An Interview With Bill de Blasio
Mayoral hopeful Bill de Blasio participates in a candidate’s forum in New York, Tuesday, August 13, 2013. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)
Public Advocate Bill De Blasio, endorsed by The Nation earlier this month, has recently gone from long-shot candidate to one of the front-runners in the New York City mayoral race. Running on a relatively progressive platform, he’s managed to stir up a latent liberal base in a city that hasn’t elected a Democratic mayor in over twenty years.
I caught up with the candidate yesterday at Good Stuff Diner near Union Square where he was holding court for the afternoon. Munching on a BLT sandwich, he seemed a bit fatigued from the weeks of campaigning as he fielded my questions. He was in a good mood though, and the diners passing by all recognized him. A few mentioned that it was his son Dante’s appearance in a recent advertisement campaign that won them over.
We discussed labor issues, climate change, the New York Police Department, the city’s beleaguered community hospitals and the legacy of Alex Rodriguez.
The transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.
Bhaskar Sunkara: We’re in a unique situation—none of the municipal labor unions has a contract. Do you have any firm commitment with regard to retroactive pay for public employees for the years since their contracts expired?
Bill de Blasio: The only way to resolve what’s an unprecedented situation is to sit with each union, as mayor, in private, not through the media, and work out a situation that works for each of them. And I said, put every item on the table. I imagine a lot of unions will put retroactive pay on the table, and we’ll put forward an account of the city’s financial situation and we can talk about ways in which we can save money. Real issues for labor like contracting out and privatization concerns, I share a lot of labor’s feelings that those have been counterproductive efforts by Bloomberg. So we’re going to have to work it out case-by-case, but retroactive pay is certainly a valid thing to discuss. I just won’t ever commit in advance of negotiations to any particular outcome.
You’ve staked out a relatively progressive platform on labor issues, but you lack the support of key municipal unions. Do you see not having those endorsements having any impact on your ability to negotiate contracts in either direction?
Look, I’ve always had a very positive relationship with the municipal labor unions, a respectful relationship. I think that we can work well together, but these will be tough negotiations because of the situation we’ve been left in. But I think we can work it out. I always use the example of the 1970s, when the near-bankruptcy of New York City was a much tougher situation than what we face now, and labor stepped up and was very creative and responsible. I think it will be again.
But obviously since that crisis in the 1970s, we’ve seen defeat after defeat for labor and falling union density. Thirteen percent fewer workers are union members compared to the mid-1980s. We’re still in better shape than the rest of the country in this regard, but it’s a marked decline. Is there anything you could do to fight against these trends as mayor?
Absolutely. I think unionization is good public policy. I think when families secure their economic future that’s good for everyone. I think given what we’ve seen in the economic crisis of the past half-decade, the economic insecurity that people are feeling in this city and beyond, the driving down of wages and benefits, the answer is a higher level of unionization. I support the striking fast-food workers, for example, and I support the efforts of a number of unions to organize, and I think it’s perfectly appropriate for a mayor to be front-and-center in those efforts.
What actual plans have you presented to prepare the city for climate change? It’s one of the few spheres where Bloomberg was actually a step or two ahead of national progressives. Is there anything in particular that can be done at the city level?
I think Bloomberg’s broad vision of the environment in New York City is something I agree with. I broadly stand with his vision for how to deal with climate change and prepare for future weather events. But one thing we need to do on a much greater level is energy retrofits of buildings. I think this is a part of the Bloomberg legacy of lost opportunity where retrofits are so important in terms of reducing emissions and energy efficiency. And the city has tremendous power to have an impact because of our own huge stock of public buildings. But the Bloomberg administration didn’t follow through on that concept particularly strongly.
There’s a great model in Chicago for financing energy retrofits. I’d like to borrow from that and make it a central part of my administration. But I also want to make sure that environmental sustainability and economic sustainability are brought together and that we use opportunities like retrofits to maximize economic opportunity for folks that are being left out for now.
Outer borough residents are often the ones left out and are facing cuts to key social services. You’re calling for a “super authority” of sorts to help manage community hospitals, private ones, in Brooklyn…
Not to manage, but to determine, case by case, how we ensure there will be local healthcare and how we protect the facilities we have. If it has to be restructuring or cost savings—fine. But we have to start with the assumption that we’ll protect local healthcare facilities. Come up with an overall plan, but we need public involvement to make that happen.
Can you briefly outline the level of public involvement and how it will relate to the pretty extensive healthcare infrastructure we have in this city? What bodies will be regulating it? New ones?
We started with Brooklyn because that’s where the problem is most profound right now. But it’s something I’d build out city-wide. I think it’s pretty straightforward. What we have now is not working. We have a state health department, we have a city health department, and yet we’ve had more than a dozen hospital closures. And as we’re threatened by a number of closings in Brooklyn, there is no plan, there is no role being articulated by the mayor for public sector involvement. It just continues to happen.
It’s a really fascinating example of government, both on a city and a state level, looking the other way and hoping no one will notice. We are charged with making sure there is healthcare for people. It’s part of our core, it’s no different than public safety. My idea is to take city and state regulatory and budgetary powers and combine them in an entity that will ensure that there is planning and assistance to healthcare facilities to keep them open. And they can take different forms. There can be cost savings, there can be reform, but what is non-negotiable to me is that I don’t want us to lose local access to healthcare.
A battle that every mayor in New York has had to deal with is the amount of important local policy decision making that occurs in Albany instead of here. Do you have any plans where you’d try to make policy making autonomous from Albany?
I think obviously the Urstadt law should be repealed and that the city should have control of its own rent regulations. [The Urstadt Law, which was passed by the State legislature in 1971, took away the city’s power to pass rent laws that are stricter than the state’s—BKS.] We should have our power to make our own taxation decisions.
There’s a host of things that need to change. It’s a semi-colonial dynamic. We’re the economic engine of the state. Over a half of the population of New York [State] still need permission from Albany to do a bunch of things. That should be a matter of self-determination.
Is there any way that your response to Occupy Wall Street and other protests could be different from the Bloomberg administration’s response? How will you treat other social movements that emerge in the future?
I think the movement that was expressing concern that people felt all over the city and all over the world required the respect to be given a location where they could continue their protests.
I think there were other available locations that could have been identified. The location that they were using did become a problem. I think it was appropriate to say that that had to change. There were other alternatives than to simply clear them out without giving them a place to continue their work. I think that the way it was done excluded the media. Which to me was a very chilling thing. It was a very troubling precedent. City Hall decided to keep the media at bay and not fully observe or know about what was happening. I think that’s unacceptable.
Speaking of police overreach, there have been pretty extensive levels of surveillance by the NYPD on the Muslim community. Are there aspects of those policies that you would keep? Do you think the program as a whole has journeyed into the unconstitutional?
I know more about stop-and-frisk than I do about [the] constitutional reach of these policies. Here’s what I do know personally: I only believe in policing based on specific leads, specific suspect descriptions, and so on. We should have assertive policing but obviously always be respectful of constitutional boundaries. The only way to do that is to appoint an independent inspector general. That will be the difference in policing in this city moving forward. I don’t know the specific nuances. I can say this much: if anything is not constitutional and not based on specific leads, I wouldn’t allow it. I would want a highly respected inspector general to have a set of eyes on it.
Would you be in favor of putting school safety agents back under the authority of the Department of Education as opposed to the NYPD?
In the first instance, I want the educational leaders in the school to be decision makers in how we handle discipline. There are too many suspensions. We’re not utilizing some of the tools we have to address problems.
There’s also this horrible trend that I’ve spoken out about and also joined legal action against of sending kids with behavioral problems to the emergency room rather than helping them in the schools and then charging the parents for the medical bills. Or putting [students] in handcuffs.
I wouldn’t necessarily change the jurisdiction of the school safety agents away from the NYPD, but I would change the way decisions are made in the school.
Comptroller John Liu recently advocated for a minimum wage of $11.50 per hour to be phased in gradually over a number of years. Would you be in favor of a higher minimum wage?
I believe in $9 immediately. I would start there and then see where things go. I think it would be a big step for the city if we controlled our own situation and moved to $9 immediately and automatically indexed the wage to inflation.
I’m not going to defend him. I think it’s disgusting. He should be gone.
I’m the lone socialist apologist for Rodriguez, but, then again, I even occasionally defend [Knicks owner] James Dolan.
You have issues man, you need to examine yourself.