De Blasio’s career before last year included behind-the-scenes roles with former Mayor David Dinkins, the Clinton-Gore campaign and former U.S. Housing Secretary Andrew Cuomo. But it was his role with Mrs. Clinton that made him a star. He appeared regularly on network newscasts as a national audience followed Mrs. Clinton’s ups and downs. His sudden fame was confirmed late in the campaign, when the NBC political drama The West Wing paid tribute to him in an odd sort of cameo: Rob Lowe’s character discussed strategy in front of a board on which was clearly written, “CALL B. DE BLASIO.”
To say the least, Mr. De Blasio’s career choice represents an undertaking considerably less glamorous than what he has become accustomed to. In stark contrast to coffee with the First Family in the Map Room, Mr. De Blasio now spends most of his spare time ringing doorbells in neighborhoods like Carroll Gardens, Cobble Hill and Borough Park, asking for support from people who have no idea who he is and only the vaguest idea of what a City Councilman does.
Of course, there are exceptions. On a recent Saturday afternoon, Mr. De Blasio was making the rounds in Park Slope. Wearing his campaigning outfit–sneakers, jeans, jacket–and accompanied by a young volunteer, Mr. De Blasio mounted a set of stairs and rang the bell. Moments later, a short, middle-aged woman in glasses came to the door. Mr. De Blasio, who stands 6 feet 5 inches, stooped to introduce himself.
“Hi, I’m Bill De Blasio,” he began.
“Don’t talk to me! Don’t talk to me!” shrieked the woman.
“What’s wrong?” asked Mr. De Blasio, clearly uneasy.
“I’m just hysterical,” replied the woman, inexplicably. Then she burst into a smile. “Of course I know who you are. Don’t go anywhere!”
With that, the woman ran into her apartment, reemerging moments later with a handful of homemade buttons that she excitedly presented to Mr. De Blasio. One of them read, “George D.W.I. Bush.” Another, “Dubious George.”
“You’ve got to tell Hillary that we love her very much,” said the woman, now almost hyperventilating. “There are lots of us who haven’t lost faith in the Clintons.”
“She’ll appreciate that,” replied Mr. De Blasio.
“And, of course,” said the woman, “you’ve got my support.”
Unfortunately, such effusive welcomes have been out of the ordinary for Mr. De Blasio, who more often encounters polite recognition, indifference or, occasionally, outright hostility. (“They don’t even open the door,” Mr. De Blasio complained after an encounter with a particularly unreceptive resident. “I would think that in the middle of daylight, they could open the door.”) For all his behind-the-scenes experience in some of the toughest campaigns in memory, his own Council race may shape up to be one of the most difficult. “The remarkable thing isn’t that he’s running for City Council,” said a prominent New York consultant, “it’s that there’s a decent chance he’ll finish third.”
Indeed, Mr. De Blasio’s sterling résumé seems to have left some of his lesser-known primary opponents less than impressed. “There are certain people who are familiar with him because of his involvement in the Hillary campaign, but this is a local primary,” said candidate Paul Bader, a professional printer and the husband of U.S. Representative Nydia Velásquez. “There will be more important factors than what happened last year.”
So why does Mr. De Blasio want this? What makes Bill run?
“A lot of people have told me they don’t understand why I’m doing this, especially after the Hillary race,” said Mr. De Blasio. “I’m supposed to go for the highest-paying or biggest-sounding job. But I prize my ideological independence, and I think I have something to contribute. I have the experience to move the Council in a progressive direction.”
Mr. De Blasio also said that he simply prefers dealing with people at a local level. (He already serves on his Community School Board, an unpaid job to which he was elected in 1999.) “When you’re dealing with the elite, you’re always dealing with egos,” he said, declining to attach names to the egos in question. “Everything is through this weird lens. Now I get to talk to real people with real concerns. They ask questions, and I can actually answer however I want. I’m not worried about straying from the party line.”
Some of his friends and former employers, however, still find it hard to believe he’s going through with this plan. “People have definitely asked if I was really serious, or if I would consider doing campaign work,” he said. “Hillary asked me if I wanted to continue with her, and I couldn’t believe more in her, but this was something I decided long ago that I was going to do.”
Mr. De Blasio’s interest in politics can be traced back to his childhood in Cambridge, Mass. His mother, a labor organizer, and his father, a war hero turned federal bureaucrat, were investigated by the forces of Senator Joseph McCarthy for ties to the Communist Party, turning them into lifelong civil libertarians. When he was a child, his older brothers regularly attended Vietnam War protests and staged sit-ins at nuclear power plants. Mr. De Blasio’s own activist streak emerged after he moved to New York–he went to New York University as an undergraduate and then got an M.B.A. from Columbia–when he worked with nonprofit organizations opposed to American policy in Central America.
He found his way into electoral politics during the 1989 Mayoral race, when he coordinated volunteers for the eventual winner, Mr. Dinkins. He met his wife, Chirlane McCray, two years later, while he was working as an assistant to Deputy Mayor Bill Lynch. They moved to Park Slope–Ms. McCray is black, and they chose the location because of its racial mix–where they got married in Prospect Park by a gay, interracial, interdenominational pair of ministers. An Italian folk band and African drums serenaded the newlyweds.
After Mr. Dinkins and Democratic Governor Mario Cuomo lost their reelection bids (in 1993 and 1994, respectively), Mr. De Blasio, like many another Democratic operative, found himself out of work and collecting unemployment checks. (“The market was flooded with people exactly like me,” he explained.) He made his way back into politics by working in a small New York Assembly race, and eventually landed a job as a bureaucrat for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. In 1996, he was named the New York campaign manager for Clinton-Gore, and shortly thereafter Mr. Clinton named him a regional director at H.U.D., where he worked for Andrew Cuomo.
In 1999, when he took the helm of Hillary 2000, Mr. De Blasio emerged as the campaign’s conciliator, soothing the egos of countless party apparatchiks, special interests and elected officials who felt otherwise slighted by the First Lady’s juggernaut. And being an inherently political animal, Mr. De Blasio also used his position as Mrs. Clinton’s point-person to establish a multitude of contacts that would prove useful for the Council run he was planning for himself.
Even as Mr. De Blasio immerses himself in local Brooklyn politics, he remains in daily contact with Senator Clinton’s office, and is besieged by inquiries from reporters and colleagues seeking access to his former boss. “I’ve stayed in touch with her–I’ve stayed involved. I know I’m on the 24-year plan here,” Mr. De Blasio said, referring optimistically to the rookie Senator’s future prospects.
In the meantime, he pays the bills by working as a consultant for the Service Employees Union, which even with his campaign activity gives him time to spend with his two children, Chiara, 6, and Dante, 3.
Overall, Mr. De Blasio appears to be extremely comfortable with his decision, even if others are less so. Of course, there is one small matter: What if Mr. De Blasio does in fact finish third? Or worse?
“I take a Zen view of elected life,” he said. “I know life goes on if you don’t win. There’s always something.”