Dem Doldrums in Gotham
The unemployment rate in New York City is higher than 10 percent, exceeding the national average. Each week finds more families entering the city's homeless shelter system, and the city's once-mighty manufacturing sector has shrunk to a paltry 2 percent of the job market. Such indicators suggest that the future of the city's economy should be at the forefront of the mayor's race. Democrats should be troubled that it is not.
Whatever his party label, Mayor Michael Bloomberg's firmest loyalties are to Wall Street and the financial sector. Early in his first term he went to court to stop the City Council from cracking down on subprime lending. More recently, amid the uproar over the financial sector bailout, he positioned himself as Wall Street's champion, defending exorbitant bonuses and claiming that Timothy Geithner "walks on water." Throughout his two terms, Bloomberg has promoted development oriented around luxury condos as the middle class has been squeezed out of the city. Meanwhile the low-wage retail sector has become the main area of job growth for New York's working class.
That Bloomberg's Democratic challenger, Bill Thompson, has been the city's comptroller for the past eight years makes his unwillingness to challenge the mayor's economic blueprint all the more puzzling. Aside from hammering Bloomberg for overturning term limits, Thompson has other lines of attack, containing varying degrees of economic critique: he has gone after the mayor, the richest person in the city, for his self-financed campaign spending, which outpaces Thompson 16 to 1; and he has assailed the mayor's preference for raising sales taxes and city fees rather than income taxes on the wealthy. Yet none of these positions suggest a clear new direction for the city's economy.
There are plenty of ideas out there that Thompson could spotlight. Earlier this year, a progressive coalition of unions, immigrants' rights groups and think tanks issued a blueprint called "One City, One Future." Given that the "finance sector is likely to emerge from the current meltdown much smaller in scale," the report calls for building up other components of the local economy. Many of its recommendations center around a living wage, which would give service-sector workers a much-needed pay boost. Though he signed a wage increase for healthcare workers in his first term, Bloomberg does not support full-scale local living-wage legislation, arguing that hikes should be handled at the state and federal levels--which ignores New York City's high cost of living. Thompson--despite being endorsed by the Working Families Party, a key player in the One City coalition--has not made such legislation a centerpiece of his campaign.
Thompson most certainly could take cues from other cities. San Francisco and Santa Fe have passed a city living wage with no adverse effect on their economies. In Los Angeles, living-wage jobs and affordable housing are required components of any economic development project that receives public funding. Security guards in Washington, DC, now receive a living wage plus benefits, while San Francisco's successful universal healthcare program has helped lift the growing financial burdens on urban working people. There is also the question of what to do with the unspent stimulus money, which many believe could help kick-start the growth of green jobs in urban areas.
Thompson, though, has not spoken forcefully on behalf of these or any other innovative proposals. His campaign literature states that, as mayor, he would "put New Yorkers back to work by creating long-term, good-paying jobs." But in his first debate with Bloomberg, Thompson did not even raise the issue of the city's growing unemployment rate, let alone offer solutions to the problem. Sadly, he seems willing to stoke populist resentment against Bloomberg without offering a substantive alternative.
Barring an unexpected outpouring of voter outrage against the mayor, New Yorkers are likely to see four more years of Bloomberg, which would extend Republican control over City Hall to twenty years. In the 1990s Rudy Giuliani and his "quality of life" policing put Democrats on the defensive; over the past eight years, Bloomberg (again allied with Giuliani) has moved to the forefront of education reform. The result is that even in their own backyard, local Democrats no longer control the urban agenda. By putting forth progressive economic policies, Dems may one day regain their groove.