Gone are the self-conscious jokes, the dry references to business leaders as a tough crowd. His vocabulary is careful, smoothed free of buzzwords likely to offend. Mayor Bill de Blasio still talks about inequality, but for these audiences he emphasizes that the causes of New York City’s economic divide are complex and global in nature.
More than a year after taking office, Mr. de Blasio is engaged in his first sustained courtship of the city’s most powerful private sector executives. The mayor, who ran for office railing against “moneyed interests,” is now making what corporate chieftains describe as a long delayed, sometimes awkward, attempt to meet them on their home turf.
He has wooed them in private phone calls and unannounced meetings at City Hall, and has staged several striking events: On a visit last month to Morgan Stanley, for example, he posed for selfies with employees and joked that moving into Gracie Mansion was like living in a museum. Mr. de Blasio, as part of his getting-to-know-you tour, also dined recently with about a dozen business and nonprofit leaders at the home of Ralph Schlosstein, chief executive of the investment firm Evercore Partners.
As a candidate, Mr. de Blasio defined himself in opposition to big business, vowing to increase taxes on the rich and to turn the page on the policies of his billionaire predecessor, Michael R. Bloomberg. Upon taking office, he quickly pressed for a new tax on wealthy New Yorkers to pay for universal prekindergarten. (Mr. de Blasio got a prekindergarten program, but state lawmakers blocked the tax.)
Mr. de Blasio has not abandoned his populist rhetoric: Meeting with finance leaders at City Hall in early March, he urged them to invest in companies that pay their workers well. Addressing the Association for a Better New York, a business-minded civic group, at the Pierre Hotel, he called on companies to raise wages voluntarily.
The mayor also hosted a meeting for liberal activists at Gracie Mansion on April 2 and announced plans for a national agenda intended to address economic inequality.
Yet business leaders say they have also detected a softening of Mr. de Blasio’s tone and posture, and perhaps new traces of ambivalence about wielding the executive set as a political foil.
The mayor has embraced opportunities to introduce himself more personally: When Mr. Schlosstein, who is married to Jane D. Hartley, the United States ambassador to France, suggested in a private meeting that he should better acquaint himself with the business world, Mr. de Blasio responded by asking the investment executive to host an event designed to help him do just that, according to associates familiar with the conversation, who asked to speak anonymously about the off-the-record event.
During the meeting at Morgan Stanley, Mr. de Blasio paid homage to Wall Street: “The financial services sector supports 310,000 New York City jobs and accounts for 22 percent of the city’s economic output,” he declared in the firm’s cafeteria. “This industry is crucial to the city’s future.”
Indeed, as Mr. de Blasio has run up against the limitations of his own authority as mayor, he appears to have seen the value of enlisting business leaders as occasional allies.
Jonathan D. Gray, a senior executive at the private equity firm the Blackstone Group, said the mayor had offered a pragmatic pitch to industry leaders in their March meeting in the Blue Room at City Hall.
“I think it’s a practical recognition on the part of the mayor that in order to achieve a lot of the things that he wants to do, it’s going to take a robust partnership between the public and private sector,” Mr. Gray said.
Mayoral advisers freely acknowledged the calculations involved in their outreach to the corporate community. Some elements of Mr. de Blasio’s agenda, such as his pledge to create or preserve 200,000 units of affordable housing, rest plainly on his ability to collaborate with major investors. Others are simply more likely to succeed with private sector help. In that vein, the mayor’s office announced an initiative in February geared toward training New Yorkers for technology jobs, with corporate backers including JPMorgan Chase and Goldman Sachs.
Mr. de Blasio recently appeared at a gathering of corporate executives hosted by the Macy’s chief executive, Terry J. Lundgren, designed to promote a youth employment program backed by private institutions. (The mayor sought out Mr. Lundgren’s involvement personally, visiting him at his offices at Macy’s flagship New York location on West 34th Street, aides to Mr. de Blasio said.)
On a purely political level, there is a clear logic to Mr. de Blasio’s attempt to reset his relationship with business leaders, and Wall Street executives in particular. He won the mayor’s race with an atypical electoral coalition anchored by minority and liberal white voters — a base of support that has remained largely intact. But no mayor in the better part of a century has won re-election in the face of deep hostility from the business community.
Mr. de Blasio seemed at risk of testing that precedent, based on the message of his 2013 campaign and a few gestures he has made since taking office, including a push for the so-called millionaire’s tax and his strong criticism of charter schools, a pet issue for many on Wall Street that continues to fester.
In an early appearance before the Partnership for New York City, a powerful business group, last May, Mr. de Blasio startled those on hand by referring to financial services as a “legacy industry,” a relatively static sector inherited from an earlier time. After the mayor left the room, several financiers voiced umbrage at the remark, according to attendees who asked for anonymity to discuss what they said was a tense private meeting.
But Mr. de Blasio has continued to appear at events hosted by the partnership, insistently asking executives affiliated with the group to contact his office with any concerns. And he has won occasional help from business groups: Late last month, the partnership and the Association for a Better New York jointly backed Mr. de Blasio’s quest to place city schools permanently under mayoral control.
Gabrielle Fialkoff, who leads the Mayor’s Fund to Advance New York City, a government-aligned nonprofit organization, said the mayor believed he shared “a lot of common ground” with private-sector executives, including on his signature issue of economic inequality.
“He is not shy about asking for ways that they can join together to address the inequality crisis, because it affects all of us that take pride in the city,” said Ms. Fialkoff, a senior adviser to Mr. de Blasio.
During the city’s ultimately unsuccessful push to host the 2016 Democratic convention, Mr. de Blasio connected with a few business leaders in particular, according to aides who asked to speak anonymously about his personal relationships. After a long phone call last year with Ursula Burns, the chief executive of Xerox and a member of the convention host committee, Mr. de Blasio invited the Lower East Side native to a one-on-one meeting at City Hall in mid-March.
During the convention bidding process, the mayor’s office also quietly persuaded Sean Parker, the billionaire co-founder of the music-sharing service Napster who sat on the host committee, to join the advisory board of the Mayor’s Fund.
Mr. de Blasio has placed solicitous phone calls to other members of the committee, and hosted a thank-you reception for participants. Alan J. Patricof, head of the venture capital firm Greycroft Partners and a host committee member, said the mayor’s outreach efforts represented “a reconciliation” with a class of New Yorkers who were anxious about his election.
“He made it very clear when he came into office that he wants to help poor people, that he wants to make this a five-borough city,” said Mr. Patricof, an influential Democratic donor. He added, of the finance community: “They get nervous, because they don’t know what the implications are. So far, I think everything he’s done has been pretty constructive.”
Kathryn S. Wylde, the president of the Partnership for New York City, said the mayor had struggled to soften his image as a “candidate for change, against the 12-year record of a man whom business people revere,” referring to Mr. Bloomberg.
“It has been hard to get past that,” Ms. Wylde said. “Mike Bloomberg is a global leader in business and philanthropy. Being mayor was not the source of his stature in the private sector.”
For Mr. de Blasio, a career public official and strategist, matching Mr. Bloomberg’s stature in the business world is not an option. But Thomas R. Nides, the Morgan Stanley vice chairman who conducted a public question-and-answer session with the mayor during his visit there, said that introducing himself more personally was still a welcome step.
“My only advice would be: He should do more of that,” said Mr. Nides, who added that the mayor had spoken about inequality at Morgan Stanley in a way his audience could appreciate: “He did it in a very appropriate way. He did not suggest that it began and ended with Wall Street.”
“In fact,” Mr. Nides recalled, “he said he understands how important the industry is.”
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