‘It’s Simply Mission Critical’: Mayor Bill de Blasio on the Revival of an Urban Agenda
As the gears of federal government have ground to a halt, a new energy has been rocking the foundations of our urban centers. From Atlanta to Seattle and points in between, cities have begun seizing the initiative, transforming themselves into laboratories for progressive innovation. Cities Rising is The Nation’s chronicle of those urban experiments.
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Joan Walsh (editor-at-large at Salon), Zerlina Maxwell (a regular commentator on MSNBC) and I recently had an hour-long, on-the-record conversation at City Hall with New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio. Sitting in Fiorello La Guardia’s old office, de Blasio talked about the recent deal the Working Families Party made with Governor Andrew Cuomo on May 31, as well as his belief that he and his fellow mayors represent a new voice in American politics, a group capable of driving a real, workable, progressive urban agenda at a time of national legislative and executive gridlock. He praised, for example, Mayor Ed Murray and the city council of Seattle for raising (eventually) their city’s minimum wage to $15 an hour, and he acknowledged what he calls “public economic power,” the tools a municipality can bring to bear in order to influence social policy. By using the public toolbox, he said, “we’re trying to make economic growth come with good strings attached.” That is, growth that benefits the entire community, not just investors.
De Blasio has learned that because of mayors’ closeness—both geographic and otherwise—to their constituents, they’re in unique positions to respond to the immediate and long-term problems that Americans face. “The climate of the middle class, the destruction of people’s earning power, the inequality crisis, the crisis of income disparity—all of this is registered so deeply, it’s like a radio signal that’s being sent out from all parts of the country that somehow doesn’t reach Washington, DC,” he said. “The more local you are, the more intensely you get it.”
He talked about his coming of age as an activist, during the Reagan years, when the federal government recused itself from dealing with—or even paying attention to—the pressing problems plaguing American consciences. During the 1980s, de Blasio said, “people were like, wait a minute, we’re adrift, what do we do? And so you had the nuclear-free zones in localities, you had the sister cities with Central America, you had the sanctuary movement, you had all sorts of things where localities…picked up the mantle and started creating their own counterprogramming.”
We also discussed the bargain struck between Democratic New York governor Andrew Cuomo and the Working Families Party at the WFP convention last month. De Blasio, who helped found WFP in 1998, brokered the controversial deal, calling it a “transcendent” moment in New York politics. As Ted Fertik writes of the WFP-Cuomo deal in Jacobin, “Two hundred activists just forced enormous capitulations from a man who wants to be president. I can’t point to a comparable moment in my lifetime.” One of these better ideas—notably a city-borne movement—will have an immediate effect on low-wage earners in all of New York. Cuomo agreed to raise New York state’s minimum wage to the President Obama–endorsed $10.10 per hour, indexed to inflation; additionally, municipalities are empowered to go 30 percent higher than that.
The deal is not universally embraced by the WFP, but de Blasio said it was necessary at this time, given the strength the party new wields in city government and the ambitious agenda he’d like to pursue. He cites his own election, along with that of WFP candidate Melissa Mark-Viverito as Speaker of the City Council, as evidence that what’s going on in New York City just might be practical and popular enough to work upstate. “There’s something bigger going on,” he said, and I don’t blame any outside observer who doesn’t see it in the first instance.”
Joan Walsh: We were just talking about how unbelievable it is that some of us were sitting around last summer talking to you about your pre-K idea, and you were getting a rap as unrealistic—and how could you make this happen? Talk about what it feels like to be presiding over people opening letters and finding out that their kids actually have slots in universal pre-K. It’s pretty fast in this politics.
Bill de Blasio: Yes, it’s amazing. It’s joyous. I have been through that experience, first of all; that is, the moment as a parent when you receive the letters. I had that experience with Chiara and Dante and have gotten that very same letter, and it was an amazing moment. You’re right that we had that moment in mind when we proposed and executed this plan, knowing what it means for a child’s life, for a family’s life. Always connected to the larger notion that our approach to family in public policy is so far off the mark in this country, and that we’re sort of trying to create a wrap-around dynamic on things like paid sick leave, on pre-K, on after-school. That’s, of course, first and foremost, a core mission. Pre-K is to provide that educational foundation for the child. Extend the school day, and deepen learning and spark the connection to education. And paid sick leave is to help people get well and not lose income.
But all of it also is part of creating an actual livable society where everyone—and this is in many cases, particularly true for women and particularly true for women single heads-of-household—gets the kind of support they need to be able to succeed, and that the notion of family in whatever form it takes is supported truly and not just with rhetoric. So, to be inspired to do something to the scale we have done, you have to be able to visualize what it means to people. And when we put forward now, over a year and a half ago, as a notion, there was a very substantial internal debate, like, “How much do we want to cross the Rubicon here?”
JW: Meaning what, cross the Rubicon?
BdB: Meaning, did we really want to say we were going to create full-day pre-K for every child in the city within just a few years’ time? After-school for any middle-school child that wants it? Are we really going to try to do things on that scale with all the attendant challenges? And it was a substantial discussion that ended, in the scheme of things, quite quickly, because my view is that I’m really uncomfortable with an undue reliance on pilot projects and small victories and incrementalism. There’s a place for it, clearly, particularly when you have an untested idea. Pre-K is not an untested idea. Pre-K is—the jury is so back on pre-K compared to almost any idea in public policy. I think I would say the same for after-school.
And it is certainly firmly proven many times over on paid sick leave that once you recognize you have the answer, then it’s a question of political will. It’s a question of resource prioritization. It’s a question of audacity and the ability to move the government to the goal.
I knew that having the dynamic of mayoral-control education, which is incredibly crucial to this equation. In the absence of mayoral-control education, this would not be possible on the pre-K side and the after-school side. That if we didn’t have a city council that shared our values, paid sick leave wouldn’t have been possible—certainly not this quickly. So it’s kind of a combination of, you have to actually believe the mission is to reach everyone. You have to believe in that kind of universality once you know the policy is proven. You have to believe in audacity, and I think social change directly results from audacity. There’s no way to achieve it without it. You have to essentially be uncomfortable with incrementalism [to] where you don’t need incrementalism. And so, for us—you, we, I—didn’t for a moment, ’cause I spent enough time out in the school system—I didn’t think it would be easy. And it’s not. I mean, we are working, everyone’s working overtime and everything already. But, I also said, you know what, if you demand it, it’s a little bit if-you-build-it-they-will-come, if you demand it internally and obsessively—and I’ve said it’s the number-one priority, the pre-K.
I really tried to make it really easy on people internally and externally, so I said, number one, period. We’re going to throw the kitchen sink at it. It does happen. And yes, keep perfecting it. Yes, we keep monitoring it. And in the course of the first year or two, we’ll have our growing pains and all. But my other personal vantage point on this is, I take the subways a lot, and I walk around the streets a lot and people come up to me with just this fervor. It’s, “thank you for pre-K,” or, “How do I find out about pre-K?” or, “My child is ready for Pre-K in September,” or, “My baby in the stroller is going to be ready for pre-K in four years,” you know? And it’s a thing that is real in their lives, that used to be entirely unreliable. Seventy thousand is the universal number we think of of each kids each year who can and should get it. Twenty thousand has been the number to date for full-day pre-K, so if you applied, you had a two-in-seven chance of getting into full-day pre-K. So a lot of people didn’t apply—or expected to lose. Now with people starting to expect to win, the interest level shot up. And that’s where people—when you give them a chance at meaningful progressive policy, they will take it.
Katrina vanden Heuvel: So, it’s been an interesting couple weeks with the Working Families Party Convention.
BdB: Interesting is only beginning to describe it.
KvH: I’m interested in your role—why you felt it was important to mediate a deal? And in light of Governor Cuomo’s deal with the WFP, in which he committed to a plan to raise the minimum wage to $10.10 next year and then work to give the localities the power to dictate their own minimum wage, what kind of process do you see for ensuring the plan gets passed? And what lessons do you draw from the $15 minimum wage victory in Seattle?
BdB: Which is incredible. I met with Mayor Murray. He was sitting in that chair right there about a month ago, and I told him the guys at The Nation are on you, and we’re all of us—your fellow progressives and fellow mayors—are, you know, wishing you Godspeed here, because if you can get this done, it’s going open up space for all of us. I’ll answer the immediate question, but I do want to note there’s an interesting thing going on among the progressive mayors trying to support each other in a variety of ways, because we, I think, honestly believe we have the ability to get some stuff done that is not exactly happening at the federal level at this moment. And that we need each other, and that we should support each other, and that we can push the spectrum in the process. That’s our calling to do that. So Mayor Murray and the City Council, they’re doing an incredible job.
[On the agreement between the governor and the WFP] I think this achievement from last Saturday night is a very big deal. I think that it’s absolutely worth everything that went into it and everything that will go into it thereafter. The clear notion that we had a huge coalition of crucial players in this state committed to, you know, passing the $10.10 minimum wage, with indexing, with the ability of municipalities to go up 30 percent or more if they choose locally, is a sea change for the state. I think that it’s fair to say [that] this state has been so backward on minimum-wage policy: the fact that in one of the bluest states in the nation that minimum wage has been a massive fight.
In fact, the WFP formed in large measure over the minimum-wage question, spent six years trying to get us to $7.25 from what I think was $5.15 when they formed in 1998, so the fact that there’s been this extraordinary difficulty in New York State had to be resolved. That’s why this wage issue in this state and the dynamic, the history and the future of the state Senate are inextricably linked. The blockage on economic justice was the Republican state Senate in this state; you remove that problem, you open up a world of possibilities. So you could be very happy about the policy arguments that were delineated, but I would argue that you should be even more happy about the structural change that is made possible by this unified effort to take back the state Senate, and I believe that once it is taken back, it will not revert—because of demographic change. I think it’s been artificially behind the curve, and once in Democratic hands will stay there, and in New York State, thank God, when we say Democratic hands, we mean reasonably progressive Democratic hands in the scheme of things.
Certainly for us, our entire agenda would be greatly enhanced with a Democratic state Senate. So, so there’s a big structural opportunity at hand. And I think from—I can’t speak for the WFP—but I think they they had every right to want to see a lot in the plan. They had every right to, you know, demand a lot, and I think that they got a lot to their credit, and I think it will be a transcendent moment. I have no doubt in my mind [that] this is a transcendent moment in New York City politics. I mean, remember, the Republican state Senate, fifty years Republican, except for two years in the last fifty years. So half a century, a Republican state Senate except for two years. In the state that brought you Franklin Roosevelt and Fiorello La Guardia. Something’s wrong with this picture.
So, that’s why to have a breakthrough moment and now this coalition, which—and I think this is really another important subtext—which is, why was labor, including some of the most progressive unions in the country—the two big SEIU unions are a great example. Why were those unions in this kind of mixed dynamic vis-à-vis the state Senate? Because as much as at times everyone wanted a Democratic state Senate, the absence of forward motion forced unions to make decisions issue by issue.
So, for example, it’s well documented, 1199 would cut deals on Medicaid for poor people and for workers in the hospitals amongst the lowest-paid workers in our whole society. I don’t blame them; that was the path they had. But wouldn’t it be better to have structural agreement from the beginning that these are the kind of changes we have to make? And so now 1199 is in the vanguard, saying we won’t do that anymore, we’re not interested in that incrementalism, we’re not interested in having to accept what is clearly an inferior arrangement, when we all can band together and say—all these kindred unions with the WFP, with the Democratic Party, with the governor, with the mayor—we can all say, as one, this is now our common mission. So watching it happen was very touch-and-go, but I’ve done a lot of those moments. You could feel the earth turning a bit. This was potentially a massive breakthrough. Now we have to make it that massive breakthrough. I mean, that’s the other point is, the original point is the just the easy part.
KvH: You had your own issues with a key player in the negotiations?
BdB: I don’t know what you’re referring to… [Laughter]
KvH: You were a key player in pulling together what you describe as a “transcendent moment”—but isn’t it going to demand all in the coalition holding the governor accountable going forward?
JW: I mean, he really seemed to go out of his way in your opening weeks and months to break your wings, and you know…
BdB: I still have my wings. [Laughter]
JW: You referred before to how important it is that the mayor have control of the schools. But they trimmed that when it comes to rule-setting around charter schools and co-location. Lots of national progressives really wondered why you were being so magnanimous to this guy who has not been so magnanimous to you.
BdB: Because I think that beyond the long personal history—and I’ve had my differences with him, quite evidently—but there is a long and good personal history, almost twenty years. But beyond that, because I think one thing I would urge my fellow progressives to look at is what did we come here to do, and so, look at the trajectory on Pre-K. It was dramatic. It was contentious. What happened in the end? would be my question. In the end, we got the money we needed, and if there were steps along the way—some that made evident sense, maybe some that made more sense in the cool light of dawn—we’ve had a chance to reflect on what happened. We feel very good about how it played out.
Now the issue you raise about mayoral control. We think mayoral control obviously has been proven to be effective, even in the hands I disagreed with, right. I think that the Bloomberg administration did not apply it the way it was meant to be applied. I think they alienated a lot of parents. I think they alienated the workforce. I think they made a host of mistakes that undermined the true meaning of mayoral control, in my view, but they also—on the good days—you could see what was possible, and you certainly could see some of the negatives of the previous system pulled away. So I think that what’s interesting is here mayoral control as a concept is pretty well established. The challenge around some pretty narrow issues with charters; I didn’t love all the outcomes, of course not. Practically speaking, we believe that mayoral control is just as intact as ever. There are some technical things that are a bit more of a hassle, honestly, but under a mayoral-control system it’s still a mayoral-control system. It’s our buildings, it’s our process, and there’s no two ways about that.
So, when you do the scorecard at the end of the day, take the drama issues away for a moment and just look at outcomes, we feel fine. We really feel fine and, remember, we got a five-year plan on pre-K, I mean, we got the dollar figure we were looking for, essentially. I mean, you know, in the real world, that was plenty. Now, so what? What does that previous sequence tell us about the current events? Well, it says that progressives are better off on the offensive, and I certainly understand why some people might have argued against the outcome that was achieved Sunday night [at the WFP Convention]. I understand it.
If someone said, “Here’s the logic pattern,” I see the logic pattern. But here’s my response. What I saw was internecine warfare, because I knew who was lining up where, and I knew a hell of a lot of time and energy would be put into that struggle instead of the obvious common enemy and, from my point of view, if we could foster a unity with a very clear purpose and that was empowering to New York City and our agenda here in New York City, it was like who on earth wouldn’t grab that opportunity? And I think the governor and me, we’re in the same boat, we are affected rightfully by everything around us. You come with your core values, you come with your program, and then the world ensues, right, and so if the world is united around a goal, it certainly helps reinforce that goal.
And so, I have been the Doubting Thomas and I’ve spent a lifetime among progressive Doubting Thomases, and I don’t blame a single one of them for their doubts. They’re often very well founded in the abstract, but I also would say, sometimes a transcendent moment is staring you in the face and you have to be willing to see it for what it is, and I see it. I see why this changes the politics of the state. And it changes how any officeholder, from the governor on down, responds, because something this big is unavoidable.
KvH: I want to pick up on what you said about cities and the role of mayors. In the absence of a lot going on in Washington [BdB: Yeah], cities become in Justice Brandeis’s term, incubators of a progressive liberalism [BdB: Yeah]. Do you see—and with everything going on in the city and 24/7 work pace here—the ability to put together the mayors around this country as a force: speaking out, showing that politics can improve the condition of people’s lives and moving a coherent agenda?
BdB: I do. I think we have. I, generationally, I came up in the generation that was like, ha, the federal government is there to protect us from a progressive point of view, and the people who try and fight against economic justice, social justice, racial justice are the folks who claim states’ rights, right? And then Richard Nixon got elected, and the world started turning and more. So when Ronald Reagan got elected, and the world’s now been turned entirely on its head—and I always say in the early Reagan years when I was sort of coming of age and I read a lot about this in your fabulous publication [KVH: Thank you.] The world turned because then suddenly people were like, wait a minute, we’re adrift, what do we do? And so you had the nuclear-free zones in localities, you had the sister cities with Central America, you had the sanctuary movement, you had all sorts of things where localities, sometimes neighborhoods, but certainly localities, picked up the mantle and started creating their own counterprogramming, if you will.
I was involved in the Central American movement in the late eighties, and, you know, there’s something very interesting and transcendent about what we were doing. Well, first of all, I was working for the Quixote Center down outside of DC, a program called Quest for Peace, and I was literally collecting medicines and food and clothing and sending it to a progressive organization in Nicaragua—a progressive Catholic organization that was working closely with the Sandinista government and providing, you know, the support at the local level that the people needed. So here were American citizens making, sort of making—in a good way—making their own foreign policy. Their government at that point was doing a horrible thing supporting the Contras. Later, in part because of the grassroots activism, you start to see dominoes fall locally, where local leaders and then Congress leaders all turned against the Contra policy, and actually there was a fascinating story of a grassroots movement that helped to change US foreign policy and the Congress in many ways ended up on the right side.
I say that for a purpose. In the absence of progressives at the top, people in a good way, in a kind of do-it-yourself say, in a take-matters-into-your-hands way, in a good and progressive and democratic, small-d democratic way, acted, and the world started to turn as a result of that. I think now we have a parallel dynamic. The federal government is a nonentity on addressing the core questions of economic justice, and even the core questions of the national economic future of this nation, which I would define as education, infrastructure and research—just not in the game. The president’s been trying his damnedest. I certainly don’t discredit the president. I don’t discredit some of the more progressive members of the House and Senate, but effectively speaking, it’s shut down, and then the downstream impact of that and the funding impact on states has hindered a lot of states’ abilities—although there are some states, to their credit, still doing good and important things. The least constricted level is the local level, where we have, by and large, a lot of independence of action. This is sort of the American—the upside, I guess—of the American federal system, right? We have, I don’t know who won in that constitutional discussion, but thank you at this moment, because at least someone gets to do something, ’cause if it was all about the national government, we’d be screwed right now. So, many localities have some distinct ability and funding mechanisms of their own, that by definition folks on the ground got the memo that there was an economic crisis that dislocated a huge percentage of our people.
So I use the example of when I went to DC in December. The president called together all the newly elected mayors. I was expecting a lot of ideological range. There were mainly Democrats, a few Republicans, all different parts of the country, all different kinds of cities. I was just sort of expecting, you know, very different messages in the room, and we all respect each other and we all, you know, generically think its great to be a mayor. And instead it was like this inequality seminar, like around the whole room that’s what everyone wanted to talk about, and they said it in different ways. Some talked about poverty, some talked about pre-K and early childhood education. Some talked about economic growth and development but from an inequality perspective—that too many people were being left out, and there was this amazing resonance, and it really struck me, having done this work a long time, I kind of was like jolted to hear such resonance. And then I pursued it with a lot of the mayors afterwards, since.
I think it’s real straightforward. The climate of the middle class, the destruction of people’s earning power, the inequality crisis, the crisis of income disparity, all of this is registered so deeply, it’s like a radio signal that’s being sent out from all parts of the country that somehow doesn’t reach Washington, DC, but everyone else is getting the signal. The more local you are, the more intensely you get it. And so, mayors know we simply have to attend to it. It’s simply mission-critical. It’s a survival issue to address the inequality crisis, and we’re all doing it in different ways. Obviously, Mayor Murray gets tremendous credit, as one example, but you see variations of this all over the country. You’ve certainly seen it on paid sick leave, which has become like an avalanche. So I think that now can you take it—I’m sorry for the long-windedness, but it’s a great question, so I’ll finish here—can you take it and make it more structural? Yes. One, there’s natural mechanisms for mayors to work together. Two, once upon a time there was a a urban agenda—in the sixties, seventies, eighties, it was a normal thing. There’s a long history of an urban agenda. It got killed after Reagan and Democrats got scared of the urban agenda.
And Democrats ran away from our own people, and that is unconscionable, and we have to embrace who we are and what we are and the people are ready for it more than ever because, in fact, the economic crisis brought all of us together in a really bad way because most people across every demographic experienced it. And so I think the time is now. I do think we can knit this together in some kind of coherent joint efforts by mayors, and I do think eventually it becomes the fulcrum for the reassertion of an urban agenda in Washington.
Zerlina Maxwell: I want to tackle an issue connected to the tale-of-two-cities theme, which resonated with so many people like you said. One of the core tenets of that is housing, affordable housing, and so I know that your administration has done a lot—building 200,000 affordable units so that people can afford to live in this city— but what other plans do you have in the works? Can you go into details about that?
BdB: Let me start, and tell me if I’m on the right track in terms of what you’re trying to get at. So sort of the economic justice platform or the fight against income inequality—I think it begins with the raising of benefits and wages in every way we can, so that is the paid sick leave legislation. Remember, when I did my state of the city early on in my administration, I talked about wanting us to be able to raise our own minimum wage and that was immediately dismissed as an impossibility, haha, so let’s just say we have a good memory about our own program, and we look at opportunity to move forward on it. That’s now very live, so that would be a key piece of this plan. And then all the living-wage and prevailing-wage actions clearly key in any place where we subsidize to improve wages and benefits. And then I would say, the external pieces I think at this point should be encouraging union-organizing and wage efforts. So, I’ve been supporting the fast-food workers. I’ve been supporting the airport-security workers. I’ve been supporting the carwash workers. I mean, this is another really interesting phenomenon you see around the country. Why shouldn’t local officials use their power to influence and even some of their tools to foster union organizing, which just protects the citizenry and the taxpayer in the end? Because if people have stable family incomes and benefits they will not require the need for public help, so it’s morally right, it’s practically right. So, there’s that whole swath, and then there is sort of macroeconomic development with a purpose. So we obviously have a whole series of things we want to do in terms of macroeconomic development: expanding the tech sector and all sorts of things, but we’re trying to do it in a way that gets more New Yorkers hired, more people that have not had as much economic opportunity hired. And we’re trying to make economic growth come with good strings attached, and then, and a lot of smart use of the public toolbox.
I always say this, my simplistic phrase is “public economic power.” We have all these tools we don’t use. We have our pension funds. We have our procurement. We have our public works. We have all these tools. We should be demanding so much back when we utilize them, because everyone wants our business. Everyone wants to come over and take advantage of all this public money, right? Well, here are your strings-attached. That’s certainly how we’re approaching the development process and land use, so that’s that whole swath of what can you draw out that wasn’t there before that addresses inequality, that gets people better wages and benefits.
Then, there’s affordable housing, because it’s the number-one expense—housing—in this city, everywhere. If you can lower that, that’s another way of addressing income inequality, and if you lower it for ultimately half a million people, which is what the plan would reach in ten years. And then there’s the long-term work, which is the pre-K and after-school. If you educate people more effectively early, kids early, it obviously empowers them economically for the future. It obviously reduces a lot of the negative outcomes and the costly outcomes. But I think what we’re learning is that you have to do all of the above and ferociously if you actually want to turn this.
KvH: Public safety.
BdB: I support that. [Laughter]
KvH: I know you do but a predecessor of yours also supported public safety. Mayor Dinkins got hammered—and in ways that were wrong. On June 2, you announced a task force to look at alternatives and reforms to address the crisis of the incarceration of the mentally ill, and how to make reforms to a jail system which is housing too many mentally ill. For example, what happened at Rikers last month was very tough, and could undermine some of your public-safety reforms and efforts. I’m interested in the thinking behind the new plan, and how you see your economic agenda intersecting with the policing and the new developments, which police commissioner Bratton’s been talking about and implementing?
BdB: First, I just want to say, I think we’ve learned very quickly and in a healthy manner, safety takes many forms. The Vision Zero plan is a very big thing to us, because we learned that we had almost as many traffic fatalities last year as we had murders. So, you know, thank God this plan is starting to take effect and starting to have an impact. The safety dynamics around health, you know, we are coming to grips with the fact that there’s so many unaddressed health challenges, physical challenges like obesity, you know. There’s the challenges around mental health, which are profound. So, sort of, you got, what I think what I’m learning on this job very quickly is, not only are they all connected, but you have to address them all.
And certainly the case of Rikers, the case is horrible, the murders we experienced last week. We see there’s so many people with mental-health challenges that are going unaddressed, including in our jail system, including our prison system. So, we control the jails, we don’t control the state prisons. But we do control the jails, and we are determined to start to change the approach, not just with more mental health services available at the point of contact in the jail, but to try to get to people before they ever end up in trouble, to try to get to people who have gotten into trouble and recognize that the solution might be a mental health one rather than an incarceration one.
This is big, challenging stuff. It’ll be challenging the resources, but what our task force has to do is come back and say, okay if what’s really going on at Rikers right now is, a hell of a lot of people with mental-health challenges are going unaddressed and it’s creating additional problems and danger for everyone involved—how do you pull back that piece, take a lot of the resources you’re now putting into incarceration and trying to use them to try to address mental health more effectively? It’s a very tough mission, but that’s [what] they’re charged with figuring out to do. On the overall policing front, this, you know, we always do, from my point of view, the right way to think is, where do we want to be at the end of this journey? By definition, what product, what metrics, what outcomes? I could not be more pleased with what Bratton has done in terms of such a tense first set of steps to repair the relationship between police and community. And he and I were talking this morning and we both noted that we do not have community leaders—who we both talk to all the time—we don’t have them saying that there is a current tension around stop-and-frisk at the neighborhood level. It’s always something we have to keep working on. It’s endless work of reform, but today in New York City, juxtaposing a year ago in New York City, there’s a strong assumption that, not only are the numbers of bad stops clearly reduced, but the tonality, the respect levels, the cooperation level, that’s a whole different thing, that’s kind of record time in my view, and he gets a lot of credit for them—and he gets a lot of credit for having, with all his reputational strength, looked at the surveillance question and said we’re not doing this anymore, you know, and he was quite adamant. No one, I don’t think anyone in the world is going to say that Bill Bratton is not a crimefighter and tough on fighting terror, but he came back and looked at a program that he thought was not only unfair but ineffective, and he believed, like everything he’s always believed, that the better way to fight crime, to fight terror, is with community and with that deep connection.
So that’s happening really quickly, and even though we’re experiencing some challenges that we have to address aggressively—and we will—certain places in the city are having some real challenges in crime, and particularly in certain housing developments, the bigger picture is that this big series of reforms was implemented very fast and has helped policing, because the relationship with the community is repairing rapidly. You know, I was in East New York this morning for the wake of this poor young man’s murder, and talked to some of the community leaders, and one of them said to me, in the handling of this tragedy and everything after, he said, it was a very nice way of saying, he said that, what it says on the side of the squad car—courtesy, professionalism, respect—we experienced that in these last days, which we had not in the past. Police were all over trying to help the community through the crisis, so that really is the gateway to a safer city. We’re very convinced of that. We’re convinced this is going to really be foundational.
JW: I hate to be a one-note person, but it is what our audience cares about. I want to go back to Cuomo for a second. I’ve seen you mocked for calling it a transcendent moment, and I didn’t really understand what you meant until I talked to you, so, if only for that, I now understand why you think it’s important, and I can scoff—
BdB: Scoff with the best of them.
JW: —as someone who lived in California, I was like, “Oh, it’s a big deal to get a Democratic governor to support a Democratic state senate? Wait, in what world?” But, in your world—in this world—it is. So, I really appreciate your breaking that down. I guess the thing that cynics—not cynics—the thing the critics said was, “Unfortunately, Cuomo kind of symbolizes to a lot of people where our side is in terms of great on so many social issues—not all of them—but great…
BdB: What he did on marriage and what he did on guns was so far ahead of—let’s be clear, and I’ll critique him too, but what he did on those two, I would challenge the whole country to find me governors…
JW: But it’s on the economic agenda that we’re stuck, and his tax policy and his courting of Wall Street—those specific things blocking your ideas for how to fund pre-K. It’s great to have the money, but that’s a separate battle, and that’s a real victory. But, to fund the next generation of economic development and economic opportunity programming, we’re going to need higher tax rates, and so a lot of people felt like it was an opportunity to speak directly to that wing of the party and say, “We just can’t go on this way,” and that it was therefore an opportunity lost.
BdB: And, if there had not been a substantial plan for fundamental political change in this state, they would have been right. I support him—I’m a Democrat—and I was going to support him regardless of the WFP outcome. But I’m trying to take the perspective of people with issue that critique. By that logic pattern, they would have been right. But I think—first of all, just a second on the nature of New York State. We lean eastward, meaning we lean to the Old World, not eastward as in Asia, eastward as in Old Europe, and that is so much of our political culture. And, if you want to understand how the Democratic governor didn’t necessarily make a major priority of electing a Democratic senator, and why that’s gone on many, many times—a Democratic Senate—and why that’s gone on for many, many years, you almost have to see us as more of a parliamentary system. There was a strange, coalitional dynamic, not just this recent independent Democratic coalition. Really, practically well before that… where everyone sort of winked and nudged and accepted this reality for whatever reasons. And Labor was complicit in that, too. So, in fact, instead of it being what it should have been, which is an out-and-out, you know, we’re a Democratic state—we’re a very blue state—this should have been a no-brainer, everyone’s going to go elect a Democratic senate, we’re all done here.
This is not something Andrew Cuomo created. It was created well before him, and I think everyone and anyone who didn’t do everything they could to help elect a Democratic Senate was on the wrong side of history. But when we had a chance to break through that, and change the dynamic, potentially, for decades to come—because, again, I (demographically) believe we are at that tipping point, our politics has been far behind the demographic change. To me, it would have been unconscionable not to take that step, and I go back to our agenda, and I said it Saturday night, spontaneously, in front of everyone, with the cameras rolling, I said, “This is our agenda in New York City.” I know a lot of them care deeply about it. I said, “If you believe in this agenda, we need this change to happen.” So what would have been the alternative? The alternative would have been a very protracted, bloody struggle with the governor and a lot of labor, including a lot of the most progressive elements of labor, fighting the WFP, to what particular outcome I’m not sure, even though—again—I understand the logic pattern. I confront and dispute the logic pattern in terms of what it would have actually led to: a big, bold fight with lots of resources being expended where everyone fought each other.
Meanwhile, for all of us trying to move this agenda in New York City, it would have distracted from the agenda, it would have undermined the agenda, and a very possible outcome would have been the exact status quo in Albany for at least new more years. Which was unacceptable to me when I’m trying to protect rent regulation—strengthen rent regulation—when I’m trying to make sure…is strong. When I’m trying to make sure that we move the Dream Act, which would affect a lot of people in this town. And a host of other things on economic justice that all, tragically, require Albany approval, for reasons I have deemed colonial—or semi-colonial. That’s absolutely outrageous, but that’s the state of affairs.
So, when you look at that reality, and it was, here is agreement on a set of substantive items and here is an agreement to take back the state Senate, and here is the coalition that can do it, and if this coalition holds, it changes the politics of the state, issue-by-issue, year-by-year, moment-by-moment.
It was not just about one election. It was about the same coalition—by the way, the same coalition that was so effective in electing Melissa Mark Viverito Speaker of the City Council—not disconnected to some elements of that coalition that helped elect me mayor. So, there’s something bigger going on, and I don’t blame any outside observer who doesn’t see it in the first instance. I don’t blame anyone who’s cynical about it, or questioning. But I just want people who believe in what we’re doing here to understand why, to me, this was foundational. Now, ask me in six months. Because if we pull it off, I hope a lot of people will say, “Uh-uh, that really was a smart move for everybody,” and if we don’t, people will say, “Well, it wasn’t what it was cracked up to be.” So now the job is to actually make it real.
KvH: We’ll be back in six months.
*The transcript of the interview has been lightly edited.
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