NYC Mayor de Blasio's Italian vacation amid looming commuter rail strike questioned

Jonathan Lemire / The Associated Press
July 15, 2014 11:48 PM

A Long Island Railroad conductor signals to co-workers at the Woodside stop in the Queens borough of New York, Tuesday, July 15, 2014. Union negotiators said Monday that weekend talks had collapsed amid a dispute over whether future Long Island Rail Road employees should be required to contribute to their health insurance and pensions. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

NEW YORK, N.Y. - New York's tabloid newspaper front pages next week are easy to imagine: a photo of a nightmarish traffic jam caused by a strike at the largest U.S. commuter railroad juxtaposed with a shot of Mayor Bill de Blasio sunning himself on an Italian beach.

Despite the potentially damaging political optics, the Democratic mayor appears set on embarking Friday on a 10-day Italian vacation in the face of a looming Long Island Rail Road strike, which if it happens Sunday could paralyze portions of the largest U.S. city. The mayor had said he would return from his trip if a crisis arose but signalled this week that he believed his team could manage without him.

De Blasio, his wife and their two teenage children are planning to visit his ancestral homeland, journeying to the southern Italian mountain towns that his grandparents called home, meeting local officials and taking their first family vacation in years.

Even before the Long Island Rail Road labour talks broke down, the trip, funded in part by taxpayers, raised eyebrows. De Blasio has been in office only since January, and his vacation is scheduled to last longer than those of recent mayors.

His predecessor, independent Michael Bloomberg, never took a full week off though he did frequently escape for long weekends in Bermuda or London. Republican Rudy Giuliani also rarely took time off and said in a radio interview Tuesday that, "The mayor has got to be present when an emergency takes place."

Some political consultants said the trip would look bad for de Blasio.

"If I were on his staff, and it looked like the strike was going to happen, I would tell him not to go," said Jeanne Zaino, a political science professor at Iona College. "It's going to look very bad, and he's going to be hit really hard."

The Daily News has offered a sneak peek of what could be in store for de Blasio: Its story on Tuesday about the impending strike was accompanied by the headline "Good luck on that, I'm off to Italy."

The LIRR, which connects New York City and suburban Long Island and has 300,000 daily riders, is operated by a state agency, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, meaning the ultimate political responsibility lies with Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo, but the impact in the city would be undeniable. Roads would clog, already crowded subway trains and buses would be even more packed and businesses with fewer customers or workers showing up could lose millions of dollars.

De Blasio said Monday that he was optimistic a deal would be brokered amid a feud over pay and contributions to pension and health care plans and that the MTA's contingency plans were "very strong" even as the MTA's top spokesman said the commute for most riders would be "a nightmare."

The mayor downplayed the impact of a possible strike.

"We benefit from the fact it's July, and I think the amount of travel is reduced in July," he said. "We benefit from the fact that a lot of people now, because of technology, can work from home."

Those comments appeared tone-deaf to some critics, who noted that the workers who can't afford to take vacations or whose jobs don't allow for telecommuting are the working- and middle-class people de Blasio pledged to support during his victorious mayoral campaign last year.

But some political observers said they believe the criticism is unwarranted.

"He's entitled to time off, and being away is not that big of a deal," Joseph Mercurio, an unaffiliated political consultant, said. "Modern technology lets him stay in touch. Bad media coverage would be unfair."

De Blasio's team stressed that the heads of the city's emergency response units will be in town and the mayor could still postpone or cut his trip short if needed.

Being away during a crisis, particularly one that was anticipated, has been problematic for other elected officials. New Jersey's Republican Gov. Chris Christie took criticism for being at Disney World when a monster 2010 blizzard bore down on his state. Bloomberg was in Bermuda for that storm, and his city's preparations fell woefully short.

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Associated Press writer Rachelle Blidner contributed to this report.

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