de Blasio, Doherty & Snow Politics

This afternoon Mayor Bill de Blasio harshly criticized the New York Times for a specific story published last night/today.  A Rough Final Winter For New York’s Sanitation Chief described the recent tribulations of Sanitation Commissioner John Doherty arising from a blizzard of media and public complaints that the Sanitation Department failed to adequately perform it’s snow removal duties during the January 21-22 storm.  Taking a rich look at Commissioner Doherty’s Sanitation Department career, which began in 1960, the article also portrayed Doherty as essentially on the outs with the mayor and likely to be pushed out of the Department by winter’s end.

Here is de Blasio’s statement:

Here are a few observations on the Times article, de Blasio, Doherty and current snow politics.

  • The article is inaccurate in it’s portrayal of the mayor’s press conference on February 5th, stating “[w]hen it came time for Mr. de Blasio to thank his team, the commissioner’s name went conspicuously unmentioned.”  None of the other commissioners were thanked by name, so the absence of a Doherty mention was not conspicuous.  Joining the mayor for that press conference were Doherty, FDNY Commissioner Sal Cassano, OEM Commissioner Joe Bruno, DoT Commissioner Polly Trottenberg, Schools Chancellor Carmen Farina, First Deputy Mayor Anthony Shorris and MTA NYC Transit President Carmen Bianco (NYC Transit is part of the MTA, not city government), with NYPD Transit Bureau Chief Joe Fox joining mid-press conference.  de Blasio “acknowledge[d]” all present, including Doherty, at the beginning and engaged with all during the press conference.  The only one singled out for specific praise, however, was Shorris.  de Blasio did make broad comments about all of the commissioners present as well as individual departments, but did not specifically praise or thank Doherty’s fellow commissioners.
  • With the spate of storms, Doherty has been a major part of the new adminstration and a frequent presence at de Blasio press conferences.  In press conferences prior to February 5th, de Blasio has given a fair amount of praise to Doherty.  He’s mostly refrained from direct criticism of Doherty even after the January 21-22 storm, instead focusing on interagency and intragovernment coordination, planning and cooperation as a primary weakness and generally pronouncing that weakness as fixed or being fixed by First Deputy Mayor Shorris.  He’s also described the Sanitation Department’s performance in that storm as lacking, but again without directly criticizing Doherty.
  • We’ve compiled clips from many of the mayor’s press conferences from December 30, 2013 to February 5, 2014, illustrating his interactions with Doherty and some of the other comissioners, references to the interagency issues he’s focused on and Shorris’s role.  (I’ve attended and have footage of most, but not all, of de Blasio’s press conferences.)

  • de Blasio has important interests at stake.  First and foremost is establishing a public perception that he is able to effectively manage city government.  That perception was damaged by the coverage and criticism of the January 21-22 storm.  Coming so early in his term, it could easily permanently shape the public’s view of de Blasio.  He quickly acknowledged the criticism and has continually sought to portray himself as correcting any missteps immediately.
  • Somewhat conversely, a critique that’s emerged around his dealings with Doherty is the suggestion that he isn’t willing to stand by his commissioners.  He has not publicly abandoned or belittled Doherty, and his criticism of the Times may reflect both real anger at Doherty’s portrayal and a desire to squelch the nascent new criticism.
  • Until the emergence of the “doesn’t have his commissioners’ back” critique, de Blasio appeared politically well-situated with respect to Doherty.  He has an extraordinarily experienced and capable commissioner running the Sanitation Department, but that commissioner has drawn public skepticism.  If the City’s storm response for the rest of the winter is viewed positively, it’s obviously good for de Blasio.  If it’s not viewed positively, Doherty may well draw much of the criticism, whether fair or not, and that’s politically okay for de Blasio.  In football terms, he’s like the quarterback who’s taken the snap with a flag thrown for defensive offside –  barring disaster it’s a free play.
  • de Blasio will make eventually make his choice on a permanent sanitation commissioner.  His imperative is not necessarily to choose John Doherty; like any mayor he’s entitled to replace holdovers.  Instead it’s to treat Doherty like the accomplished public servant that he is, whether retained or replaced.