DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) - New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio told a crowd Tuesday in Iowa that Democrats must embrace a progressive agenda to win elections in 2018, emphasizing that it means clearly addressing such issues as income inequality.
"We have to be uncompromising," de Blasio told the group at the gathering in downtown Des Moines, where he stressed his work in New York City to expand early childhood education and improve mental health care access. "We have to be strong. We're the party of working people. We believe in the labor movement."
De Blasio made similar points in a blog post last month, but his actual appearance in Iowa marked a more formal effort to seek a prominent role on the national stage. It also led to speculation about the mayor's 2020 plans given Iowa's status for first-in-the-nation presidential caucuses.
De Blasio was blunt with reporters ahead of his speech, saying that he's not running for president and will serve all four years of his second and final term in office.
"I can walk and chew gum at the same time," he told reporters. "I can do my job as mayor of the city and still work on my core beliefs."
He emphasized the point by taking out a piece of gum at the end of his roughly 15-minute press conference and walking away while he chewed.
Organizers for Progress Iowa, a self-described progressive advocacy organization, estimated about 200 people showed up to hear the mayor speak at their annual fundraiser.
Monica McCarthy, a Democratic activist in Des Moines, said she appreciated de Blasio's speech and the points he made.
"I liked his demeanor," she said afterward. "He had very good things to say but he didn't have to scream and shout like a lot of politicians."
Still, it's unclear how de Blasio's message will resonate in Iowa. The mayor previously attempted to raise his profile in the state by launching a nonprofit group that tried to host a presidential forum in 2015. The event fell apart because there wasn't enough interest from candidates at the time.
De Blasio acknowledged those previous efforts and expressed wanting to form another group to support progressive candidates. But he offered limited details. He also didn't specify his future travels.
The visit for de Blasio also included some controversy from back home. Unions representing New York City employees have been critical of de Blasio's labor policies and used his latest Iowa appearance to highlight those views. The Transport Workers Union, which represents bus and subway employees, paid for a full page ad against de Blasio in the state's largest newspaper, The Des Moines Register, and called him a "phony progressive" on social media. The Correction Officers' Benevolent Association also released a statement.
The Patrolmen's Benevolent Association, New York's largest police union, sent representatives to Des Moines to protest ahead of the mayor's speech. The group confronted de Blasio with signs outside the performing arts center before the speech. John Puglissi, PBA first vice president, said union members wanted to highlight the ongoing disputes over contract negotiations between de Blasio's office and law enforcement.
"Wherever he goes, we're going to go," Puglissi said.