Bronx Assemblyman Michael Blake—a 34-year-old veteran of ex-President Barack Obama’s presidential campaign and White House—might have seemed a longshot when he launched his bid late last year for one of the Democratic National Committee’s six vice chair slots, but a month after his victory he proclaimed that the “Bronx is here and we’re here to stay,” signaling his own return to the national stage.
Blake and Queens Congresswoman Grace Meng both won their bids in the vote among party insiders held in Atlanta in February—and, combined with new Chairman Tom Perez and Treasurer Bill Derrough, make four New Yorkers in the national party organization’s leadership. Rumors abound that Blake is eyeing Bronx Congressman José Serrano’s seat, despite just two years experience in Albany—and the DNC post has brought him back to the national scene from the Bronx for the second time, a decade after he after he spearheaded on the Obama campaign in Iowa.
“The reality is that we started this campaign…a day after the election, when many of us were anticipating a Hillary Clinton presidency, so the emotions of that not occurring to then try to help your party and then to be given the chance by the [DNC] members is humbling beyond description,” Blake told the Observer in a telephone interview, noting that he never imagined a “kid” from the Bronx would win.
BRONX TAKES CENTER STAGE
Born in the Bronx to Jamaican immigrant parents, Blake moved to Illinois at age 18 to attend Northwestern University. While working as an associate producer in Chicago in 2005, Blake interned for Illinois State Senator Jeff Schoenberg.
He applied for a job with the union UNITE HERE, but the labor organization’s president suggested he instead join then-Sen. Barack Obama’s “Yes We Can” program for ambitious minority youth.
In February 2007, he applied to work on Obama’s presidential campaign and relocated to the Hawkeye State, where he served as outreach director and helped lead the mobilization that led to the freshman senator’s victory in the caucuses. Blake went on to work for the future president’s bid in seven different states.
After Obama took office in 2009, Blake served in the White House as associate director of Public Engagement and deputy associate director of the Office of Intergovernmental Affairs, where he managed outreach to minority business owners. In 2013, he returned to New York to oversee Reshma Saujani’s unsuccessful bid for Public Advocate.
Blake insisted he’s never broken from his roots. The pol recalled the Bronx’s role as the cradle of hip-hop and the New York Yankees.
But he acknowledged that many only know the borough as a byword for urban decay, something he says he can change both as a local representative and a national face.
“The Bronx in my heart, it’s on my mind, it’s on my soul,” he told the Observer, noting that DNC members from across the country, in the territories and even in the expatriate Democrats Abroad voted to elevate him to his new perch. “People around the world made a decision that we should be one of their five vice chairs and we don’t take that lightly. And so now, it’s our responsibility to show the world that the Bronx is here and we’re here to stay.”
Still, he was short for answers on exactly what his new job will mean for his chronically impoverished district—other than “incredibly positive attention.”
“We’ve been on national media, we’ve done press, we’re doing events…Every time someone learns about the Bronx and what we’re doing here, that’s a good thing for the Bronx,” he said. “So that’s a tangible benefit. What more comes from it? We don’t know.”
Since assuming his position in the party organization, Blake says he’s been “active out the gate”—making appearances in Ohio, Iowa, Florida and holding a conference call with the Wyoming Young Democrats. He described himself an interface for local elected officials across the country, communities of color and millennials.
He said his goals include ensuring that minority- and women-owned businesses receive more contracting opportunities and said the party organization will use the next few weeks to continue to encourage people to apply to join the DNC. The platform of his campaign—”Build Our Bench. Strengthen Our Party. Embrace Our Future.”—emphasized cultivating elevating spirited candidates for local offices, engaging uppermost strategists in the DNC in fights for local seats and establishing a mentorship-based candidate support program.
“We want people to think that it’s not just the president in the White House that’s important, it’s the president of your school board, president of your City Council that matter,” he said. “Not just the speaker in D.C. that’s relevant but the speaker of your statehouse, the speaker of your City Council.”
When it comes to taking on President Donald Trump, the assemblyman said the party must focus on developing a more concrete message.
“We will be very clear on communicating a message on why people should be voting for Democrats and not for the Republicans if we focus on how we are building our bench and use this opportunity to get more people involved in the process up and down the ballot,” he said. “We are the party that fights for the working class.”
The assemblyman noted the chaos both in the state and national capitals. The New York budget remains in limbo largely due to State Senate GOP opposition to a proposal that would prevent minors from getting charged as adults—while in Washington, Democrats are preparing to filibuster Trump’s attempt to appoint Judge Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court, and continue to complain of nepotism and conflicts of interest within the administration.
“Today, we’re working on the budget extender and while we’re doing the budget extender, you have Senate Republicans who make absolutely race-baiting comments about Raise the Age,” Blake said. “And currently, you’re still reading stories of—[first son-in-law] Jared Kushner inexplicably has the lead in Iraq and simultaneously the conversation of Gorsuch and the Democratic hold against him.”
The assemblyman attracted controversy in 2015 when he initially accepted a lobbying job in Washington, D.C. for the firm Hilltop Public Solutions, which also deals in state and city politics. He backed out of the position after bitter backlash from good government critics.
When he announced his attempt at the DNC last year, many saw more of the same self-promotion and fame-chasing at work. Political insiders told the Observer in December that the Bronx County Democratic Committee—which had opposed Blake’s election in 2014, and had attempted to get him kicked off the ballot under the argument that he hadn’t lived in New York long enough—was not enthusiastic about his candidacy, and saw it as a precursor to a bid for Congress.
Blake seemed to only want to put the tension behind him, instead highlighting what a Hispanic borough president, African-American Assembly speaker and Caribbean-American DNC vice chair from the Bronx might mean for black and brown kids.
“We don’t have the energy to worry about the past,” he said. “There’s too much happening in our communities. We’re focusing on moving forward as we’re all doing and we all recognize that this is a good thing for the Bronx.”
But he did not heap so much praise on Mayor Bill de Blasio, who held out virtually alone among prominent New York Democrats in not endorsing either Blake or Meng for their party posts. De Blasio later insisted to NY1’s Errol Louis that it wasn’t personal.
“Yes,” Blake said, curtly. “The mayor made his decision. We won.”
Dan Levitan, de Blasio’s campaign spokesman, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
On the other hand, Blake had nothing but praise for his colleagues at the DNC. He also said he has an “outstanding” relationship with Perez and Deputy Chairman Ellison, with whom he speaks habitually and “probably every other day in some aspects.”
The assemblyman remarked the variegated backgrounds of the team—noting Ellison is the first Muslim deputy chairman; Meng is an Asian-American woman and Perez a Dominican-American.
“We’re all trying to rebuild the party together and everyone is on the same page…we’re learning, we’re growing but everyone gets along really well,” he said. “We have a very diverse team and not just in ethnicity but in background and experiences and geography. It’s exciting. You just can’t really ignore it.”