100 Days Into Bill de Blasio’s First Term, New York’s Most Powerful Progressive Is Taking Big Swipes at Inequality
To mark his 100th day in office, de Blasio gave a forceful speech in which he laid out his vision for progressive government. “This administration is a product of movement politics,” he declared in his hourlong address. It was an unapologetically activist speech, a call to the city’s “grassroots” to create a “people-powered government” and, in the process, join him in the adventure of his next several hundred days.
The challenges of this new phase are clear. Leading the list is the implementation of UPK, which, if bungled, could prove disastrous not only for the mayor, but for a valuable new social policy. Another challenge is de Blasio’s relationship with Andrew Cuomo. While the city boasts massive economic power and a global profile, it is legally subordinate to the state. As a result, on any number of initiatives, whether it’s traffic cameras, rent regulations or the minimum wage, Cuomo’s blessing is essential—and, as he has demonstrated, readily withheld. De Blasio seems to have recognized this, telling the Times, “I think we are going to focus on what we can do for our own people, with our own tools.” Yet he can’t circumvent the governor on everything.
There are other challenges. The mayor still has to settle a huge number of labor contracts with city workers, and do so in a way that keeps the city solvent. He must make progress against the inequality that he pledged to attack despite the limits to a mayor’s power, the scale of the forces feeding it, and the fact that UPK could take years to have a meaningful effect.
The policy choices aren’t divorced from political reality, and the question for de Blasio will be how far he can press his agenda without getting pushed from office—or forced to the center. Says one longtime political observer: “He doesn’t have to worry right this week, but the forces that don’t like him—and they are many, starting with the tabloids and going into the investment bankers and Bloomberg people—they have three years to get somebody to run against him and come up with somebody better than Joe Lhota.”
In that mix of policy and politics, the role of progressive advocacy groups remains fluid and complex. History has shown that even the most dedicated reformers need street-ready allies to buoy them when they are flagging and prod them when they retreat. And de Blasio has claimed that he wants their help. Yet whether progressive groups will be willing to play that role remains an open question. For some, there’s the awkwardness of the transition from protesters to partners—and the question of whether, even in partnership, they will be best served by working alongside de Blasio or pushing him from behind. “We’re doing a wait-and-see on the kinds of things he puts forward,” says Mark Winston-Griffith of the Brooklyn Movement Center, “to figure out to what extent we remain out there in the cold and fighting back, or on his side.” He adds that “a lot of our colleagues and allies are inside and working within the administration. As time goes on, that will truly be tested.”
Many progressive leaders are very happy with what de Blasio has done so far. “This is the first time we’ve ever had a mayor advocating for Campaign for Fiscal Equity money,” says Zakiyah Ansari of the Alliance for Quality Education, referring to the landmark settlement over school funding disparities, which the state has yet to fulfill. Still, Ansari says, “what we need [de Blasio] to do is put out a clear, robust and progressive vision for education and really articulate that.” Ansari doesn’t see the strategic choices facing progressives as mutually exclusive. “We’re working collaboratively, but we’ll never be afraid to push back.”
What worries City Councilman Jumaane Williams is not the static over snowstorms or motorcades, but the larger pressure on City Hall to deliver. “We have a heavy weight on our shoulders,” he says. “Everyone is looking at us. This progressive wave has to work.”
Winston-Griffith agrees. “I think that a lot of us are nervous,” he says. “If [de Blasio] is not successful—and not successful in a spectacular way—then the question is: When are we going to get another shot?”