Bill de Blasio captured the prize of his political career by framing himself as the antithesis of the billionaire mayor who drastically reshaped New York City during his 12 years in office.
Michael Bloomberg, as mayor and in life afterwards, mostly bit his tongue, though there were the occasional bursts of rancor, like when he said Mr. de Blasio’s 2013 campaign was “racist” for its blatant grab at black voters. At Mr. de Blasio’s inauguration, Mr. Bloomberg sat stone-faced as speaker after speaker denounced the income inequality he presided over.
Throughout that first year, Mr. Bloomberg’s old commissioners weren’t shy about defending their boss’ legacy and chiding the new liberal Democratic mayor whenever he disparaged the Bloomberg era. To this day, Mr. Bloomberg’s combative old press secretary, now a high-powered consultant, helps major clients like charter schools and Uber battle, and belittle, City Hall.
But at Joyce Kilmer Park in the South Bronx today, Mr. de Blasio was out to bury the hatchet—and a shovel. He joined Mr. Bloomberg for a delayed photo-op to celebrate the planting of New York City’s millionth tree (or the 1,017,634th tree, according to Mr. de Blasio) since Mr. Bloomberg launched the MillionTreesNYC program, a public-private partnership, eight years ago to plant a million new trees by 2017. Mr. Bloomberg, with his old parks commissioners, deputy mayor and press secretary in attendance, proudly noted the program came in two years ahead of schedule.
“Each new tree that we planted does make the city a little more beautiful, the air that we breathe a little more cleaner and our carbon footprint a little smaller,” Mr. Bloomberg said. “And when we multiply those little steps by one million, it really does make a very big difference.”
Mr. de Blasio, once Mr. Bloomberg’s fiercest critic, was proud to give the Republican-turned-independent all the kudos.
“We are here to give him a lot of credit for what he has done,” Mr. de Blasio said, calling Mr. Bloomberg a “visionary” and noting his “extraordinarily successful” career in business. “We are very proud in our administration to continue to shepherd that legacy and we are devoted to it.”
It was left to Mr. Bloomberg to mention the reason for the month-long delay in planting what was supposed to be the actual millionth tree: the two were originally slated to appear together the day after a police officer, the fourth since Mr. de Blasio took office, was killed in the line of duty.
As Mr. de Blasio spoke, Mr. Bloomberg was his typical self, standing cross-armed, unsmiling. He read through his remarks quickly, praising Mr. de Blasio but saving the bulk of his time to credit his administration for their accomplishments, along with a booster of the project, the singer Bette Midler.
The mayors, a self-made tycoon with a disdain for retail politics and an affable career politician, still traded jokes. Mr. de Blasio tweaked Mr. Bloomberg, clad in a Twinkie-yellow sweater, for his wardrobe.
“Mayor Bloomberg and I have learned in this particular job, you really need a sense of humor to be mayor of New York City,” Mr. de Blasio said.
Mr. Bloomberg, when he took to the podium after the six-foot-five mayor, said it was a little higher than he remembered. He told a story about planting a tree with a model whose name he couldn’t remember, remembering how she towered over his diminutive frame.
“The girl was taller than Bill,” Mr. Bloomberg said. “I was planting the bottom of the tree, she was holding the top of it.”
For all the issues the mayors disagreed on, like how much the city should account for income inequality and whether minorities are mistreated by police, there has been plenty of overlap, particularly on public health and the environment. Mr. de Blasio is equally committed to combating climate change and funding initiatives to bolster parkland.
While Mr. de Blasio rose to power with the help of poorer, nonwhite voters disenchanted with what they saw as a City Hall indifferent to their plight, his embrace of Mr. Bloomberg represents a new political reality. The liberal mayor is deeply unpopular with white voters, according to numerous polls, and Mr. Bloomberg is viewed more fondly beyond the core Democratic electorate.
Mr. de Blasio sped off before taking questions from reporters, but a few were able to snag Mr. Bloomberg, pausing to take a few photos with well-wishers, on his way out of the park. One reporter asked Mr. Bloomberg if his relationship with Mr. de Blasio had been improving over recent weeks.
“It’s never been bad. I don’t know where you guys get this stuff from,” he said.