Bill de Blasio

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio speaks to mental health advocates during a roundtable in Columbia on March 9, 2019. Jamie Lovegrove/Staff

COLUMBIA — The mayor of America's most populated city became the latest in a swarm of potential 2020 presidential hopefuls to descend on South Carolina this weekend, testing out a progressive message as he considers a Democratic bid for the White House despite vocal critics back home.

Fresh off a recent trip to Iowa, another key early presidential primary state, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio told The Post and Courier he hopes to make a decision about 2020 "sooner than later."

In the meantime, de Blasio and his wife, first lady Chirlane McCray, made the rounds in South Carolina's capital city.

He spoke at a local Democrats club in northeast Richland County, held roundtables with advocates for mental health and legal justice advocates, lunched with former S.C. Democratic Party chairman Jaime Harrison as he explores a campaign against U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, and attended a meet-and-greet at the home of two other former state party leaders.

On Sunday, de Blasio was set to attend a church service in Orangeburg before traveling to Charleston for an education roundtable.

As he ticked off a list of progressive proposals at each stop, from universal pre-kindergarten to paid sick days, de Blasio sought to use his executive experience to distinguish himself from a crowded primary field that includes many legislators.

"Not a single thing I'm telling you is a theory," de Blasio said at the legal roundtable. "Not a single thing is a policy paper waiting for some day a vote in Congress. These are things we're doing in New York."

Despite flying hundreds of miles from New York, de Blasio could not escape detractors from across the political spectrum, some of whom complain that his five-year tenure in the city has been a let-down from his ambitious rhetoric and others who fear he's gone too far.

Bill de Blasio

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and his wife, Chirlane McCray, hold a roundtable on legal issues in Columbia on March 9, 2019, as he considers a 2020 presidential bid during a weekend visit to South Carolina. Jamie Lovegrove/Staff

A union for New York City police officers paid for a digital billboard, which declared in bright lights that de Blasio is "no friend of labor," to follow him around in South Carolina. A major transit union also spent on advertising in the state calling him a "corporate Democrat fauxgressive." The Republican National Committee said de Blasio has an agenda that is "out-of-touch" with South Carolina.

Familiar with aggressive opponents, de Blasio expressed little surprise with the attacks but argued that average New Yorkers — particularly the working class — have seen improvements since he took office on safety, the economy and education, among other issues. 

"We represent 8.6 million people, the most diverse place on earth, and of course there's going to be differences of opinion," de Blasio said. "The question is can you create a more fair and just society. I think we're proving now, it's been over half a decade, that it can be done."

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He also demonstrated some early familiarity with regional phrases in a rare trip below the Mason-Dixon line. 

"As we say in New York," he quipped, "bless their hearts."

Speaking before de Blasio at his first stop of the day, Democrat and former state Rep. Bakari Sellers welcomed him to the state and asked, only half-jokingly, to pass along his number to Jeff Bezos so that South Carolina could get a shot at Amazon's next headquarters after the company pulled out from New York.

Although de Blasio has historically polled fairly well among black voters in New York, Sellers was skeptical that would translate to a different electorate in South Carolina.

"I think it's going to be tough for him to crack through, to be honest," said Sellers, now a CNN political commentator. "I like the fact that he's coming, I like that he's exploring and sticking his toe in the water. The water's warm and you've got to come to South Carolina. It's just going to be tough."

Follow Jamie Lovegrove on Twitter @jslovegrove.

Jamie Lovegrove is a political reporter covering the South Carolina Statehouse, congressional delegation and campaigns. He previously covered Texas politics in Washington for The Dallas Morning News and in Austin for the Texas Tribune.