Wanted: A Progressive Mayor
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The Politics of Fear
The bad news is that none of these trends offer much hope to progressives. The good news is, they don’t explain everything. After all, Dinkins did win in 1989. And before the 2001 terrorist attacks, the city was on the verge of electing either Ferrer—whose campaign revolved around a critique of inequality—or Green, a lifelong progressive.
Ferrer, now a consultant and member of the MTA board, says both the ‘89 and ‘01 races came at moments when the stars aligned to favor progressive change. “The city [in 1989] was on the brink of a mass nervous breakdown because Koch would play these divide-and-conquer games—crazy things. It just became unbearable,” he says. In 2001, “it was the Koch animus multiplied by the Giuliani animus. People for a while were saying, ‘We’ve got to be fairer to people. We’ve got to give people hope.’”
Incumbent mayors have a built-in advantage for re-election. Giuliani’s re-election bid in 1997, for instance, managed to neutralize the Democratic establishment and the media. “There were people of prominence who supported me but did not endorse me because they thought their standing in the city would be severely damaged,” says Ruth Messinger, Giuliani’s opponent in that race. “And the issues were not as well covered as I thought they would be because the press thought they knew the outcome.”
Putting those incumbency races aside, then, the pivotal losses for progressives were in ‘77, ‘93 and ‘01. In the first, the city was reeling from fiscal crisis, terrible riots and the Son of Sam spree. In 1993, there was a media frenzy about the murder rate. In 2001, New York was jolted by the worst terrorist attack in history. Fear links all three, Siegel notes: “There’s a sense of the city breaking down and people facing personal peril.” He adds, “Conservatives win when traditional liberalism breaks down. It only lasts as long as the crisis. Fundamentally, the people who are mobilized for politics in the city are overwhelmingly liberal.”
The lack of an apparent crisis in 2013 creates an opening for progressives. So does the return of conventional political warfare after three cycles of Bloomberg’s thermonuclear campaign spending. New York is an expensive city to run a campaign in, but a regime of spending caps and matching funds usually creates a level playing field. Bloomberg didn’t merely circumvent that system; he steamrolled it, spending $266 million to the $38 million spent by his opponents. Bloomberg’s “not a conservative. He’s not a liberal,” says Green. “He’s a bank.”
The dollar figures fail to capture the distortion wrought by the mayor’s money. Even as he donated millions to Republican organizations, directed billions in subsidies to developers, and rallied a Who’s Who of elites to push his bid for a third term, the mayor continued to scapegoat “special interests.” More than a few progressives bought it, assuming that the term referred to the NRA and tobacco companies, not noticing that the mayor also meant union members and parents with qualms about standardized testing.
As the mayor and his money exit, so does the mirage of New York run via noblesse oblige. This gives progressives a chance to present an alternative vision for governing.
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2013: Could This Be the Year?
Some are skeptical that the left can do it. Sheinkopf believes progressives in the city have defeated themselves by failing to find a message that resonates with working-class people across racial lines. “The battles that progressives sought to win were causes that blue-collar people didn’t care about,” he says.
But the moneyed class seems to take the possibility of a progressive breakthrough very seriously. Amid palpable fear in the business community about life après Bloomberg, Wall Street has raced to the barricades. In December, the Rockefeller Foundation awarded the Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce a grant to, as The New York Times put it, “come up with ways to compel the candidates in next year’s race for mayor to pay more attention to business issues.” Around the same time, the city’s tabloids—owned by some of Bloomberg’s richest allies—began to hype a mayoral bid by MTA chair Joe Lhota, a former Giuliani deputy mayor. Lhota faces a billionaire supermarket magnate and two other opponents in the Republican primary, but the smart money says he gets the GOP nomination in a walk.
On the Democratic side, two contests are playing out. The September vote will select the nominee. But the campaign between now and then will determine if that nominee is prepared to challenge the unequal distribution of wealth and power that has prevailed in the city since the fiscal crisis. The Democratic candidates—Thompson, Quinn, John Liu, Bill de Blasio and Sal Albanese—have progressive elements in their DNA. But all face a question: How far are they willing to go?
Albanese, a long-shot candidate, wrote the city’s first living-wage bill as a councilman in the 1990s and, despite hailing from conservative Bay Ridge, supported gay rights. But so far, he doesn’t seem seized by a need for fundamental change in the city; he told me in January that “the city’s not in bad shape vis-à-vis other places.”
Thompson, the former city comptroller, benefited in 2009 from anger at Bloomberg’s term-limits reversal. He’s a sharper candidate this time but has done little to distinguish himself from the other hopefuls. Liu, the current comptroller, has no differentiation problem, having staked out the boldest position on wages (he wants a city minimum wage of $11.50) and stop-and-frisk (he proposes ending it, not mending it). But two former Liu associates are scheduled to go on trial soon over a campaign finance scandal in which, though Liu has not been charged, his reputation has been damaged.
Public Advocate de Blasio has articulated the most cogent critique so far of the Bloomberg era, recently chastising the mayor for having “transferred more public value to the private sector in the past twelve years than at any time before in our history.” While he has avoided some key battles—notably, he defended the NYPD’s broad spying on Muslim communities—he’s been out front on others, including the fight to preserve the earlier term limits in 2008. Right now, he is running a distant second to Quinn in campaign fundraising and far behind her (with the rest of the contenders) in the polls.
Quinn, a onetime housing advocate, would be the city’s first woman mayor and the first openly gay mayor. On many issues, she is reliably progressive: battling against anti-abortion organizations that bill themselves as “crisis pregnancy centers,” defending the so-called “Ground Zero mosque,” trying to stop the city from fingerprinting food-stamp applicants. Depictions of her as the mayor’s lapdog overstate the truth: Quinn has broken with the mayor many times, overriding at least twenty-seven mayoral vetoes.
On several big-ticket issues, however, Quinn has protected the mayor’s and the business sector’s interests: watering down to the point of comedy a living-wage measure and facilitating Bloomberg’s odious term-limits overhaul. Her affordable housing plan revolves around a massive tax break for developers, and she says she wants to reappoint Police Commissioner Ray Kelly, whose civil liberties record is poor.
Very recently, Quinn made two high-profile moves away from the mayor. She backed an inspector general for the NYPD and, after months of pressure from other candidates, agreed to allow a vote on a weakened but still valuable bill to require paid sick leave for employees of most city businesses. These shifts suggest that Quinn is still figuring out how far left she needs to move to win the primary without losing the business support she’ll need in the general. Where that needle lands could be where New York progressives’ prospects stand for the next eight years.
In recent surveys, Quinn polls close to 40 percent, the share of the primary vote she needs to avoid a runoff. It’s early, though—a quarter of the voters haven’t picked a candidate, and it’s possible another will enter the race (former Representative Anthony Weiner, as this article went to press, let drop that he is mulling a run). But if the 2013 campaign does come down to Lhota versus Quinn, the smart and brassy speaker will be progressives’ best hope.
But not their last. While New York City has a “strong mayor” system, the City Council has significant ability to check the executive’s power. The council now boasts a Progressive Caucus, with one member, Melissa Mark-Viverito, a candidate to succeed Quinn as speaker and another, Brad Lander, earning national renown for progressive advocacy. Whoever is elected mayor, the council will likely be a more effective progressive counterweight.
Meanwhile, progressive forces outside government are gearing up to fight for their vision of the city. Organizations like New York Communities for Change, the Community Service Society and the Center for Popular Democracy have been organizing mayoral forums and issuing policy reports aimed at forcing issues of economic and social fairness onto the campaign radar screen.
Winning City Hall or the policy battles of 2014 and beyond won’t be easy. But Messinger, who now heads the American Jewish World Service, is hopeful. “It’s always impossible to elect a progressive… and then you do it. It depends on people not feeling overwhelmed or depressed, but trying to figure out what strategies they can bring to bear to mobilize the electorate.”
That’s where my friend, the progressive operative, was wrong in 2009. A fight doesn’t have to be fair for you to win it.
Writing in 2009 in the eve of Michael Bloomberg’s third term, Richard Kim decried progressives who might vote for the billionaire mayor, saying, “Poor, hungry New Yorkers will be stripped of food stamps that the federal government says is both necessary and good stimulus, while the bollocks-for-brains bankers who got us into this mess will get office space and taxpayer moolah to restart the cycle of speculation.” Read all of the articles in The Nation's special issue on New York City.