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.