Two men in dark suits ducked unnoticed into Pepe’s & Mito’s Mexican Café in Dallas, savoring their anonymity thousands of miles from the crush of their new celebrity back home.
They barely knew each other. But that June afternoon, sitting together and picking at sizzling chicken fajitas, the two men understood better than anyone the whirlwind they had each faced the previous six months.
It was a lunch date between Bill de Blasio and Martin J. Walsh, the newly minted mayors of New York City and Boston. They had traveled to Dallas for a conference but broke away for 45 minutes of solitude at a no-frills cantina.
“We talked about learning the job, how it’s been,” Walsh recalled in an interview. “We talked about snowstorms. He’s a former [city] councilor, I’m a former [state] rep. We talked about how this job is different.”
De Blasio and Walsh both campaigned on a message of economic populism, vowing to tackle income inequality and dramatically expand early education. They shared an advertising firm, an education adviser, and staunch support from organized labor. And each represented a generational shift, replacing longtime mayors whose personalities defined City Hall.
Both men have endured criticism for being slow to fill top positions. (De Blasio proceeded much faster.) Both mayors faced early tests from stubborn snowstorms. (Walsh earned significantly higher marks.) And both mayors boycotted St. Patrick’s Day parades because of the exclusion of openly gay marchers, settled major labor contracts, and grappled with the deaths of firefighters.
But their approaches to the job have been radically different. De Blasio has made an impression (for better or worse) on his constituents. For Bostonians, Walsh is like a new pair of shoes they like but haven’t worn enough to know if they are really comfortable.
De Blasio was a veteran of city politics and came out swinging with a sense of urgency, pushing big ideas. He has notched significant victories — funding for universal preschool, mandatory paid sick leave for employees — but he has also taken his lumps. (See his political scars from a fight with charter school advocates and defenders of horse-drawn carriages in Central Park.)
Walsh, a longtime state legislator, was new to municipal government and launched his administration with a vow to listen. That meant a blur of coffee hours and community meetings. He has sought to solve problems by committee, launching an affordable housing task force (27 members), a late-night task force (24 members), and a universal prekindergarten task force (30 members.)
“Marty Walsh is much more content to swing for singles rather than home runs,” said Jeffrey M. Berry, political science professor at Tufts University. “There are some mayors who can get people to follow their grand visions. I don’t think Marty Walsh is a visionary.”
Berry suggested, however, that “de Blasio has more to learn from Walsh than Walsh does from de Blasio.”
“He can learn from Marty Walsh how to build victories from the bottom up rather than the top down,” Berry said. Walsh has taken cautious but concrete steps, Berry said, to build consensus and the potential for real accomplishments in schools, housing, and transportation.
But Walsh could also learn from de Blasio’s willingness to take risks and spend political capital on a thorny issue, said Ray La Raja, a University of Massachusetts Amherst political science professor.
“It would be nice for Walsh to take a big, tough stand every once in a while,” La Raja said.
Walsh acknowledged that de Blasio has taken a much different tack.
“He hit the ground running a little quicker in some ways with deeper proposals and ideas already kind of vetted,” Walsh said. “I’m taking the approach of going through things . . . [but] I could have gone in and made changes without understanding what is happening.”
Take the push for universal preschool for 4-year-olds. As candidates, Walsh and de Blasio both made it a central campaign promise and promoted creative ways to cover the cost. (Walsh suggested selling City Hall; de Blasio pushed a tax increase on the wealthy.)
In office, de Blasio lost the tax fight but won $300 million in funding this year to immediately expand universal preschool. Walsh’s pre-K task force has a goal of 2018.
Last month at a budget hearing in a midtown skyscraper, de Blasio carried a gravitas unique to a mayor. He immediately became the focal point of the room.
Stark differences between the two mayors became apparent when de Blasio testified on behalf of his budget. He is a polished and concise orator, making deliberate eye contact with his audience. The rhetoric is loftier, with a tone that suggests de Blasio seeks to be more than a mayor.
De Blasio reminded the audience that he was “elected with a particular vision of what the New York City government had to achieve for our people.” He referenced Franklin D. Roosevelt, whom he described as “a true example of all the good that New York City and New York State have done for the world,” before quoting the late president.
“ ‘Too often in recent history liberal governments have been wrecked on the rocks of loose fiscal policy,’ ” de Blasio said. “President Roosevelt summarized better than I could the notion that if we want to pursue important ideals — if we want to reach so many people in need and create a more just society — we can only do that if we are fiscally sound.”
Walsh does not share de Blasio’s rhetorical flair or refined delivery. The Boston mayor stiffens when he reads prepared remarks. His impromptu comments often meander as he repeats comfortable phrases, such as “City of Boston.”
But when Walsh faces a scrum of reporters, he is jocular and he shakes the hand of each individual journalist, greeting television personalities and newspaper scribes by name. Walsh’s one-on-one charm was his strongest selling point on the campaign trail. People like him because he is a nice guy.
Last month, de Blasio took a different approach with reporters. Aides limited topics for discussion. De Blasio folded his hands at his waist and remained cordial, but he seemed standoffish with a forced smile.
In fact, de Blasio has struggled with the press. His tardiness has angered reporters, he was skewered for eating pizza with a fork, and drew the ire of “Today’’ show weatherman Al Roker over a decision to keep schools open during a snowstorm.
“He screwed up on image early on, but that’s a matter of learning the job,” said Maurice Carroll, assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Poll. “He seems to be doing OK as far as I can tell.”
Some New Yorkers remain skeptical. Take Sue Z. Smith, a legal secretary from Queens who sat on a bench last month in Central Park and nibbled on almonds and apple slices.
“I’m on the fence. He seems very patrician,” Smith said. “He tries to be very in touch [with common New Yorkers], but he isn’t. I’m still waiting to find out what he’s really about.”
In Brooklyn, Natasha C. Grimes was still proud she voted for de Blasio.
“As a parent, I feel he’s doing very well,” said Grimes, a 43-year-old from east New York. “He’s a people person. He’s really for families.”
In Boston, Walsh has been buffeted by external forces. Think about the prolonged battle over casinos or heft of the Boston Marathon bombing anniversary. Walsh lost two prominent staffers — a communications director and education adviser — but he has avoided controversy.
“There’s been some bumps, some early resignations, but I think he’s steered a pretty good path so far,” said Maurice Cunningham, a University of Massachusetts Boston political science professor.
Sitting on a bench on Boston Common, Sheldon Gilmore of Hyde Park said he did not have much of an impression of Walsh. “He’s still the new guy,” said Gilmore, 23.
A similar assessment came from Melissa Prince, a 28-year-old from Jamaica Plain, as she tossed a stick to her dog, Charlie.