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Bill de Blasio tries direct outreach with public amid probes

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, above

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, above at an October town hall in Washington Heights, has grown to embrace a more direct connection with the public through meetings and radio call ins. Credit: AP/Frank Franklin II

Amid ongoing investigations, Mayor Bill de Blasio has found shelter from the political fallout in a type of direct outreach he avoided for the first half of his term: town hall meetings and call-in radio shows.

During the four-plus hours of town halls hosted by the mayor in recent weeks, no residents have challenged him on the well-publicized criminal probes into his inner circle’s campaign fundraising activities.

And only one of the 13 calls and tweeted questions he and a WNYC radio host took since the May 6 launch of a weekly “Ask the Mayor” segment, addressed a matter under investigation, the conversion of a former nursing home into luxury apartments on the Lower East Side.

For the most part, the public has used its relatively unfiltered access to raise quality-of-life concerns and the mayor has grown to embrace the back and forth.

“People want to be able to reach out and touch the mayor,” said George Arzt, former press secretary for the late Mayor Ed Koch. “I don’t think people care about any investigation that may be swirling around him. What they care about is their life, their pocketbook issues . . . the basic services of police, sanitation and fire.”

Other examples include the need for an indoor swimming pool voiced by residents at an April 20 town hall in Staten Island and ways to combat gang violence at a May 10 forum with de Blasio in the Bronx.

Still, a poll released Tuesday showed enough voters care about de Blasio’s scandals to drop his approval rating to 41 percent.

At least five investigations continue to dog the mayor including potential pay-to-play schemes among donors with business before the city and his fundraising efforts in 2014 to boost Democrats in the state Senate.

He has defended his activities as legal.

Meanwhile, de Blasio’s early resistance to a more direct connection with the public — voters — has been replaced by an effort to cultivate and grow the relationship.

This month — 29 months into his mayoralty — he committed to his first weekly call-in radio slot, choosing WNYC’s “The Brian Lehrer Show.” He also completed a town hall tour of all five boroughs with his first Bronx meeting.

He is expected to host more forums.

Radio host Lehrer has questioned the mayor on perceived conflicts of interest connected to several investigations. But the only caller to do so was a woman concerned about the “public good” of the Lower East Side being damaged by the lifting of deed restrictions on the Rivington House, a former nursing home, so it could be converted into luxury apartments.

“We didn’t fight to make this neighborhood a nice neighborhood so that other people can take it over,” caller Tessa Huxley, 62, told Newsday, adding that she is focused on preserving affordable housing.

Marie Wausnock, 56, who spoke to de Blasio at the Staten Island town hall, told Newsday she believes the investigations are worthy of press attention, but admitted she would use any further access to again pressure the mayor on salary hikes for her fellow city Department of Education paraprofessionals.

“How often do you get to speak to the mayor and say, ‘Hello, Mr. Mayor. These are my concerns,’” the Elm Park resident said.

That mindset will likely keep the public from criticizing de Blasio face-to-face on his scandals unless it personally affects them, said Democratic consultant Hank Sheinkopf.

“He can talk about what’s he’s done for constituents as opposed as what he’s done for contributors,” Sheinkopf said.

With Matthew Chayes

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