Behind the scenes, Bill de Blasio’s press secretary garners respect of reporters

Freddi Goldstein, who entered politics as a detour from law school, has more than a full plate at City Hall

The last few weeks have been fairly chaotic for Freddi Goldstein. As New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s press secretary, Goldstein has had to navigate a series of crises in recent months: first, the novel coronavirus that has killed more than 20,000 New Yorkers since March; followed by ongoing protests over racial inequality that have led to thousands of arrests, millions of dollars in property damage, heightened tensions between communities and authorities and calls for de Blasio’s resignation.

“I have one job to do and that is to help New Yorkers get information so that they can help us get through this,” Goldstein told Jewish Insider in a recent interview. “And as long as I can effectively do that, then I’m doing the job I need to do.”

That job has in recent months made Goldstein one of the busiest people in New York City, as she communicates the mayor’s message daily to the city’s 8,000,000 residents — and to a global audience with its eyes on the Big Apple. De Blasio now holds public media briefings six times a week, usually around 9:30 a.m. Goldstein’s morning begins with reading “every article that I can find” before getting on the phone with the mayor and bringing him up to speed on topics that could come up at the briefing. Around noon, she starts digging up information and following up with reporters on issues raised that morning.

“Every day is different  — there’s no day that is exactly like the other, and there’s also absolutely no ability to plan your day because, as much as you think you have a to-do list when you come in in the morning, I guarantee you every time there’s something that pops up that adjusts your day,” she says. 

Room 9 reporters, the term used for journalists who cover City Hall, describe Goldstein, 30, as a bridge between de Blasio and the press. “She is more honey than vinegar,” one reporter, who asked to remain anonymous, said about the press secretary, who has earned the respect of the reporters she has dealt with on a daily basis since she began working in the mayor’s office in 2016.

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Freddi Goldstein

Goldstein grew up in Montclair, New Jersey, a suburban town about 12 miles outside of New York City. She was named after her grandfather Fred Goldstein, who headed a real estate firm in Brooklyn and passed away before she was born. She attended Hebrew school and celebrated her bat mitzvah at Temple Ner Tamid, a Reform synagogue in neighboring Bloomfield, New Jersey.

Goldstein, who boasts about having “a million” Jewish friends growing up, told JI that among her close group of friends, she was the only one who is Jewish. But that hasn’t stopped her from including those friends in her family’s holiday celebrations. Every Passover — save for this last one — Goldstein, who has two younger sisters, invites friends to join her parents’ Seder. “At one part during the Seder, we go around and we realize that we have as many people who are practicing Judaism as not at our table because we invite so many friends,” Goldstein recounted. “We say a prayer and we help them with the pronunciation of Hebrew and use it as an opportunity to bring everyone together.” 

She first visited Israel at age 17 on a family trip. “It was just an amazing trip to be surrounded by people who, for the first time in my life, all sort of shared my religious background,” Goldstein said of the experience. “But also it’s just such a beautiful and unique place with so much history, and I just found the whole thing to be so interesting.” 

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Goldstein always thought she would follow the family path and work in law. Her 88-year-old grandmother, Blanche Goldstein, is a former municipal prosecutor in the city of Clifton, N.J. and practiced law for 24 years until her retirement. Her mother is an employment lawyer and Goldstein’s dream was to one day become a civil rights attorney. 

In high school, she participated in her school’s mock trial team. She went to Tulane University in New Orleans still intending to become a lawyer, and studied psychology, earning her bachelor’s degree in 2012. She briefly studied Hebrew, giving it up after failing to catch on to the language. She interned at The Law Offices of Arnold N. Kriss in New York City in the summer after her junior year and even took the Law School Admission Test the following fall. But it was her mother who talked her into taking a year off to first “experience something in the real world” before deciding if a career in law was right for her. 

Goldstein spent the fall of 2012 volunteering for the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights in Washington D.C., where she was sent to battleground states to monitor voter disenfranchisement. The experience changed Goldstein’s mind about studying law. “It was sort of the first time I’d been exposed to government and politics and I realized I could sort of impact change as much as I wanted to through this other vehicle, without actually getting a law degree,” Goldstein recalled. “It was intriguing.”

After applying for several jobs, Goldstein was hired as a field director at Equality Delaware, an organization that worked to promote marriage equality in the state. After the bill was passed and signed into law by former Delaware Gov. Jack Markell in May 2013, Goldstein moved back to New York, where she briefly served as field director on the campaign of Rockland County legislator Ilan Schoenberger, who lost his primary campaign for county executive. 

The short stint in New York helped Goldstein “build a bridge back home so that I could start doing the things that I enjoyed doing closer to home.” In 2014, she was hired as an associate at SKDKnickerbocker, a well-established communications and political consulting firm. This was Goldstein’s first dive into New York City politics and the start of her relationship with New York media outlets. Goldstein joked how, at the time, she constantly sent unanswered pitches to reporters — some of whom are people she is now in touch with on a daily basis. 

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Goldstein joined the de Blasio administration in 2016, first as a deputy press secretary and later on as communications director to First Deputy Mayor Dean Fuleihan. Last year, de Blasio promoted her to press secretary, replacing Eric Phillips. 

“Freddi is as tough as they come. She’s tenacious, whip smart and extremely loyal to the public she works for,” Phillips told JI. “More than anything, she has an unwavering moral compass and doesn’t ever shy away from doing what’s right. I’d trust her to do anything she sets her mind to. She’s that good.”

Goldstein says she enjoys her current job. “My schedule is basically just work,” she tells JI. “I definitely think my experience in government, by far, has been the most interesting and the most rewarding.” 

An administration official told JI that Goldstein’s deep ability to understand policy issues has garnered her the respect of both her team and the top brass of government. “She’s more wonky than you would think a press person would be,” the official said. “She goes into all the details, needs to understand a basic subject matter before she will agree to take a position with a reporter, one way or the other.” The official added that nearly every agency head “takes her opinion very seriously” because of the level-headed way she approaches issues. 

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When it comes to media relations, Goldstein is known as de Blasio’s better half. While the mayor is notorious for his combative exchanges with local reporters, Goldstein is seen as an accommodating figure in his inner circle. Since the city first issued social distancing guidelines in March following the outbreak of the novel coronavirus in the city, daily press briefings and appearances moved to a virtual setting in which reporters dial in and are called upon to pose questions to the mayor, who sits in the Blue Room at City Hall. Throughout that period, Goldstein worked with local reporters to address their complaints about the setup.

Goldstein “does a really hard job pretty well,” Sally Goldenberg, City Hall bureau chief for Politico New York, told JI, noting the striking difference between de Blasio’s combative style and Goldstein’s “realistic and reasonable” approach. Goldenberg added that Goldstein is “sort of unique” among the mayor’s senior staff when it comes to responding to reporters. “Her hands are basically tied because there is such distrust of the media from de Blasio that it trickles down to the deputy mayors, the commissioners and to the staff. That mentality makes it hard for her to interact with reporters in the most productive way,” Goldenberg explained. “But given those constraints, she does a good job.” 

In her interview with JI, Goldstein acknowledged she holds a challenging role. “My job is sort of to become an extension of the mayor,” she asserted. “I have to communicate on his behalf, which means, a) understanding the various things that are happening around the city, and b) understanding how the mayor feels about them.” 

Her communication style is beneficial to the mayor, another Room 9 reporter noted to JI. “She’s nowhere near as belligerent” as some of her predecessors, the reporter added. “She doesn’t worship at the altar of Bill de Blasio, but I think she’s a loyal servant to him. I think her techniques are just as effective, if not more effective.”

Henry Goldman, a longtime City Hall reporter for Bloomberg, describes Goldstein as a responsive staffer working hard to maintain a good working relationship with the press. “She takes criticism of the mayor, and of herself in fact, with impressive equanimity,” he told JI. 

Goldstein, top left, attends an ethnic media roundtable in the Blue Room at City Hall in 2019. (Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography)

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This week marked a milestone in New York City’s battle against COVID-19, which has kept the city at a standstill since mid-March. On Monday, New York City entered the first phase of its reopening process. And nothing could quite prepare Goldstein for the last few months on the job. 

“It feels like forever ago but only four months ago, you’d come into work and there were 35 or 50 issues you deal with in a day, and you’d be sort of preparing for whatever the next policy announcement we are going to make was,” she described. “Since March 1, we have been sort of singularly focused on one thing and of course the tangential issues that come with that.” 

But as a policy-driven individual, Goldstein takes pride in being in a position to help New Yorkers manage and grow out of the crisis — and that has helped her overcome the difficulties. “I try to remember frequently, for as tired as I am, I am lucky. My family has so far been safe, I have kept my job,” she said. “There are so many things that people are experiencing through this crisis that I’ve been really fortunate that I haven’t gone through.” 

“As long as we can, at the end of the day, say we did everything we could to save as many lives as possible and ward off a resurgence,” she told JI, “then I can’t lose focus, and I can’t sort of get lost in the other things.” 

Last month, de Blasio came under fire for singling out Jewish community members for violating social distancing orders after he witnessed a large funeral in the Orthodox Jewish neighborhood of Williamsburg in Brooklyn. The mayor warned “the Jewish community, and all communities” that police would take extreme measures to enforce COVID-19-imposed restrictions against gatherings of all kinds. He later apologized for “poor word choice.”

Goldstein, who first tweeted about the incident, defended de Blasio’s handling of the matter. “Anyone who has watched the mayor over the years knows that he has a very close relationship with the Hasidic community. I don’t think that you can take one tweet out of context and sort of decide that it is determinant of who he is and his message, because it certainly is not the case,” Goldstein told JI. “In fact, he said he was so upset because he has such a deep respect for the community… He felt impassioned and he spoke from his heart, but it really was coming from a place of love and concern. I think it was unfortunate that it was heard differently by some people because, certainly, his intention was never to single out a community or offend anyone. It was really just a response to what was happening.” 

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De Blasio isn’t new to politics or to controversies. Now in the seventh year of his tenure, the Democratic mayor finds himself constantly putting out fires and moving from crisis to crisis. Over the past week, de Blasio came under heavy criticism from his own supporters, close advisors and staffers over his handling of ongoing racial inequality protests and his strong defense of the New York Police Department. 

Amy Spitalnick, a former spokesperson and communications advisor in the mayor’s office, told JI that the role of a de Blasio spokesperson is a constant struggle to balance pressures from the mayor and regular inquiries from reporters. She pointed out the “clear outrage and frustration right now not just from those who have long opposed him but from his own base” that she believes is a result of de Blasio’s unwillingness to accept advice on what strategies would be most effective. “It’s difficult for the most talented communications professionals,” Spitalnick, who worked for the mayor during his first term, said, “and I would certainly put [Goldstein] in that category.” 

Goldstein is not bothered by the noise around City Hall and the waning popularity of her boss.

“His focus is actually on the mission and the job more so than anything else,” she emphasized. An administration official told JI that while sometimes it’s hard to defend the mayor’s position publicly, Goldstein “doesn’t freelance. She represents [de Blasio]. There’s no playing games.”

The last week was a “challenging” moment in the city and country’s history, Goldstein said. “There is lots of reason to despair, but the strength of the protesters and what they are fighting for is also a reason to have hope. I’m encouraged by the change we’ve already seen even in the last few days, and knowing that there will be more ahead.” 

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Goldstein is an avid reader and carries a book in her bag every day — just in case she can find a few extra minutes to dig in. “In years past I’d read a couple dozen books a year. Now I primarily read when I go on vacation — typically one week a year where I read at least three books.” She is currently reading Fleishman Is in Trouble, a novel by Taffy Brodesser-Akner. “I got the book when I was lucky enough to be invited to a book signing of hers by a former press secretary from the Bloomberg [administration],” she says. 

Looking back, Goldstein says when she first started her advocacy and campaign work eight years ago, she told herself she would keep going as long as she could get a job. She promised to revisit law school if she got to a point where she felt stalled in her career. “At this point, I’ve been fortunate because opportunities have kept presenting themselves,” she told JI. “I think that’s in my back pocket, but it doesn’t feel like that’s where I’m going to have to go just yet.” 

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