100 Days Into Bill de Blasio’s First Term, New York’s Most Powerful Progressive Is Taking Big Swipes at Inequality
On the ninetieth day of Bill de Blasio’s mayoralty, the sun was out and the air warm and light, suggesting that a harsh winter was finally yielding to a gentle spring.
That morning, the newspapers brought word of a state budget deal that would fund de Blasio’s signature initiative, a universal pre-kindergarten program, for five years. Because of a law de Blasio pushed, some 500,000 workers would the following day begin enjoying paid sick leave. Around the city, the number of stop-and-frisk encounters was down dramatically, and costly litigation over police stops and fire department hiring was no more. On Manhattan’s western edge, a massive real estate development proceeded with a living-wage agreement in place thanks to de Blasio’s intercession. And the city’s public housing authority was no longer (in a bizarre quirk of the budget) paying the city for police protection. Although New York has not yet been transformed into an egalitarian utopia, the tectonics of the city are nonetheless shifting as de Blasio starts in earnest on his campaign pledge to beat back inequality.
Shortly after 1 pm, de Blasio strode onto the pitcher’s mound at Citi Field in Queens, home to the New York Mets. It was opening day of the 2014 baseball season, and the new mayor had been invited to throw out the first pitch. Wearing a Mets jersey and cap, he cocked his arm, released the ball—and was promptly and lustily booed.
The jeers might have been nothing more than good-natured ribbing from long-suffering Mets fans for a defiant Red Sox loyalist. But the catcalls echoed what the polls say: de Blasio went from winning 72 percent of the vote in November to having a 45 percent approval rating in one March poll by Quinnipiac University. A New York Times/NY1 News/Sienna College poll in early April gave the mayor a slightly higher rating but still offered middling scores on his handling of schools, jobs and even income inequality—the issue that had propelled de Blasio to a stunning win in the Democratic primary and a landslide victory in the general election.
The polls capped a tumultuous few weeks during which the mayor suffered a series of setbacks, even as he dutifully checked off delivery on some campaign promises. In Albany, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo—like de Blasio, a Democrat—and his Republican allies blocked several of the new mayor’s initiatives, ranging from his bid for authority to set local wages to his request for traffic cameras for his flagship street-safety program, Vision Zero. Even his universal pre-K victory came with a caveat: while Albany had given de Blasio most of the money he wanted for his initiative, state legislators would not permit the city to fund the program through higher taxes on the rich, a linchpin of de Blasio’s campaign platform. They also skimped on funding for a key after-school component.
At the same time, de Blasio was navigating drama closer to home. He got outmaneuvered by charter school proponents, drubbed for asking the police about a political ally’s arrest, and hazed in general by a voracious press. “What a small and politically vicious man New York’s new mayor is,” Peggy Noonan howled in a recent column attacking de Blasio on charter schools.
De Blasio came to power by critiquing the “tale of two cities” that constituted the narrative of New York for the previous twelve years under the billionaire mayor, Michael Bloomberg. And three months into the de Blasio administration, this is indeed the best of times and the worst of times for progressives in New York. The good news is that city government is controlled by a progressive mayor who is actually sticking to many of his campaign promises and pushing an agenda of change. The bad news is that all the forces that have stymied progressive officials in the past—establishment pushback, mainstream media suspicion, political rivalries, fiscal realities and fissures in the progressive coalition—are as strong as was previously feared.
Since the night de Blasio was elected in a blaring repudiation of the Bloomberg era’s excesses, he’s been more than just another mayor charged with getting the garbage picked up and drafting an annual budget. Many progressives named him the standard-bearer for a new, inclusive era of social justice politics—an urban retort to the Tea Partiers as well as the New Democrats. As the roller-coaster ride of de Blasio’s first 100 days comes to an end, the question becomes: Were progressives wrong to anoint him thus? Or is it possible that the twists and bumps of his first few months actually proves they were right?
One of the leaders of the City Council’s Progressive Caucus, Jumaane Williams of Brooklyn, says it’s important to remember just how dramatic a shift de Blasio’s arrival represents. “The city just took a hard turn. It wasn’t like slow or methodical. It was like ’Aiiyee!’” he says, sounding like a man gripping a dashboard. “There are going to be growing pains.”
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