Outgoing Press Secretary Encourages de Blasio to Develop ‘Tougher Skin’

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio speaks during a news conference in Times Square March 22, 2016 in New York City.

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio speaks during a news conference in Times Square March 22, 2016 in New York City. (Photo: Frank Franklin II-Pool/Getty Images)

Mayor Bill de Blasio’s outgoing press secretary Karen Hinton says that City Hall is still struggling to communicate—but that she believes the mayor can turn it around ahead of his 2017 re-election bid.

Today is Ms. Hinton’s last day in the administration, after just over a year leading a press shop that has seen a slew of shake-ups and headaches since Mr. de Blasio took office. And her departure comes as the mayor’s office is facing several prosecutorial investigations which have not only led to subpoenas of people in the mayor’s inner circle but which have also emboldened his critics, like former Bloomberg advisor Bradley Tusk, to openly discuss recruiting candidates to challenge him in 2017.

When she first announced her departure, Ms. Hinton offered that well-trodden reason for resigning: she wanted to spend more time with her family. In an interview with Bill Ritter for WABC’s Up Close program, which will air on Sunday at 11 a.m., Ms. Hinton once again cited her family as her reason for leaving—but allowed there was a little more to her decision.

“But also, to be honest, there were some information flow issues that I was dealing with at City Hall, and those are not uncommon problems for a secretary, for a press secretary, I think they often happen,” Ms. Hinton told Mr. Ritter. “But I think that what is uncommon is, this mayor faces an issue with the difference between the perception of what he’s doing and the reality of what the’s doing.”

Ms. Hinton argued that the results of Mr. de Blasio’s programs and initiatives—lower crime, universal pre-kindergarten—are “very striking.” But that doesn’t seem to be registering with voters.

Karen Hinton

Karen Hinton (Photo: Emily Assiran for Observer)

“He is having issues communicating that message. I think he’s going to figure it out, I think he recognizes it’s an issue and he wants to figure it out, and I think by the time the election polls around, he will have,” Ms. Hinton said. “But I needed to, I made a decision that I needed to go back home and spend some time with my daughter, and they need to go and figure out how they want to restructure their communications issues.”

In her time at City Hall, Ms. Hinton—who enjoyed dealing with reporters and was well-liked by the press corps—was credited for getting what had been a notoriously slow and unresponsive press office up to speed. She pushed the mayor to do more one-on-one interviews, particularly on the radio, and oversaw the press office during a period that also saw him ramping up direct outreach to constituents through town halls. Still, the mayor is often defensive in press conferences and has a habit of playing media critic, criticizing the questions of the press corps and asking why they don’t hold other politicians to the same standards as him (failing to grasp, perhaps, that the mayor’s press corps covers him—not those other politicians).

“Most New York City mayors have a love hate relationship with the news media, Mayor de Blasio is no different,” she said. “I told him, ‘You need to have a little bit of a tougher skin, and you need to develop better relationships with the news media.’ And I think he understands that and he wants to do that.”

Sometimes, the “information flow” issues Ms. Hinton alluded to seemed to involve the flow of information to her. While she was liked by the press, her tenure was marked by some tension with her co-workers in the administration. At one point last summer, after she criticized Gov. Andrew Cuomo to the New York Times at the height of the Legionnaire’s disease outbreak, senior adviser and press secretary Phil Walzak told the paper her comments didn’t reflect the mayor’s view.

It was not the only time Ms. Hinton became part of the story, if only to the inside-ball crowd.  Her hiring played directly into one of the major storylines of Mr. de Blasio’s administration: his feud with Mr. Cuomo, a fellow Democrat. Ms. Hinton, Mr. de Blasio and Mr. Cuomo had all worked together at the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development years ago, and Ms. Hinton’s husband, Howard Glaser, was a top adviser to the governor. Mr. Cuomo was displeased about Ms. Hinton’s decision to work for the mayor; Ms. Hinton was involved in the decision for Mr. de Blasio to directly criticize Mr. Cuomo last summer.

“These two individuals are what I would call, both, forces of nature. And they are going to have to make their own decisions about how to work together more effectively. It’s between the two of them, it’s not about what I might do or somebody else might do, It really is about them,” Ms. Hinton said. “And I hope that both find a path that they can walk down together, so that we’re making sure that the people’s business is being done every day, both at the state level and the local level.”

Ms. Hinton will be replaced internally: Mr. de Blasio today announced that Eric Phillips, who has served as deputy communications director since November, will step into the role of press secretary.

Outgoing Press Secretary Encourages de Blasio to Develop ‘Tougher Skin’