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Near the High Line in Manhattan, more than 250 people gathered at The Park restaurant last week to hear about a Democratic mayor’s long-shot bid for the presidency.
The New York City Council speaker, Corey Johnson, worked the crowd, boasting about the mayor’s accomplishments, and how he had done a “tremendous amount” to “create jobs” and move “the conversation nationally” to important issues.
But the mayor in question was not Bill de Blasio, mayor of New York City, population 8.6 million. It was Pete Buttigieg, mayor of South Bend, Ind., population 102,245.
Both men are considering a presidential run but only one of their potential candidacies seems to be taken seriously.
Mr. Buttigieg, 37, has raised money from more than 65,000 individual donors, qualifying him to participate in the first Democratic debate in June. A recent poll of the Iowa caucus by Emerson Polling placed Mr. Buttigieg in third among Democrats.
Mr. de Blasio, 57, has appeared before small crowds in early primary states such as Iowa, South Carolina and New Hampshire, and came in last in a recent Quinnipiac University poll that asked which New York politician would make the best president.
“Bill de Blasio’s Embarrassing Quest for National Fame,” was the headline on a recent article in The New Republic about Mr. de Blasio’s travels to early primary states.
Even in New York, Mr. Buttigieg, perhaps unsurprisingly, seemed to be the mayor of choice for a White House bid.
“Mayor Pete is fresh, he’s untainted,” said Michael Zorek, 58, who attended a fund-raiser Friday for Mr. Buttigieg in Chelsea with his wife, Shelly Friedland, 53, a lawyer; the couple lives on the Upper West Side. “He has an entirely different story than any other politician in our lifetime.”
Mr. Buttigieg (pronounced BOOT-edge-edge) is gay and married and a veteran of the war in Afghanistan who speaks Arabic. He gained exposure in 2017 after a failed run for chairman of the Democratic National Committee.
“Mayor de Blasio’s record here is mixed,” Ms. Friedland chimed in. “I don’t think he’s terrible, but I don’t support him moving to another job.”
Katie Held, 35, a tech product manager who has lived in Manhattan for four years, said Mr. Buttigieg has “East Coast values with a Midwestern knowledge.”
Asked about a potential de Blasio campaign for president, Ms. Held said, “No. Stay where you are. Work on that.”
Ever since Mr. de Blasio unexpectedly emerged from a clump of Democrats to become mayor in 2013, he has sought to broaden his message and profile to a national audience.
Mr. de Blasio quickly achieved his signature accomplishment, universal prekindergarten, but his tenure has been marred by increased homelessness, the continued deterioration of the city’s public housing stock and scrutiny over some of his fund-raising techniques.
He has even been blamed for the city’s troubled subway system although he is not in charge of it.
Mike Casca, a spokesman for Mr. de Blasio, said comparing Mr. Buttigieg and Mr. de Blasio was “apples and oranges” because the mayor is not a candidate. Mr. Casca, it should be noted, previously worked for Bernie Sanders on his 2016 presidential campaign and in his Senate office, and is one of two City Hall aides helping the mayor with his presidential aspirations.
Rebecca Katz, a former special adviser to Mr. de Blasio who is not currently attached to his exploratory bid, said that the mayor “has a progressive record to run on that is strong, but of all the candidates he has the busiest day job.”
“Bill de Blasio put almost as many kids through pre-K last year as who live in South Bend,” she added.
But there is no question that Mr. Buttigieg has generated more buzz; his recent visit to Manhattan was his third fund-raising effort in New York City.
“To have an openly gay mayor to now be considered the hottest ticket in town running for president is a very, very exciting thing,” said Mr. Johnson, who is gay.
Why not Mr. de Blasio?
“I think Bill has accomplishments to point to like universal pre-K,” Mr. Johnson said. If Mr. de Blasio runs, “there needs to be a message that inspires people.”
Mr. Johnson stressed that he has not endorsed anyone for president yet; that was also the case for Phil Walzak, a former top de Blasio adviser who attended Mr. Buttigieg’s fund-raiser at The Park.
“Mayor Pete has a compelling story and message,” said Mr. Walzak, now the top spokesman for the Police Department. But he added that Mr. de Blasio “has a real record to run on.”
Kenneth Sherrill, a professor emeritus of political science at Hunter College, said that there was a general sense that Mr. de Blasio “has not been terribly successful at managing New York City.”
He added: “He started out very well, made good appointments, did pre-K, a major achievement, and family leave. The first six months to a year made you hungry to see what was coming next, and the answer was bupkis.”
Mr. de Blasio has offered a different view of his tenure; on a recent trip to New Hampshire, he highlighted initiatives like universal prekindergarten and a push to make mental health services more broadly available as things that should become national priorities.
All of these efforts are going “full steam,” the mayor said recently, in response to a question of how he would respond to New Yorkers wondering why he was in South Carolina or Iowa. The fact that Mr. Buttigieg is getting more attention will not deter him, the mayor said.
“I don’t pay a whole lot of attention to what other folks do,” he said.
Mr. Buttigieg also declined to speak specifically about his fellow mayor.
“At a moment where the party is really trying to figure out what its future will be, the bigger the range of options, the better off we’ll be,” Mr. Buttigieg said just before leaving New York for South Carolina.
Still, it was somewhat telling that Mr. Buttigieg had been introduced by Mr. Johnson, Mr. de Blasio’s City Hall colleague.
“One of the most attractive qualities in politics is authenticity, and a good story and a level of enthusiasm and charisma, and I think Mayor Pete has shown that through the course of this short campaign,” Mr. Johnson said. “His message has been inspiring for people, and people at this moment in time want to be inspired.”