New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s first 100 days—a partnership between The Nation and City Limits.
Last Thursday, Mayor Bill de Blasio’s public schedule told us that he would attend an “invitation only” event, the Real Estate Board of New York’s 118th Annual Banquet.
Earlier last week, the mayor’s official schedule noted an event that was totally closed to the press—his meeting with Timothy Cardinal Dolan, the archbishop of New York.
But there was no mention on de Blasio’s public schedule yesterday of where the mayor was going to be after his speech to the Conaference of Mayors. It turns out he spoke to a closed-door session of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.
Capital New York found out about the speech; a reporter who tried to attend the event was escorted out by security. But Capital obtained a recording, and while the audio jumps around a little bit, de Blasio can be heard saying, “I feel that part of my job description is to be a defender of Israel,” and recognizing the Jewish state for having “stared down terrorism and kept moving forward.”
The lack of disclosure from a guy who promised all kinds of transparency was surprising. The full-throated defense of Israel was not.
In 2012, de Blasio launched a watchlist of companies doing business in Iran—not normally within the portfolio of a public advocate—and opposed the proposed Israeli-products boycott at the Park Slope Food Coop. In 2011, he joined a Who’s Who of New York pols at a demonstration near the UN denouncing the Palestinian Authority’s unilateral declaration of statehood, which de Blasio said represented “a setback for peace in the Middle East” that would “escalate tensions and undermine the ongoing attempts at negotiation, which are the only true path to reconciliation.”
And while on the City Council from 2002 through 2008, de Blasio lent his name to several resolutions that took a decidedely pro-Israel position, including ones
- “urging George W. Bush and the United States Government to declare the Palestinian Authority and the Palestinian Liberation Organization to be terrorist organizations and close the offices of the Palestinian Authority in the City of New York,”
- “calling upon the United Nations to no longer remain silent and to pass a resolution condemning the practice of suicide bombings by the Palestinian community,” and
- “strongly condemning the brutal Palestinian suicide bomb terrorist attacks against Israel and expressing solidarity with the people of the State of Israel as well as sympathy for the loss of civilian lives in the current conflict.”
It’s worth noting that there were some pro-Israel measures that de Blasio didn’t back.
And, yep, condemning suicide bombings seems reasonable. But so does a council measure “calling for an evenhanded policy in the Middle East and a halt to the killings of innocent Palestinians and Israelis; calling upon the City Council to serve as facilitators of peace and not to appear to take sides in the conflict; recognizing that just as the Council supports Israel’s right to exist with safe and secure borders, so too must the Council support Palestinian self-determination and the creation of a Palestinian state; and emphatically stating that only through dialogue and peaceful negotiation can these historic conflicts be resolved.” De Blasio stayed away from that one.
(He also, in fairness, stayed away from the hard-line opponents of the BDS movement when Brooklyn College planned to host a BDS event early last year. Some pols threatened the school’s funding. But de Blasio and a group of other officials signed a letter calling for the college to “make a more diverse range of views heard on this issue,” while also affirming the school’s academic freedom. In a follow-up letter, de Blasio and his co-signers said, “We will continue to oppose efforts that would seek to undermine the free and open debate of critical issues. “)
In his remarks in Washington this week, de Blasio said, “City Hall will always be open to AIPAC.” Presumably, it will be on the public schedule when AIPAC comes knocking: de Blasio told reporters today, “We certainly will improve our information system to let you know about something like the AIPAC speech. We’re very comfortable doing that. We will do that.”
Read Next: Zoë Carpenter on the growing resistance to new sanctions on Iran.
Mayor Bill de Blasio’s speech to this morning’s plenary session of the US Conference of Mayors didn’t break any new ground. He described a broad crisis of inequality, made his boilerplate pitch for universal pre-K and sick leave, lauded Fiorello LaGuardia and implored mayors to work together for their common interests in Washington, that the feds might step up on housing and infrastructure.
More interesting stuff came in the Q&A, when de Blasio was asked how he actually planned to get Washington to listen to cities. He said:
The folks assembled in this room here represent every corner of this country. They represent blue states, red states, purples states and districts. They are crucial leaders in their states. I’m certain a number of the folks in that room are represented in Congress by members of the House and the Senate who are not doing what they should towards our cities. And these mayors have the ability to start to turn that tide. Because we are at the grassroots, and if we move the hearts and minds of our people, our federal representatives are going to start to feel it.
Basically, the idea is the mayors should organize their constituents to force senators and reps to do better by cities. Is that likely to happen? Beats me. But at least it’s a more tactical spin on the typical “let’s come together across party lines” pablum. It’s kind of fun to think about the nation’s mayors pulling an Ocean’s 11–type caper to force Congress to recommit to cities—deploying extra parking agents to target black cars outside downtown congressional campaign fundraisers, making the composition of a scathing letter to your senator be part of high school graduation requirements, outlawing golf.
De Blasio also elaborated on why he wants a dedicated tax for the pre-K and after-school initiative. Governor Cuomo’s people have chided the mayor for insisting on a tax when the gov has promised a “blank check” for the city, but de Blasio explained:
My plan, I want to remind you, is a five-year plan, $530 million each year for five years, $2.6 billion combined over five years. We can’t do that plan properly if we don’t have that money locked in. And I want revenue that the people of New York City provide and control. We’ve all seen the vagaries of Albany. This is not a comment on any individual. We’ve seen the history of Albany. Albany has often changed its mind and had different political dynamics affect it. We need consistency and reliability. And in fact, when we have created revenue on our own, like Mayor Bloomberg did after 9/11, like Mayor Dinkins did with the ‘Safe Streets, Safe City’ program that revolutionized our approach to fighting crime and brought us the police officers we needed at that point to stabilize our public safety situation. When we’ve had our own revenue, dedicated and consistent, we’ve been able to achieve consistent outcomes.
He also added:
…we’re about to come out with a report to clarify the exact implementation of our plan, how many children will be served starting September 2014 in terms of pre-k, in terms of after-school, where we’re going to find the space that we need to do it. You’re going to see, by next week, a very detailed analysis.
Oh, and should anybody have forgotten:
I have a very clear mandate from the people. I happened to win my election with 73 percent of the vote.
Read Next: Katrina vanden Heuvel on “de Blasio’s persuasive case for universal pre-K”
It was the summer of 1997, and the state of New York had just completed one of those absurdly late budgets that Governor Cuomo has now made a ritual of ridiculing. However tardy the deal, people in New York City were excited by its contents: the state had promised to spend $857 million over four years to pay for universal pre-kindergarten. “It’s a commitment we make to every 4-year-old in the state, a way to reach children to prepare them for school,” said Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, according to the Daily News.
That commitment was never kept. As a report released in October by the Center for Children’s Initiatives and the Campaign for Educational Equity found, today, “[n]early 40 percent of the state’s school districts are not even eligible to apply for state pre-K funding. At least 30,000 high-need 4-year-olds are not served. And 75 percent of our pre-K students are in half-day programs, which research shows to be insufficient to meet the needs of children and their families.”
During his budget address yesterday, Cuomo referenced the 1997 promise as evidence of the Empire State’s deep loyalty to the idea that every kid should start school as prepared as possible, with disadvantages due to poverty drilled down as much as early childhood teachers can drill them. It was a nifty twist on what, looked at more coldly, was really a broken promise.
The debate over whether Cuomo’s or Mayor Bill de Blasio’s vision for pre-K (and afterschool programs) should prevail has been cast as a narrow question of whether the idea should be funded by the dedicated local tax on high earners that de Blasio wants, or through some other mechanism, as Cuomo has since October suggested as his preference.
The governor’s budget speech made clear that the differences go beyond the revenue plan.
De Blasio’s initiative calls for $340 million in annual spending on pre-K and $190 million on middle-grade after-school, for a total of $530 million a year, or some $2.65 billion over five years. Cuomo talked about spending—over five years for the entire state—$1.5 billion on pre-K and $720 million on after-school. Next year, only $100 million would be available for pre-K, and in 2015-16 some $160 million would be set aside for after-school.
Even if you figure in some ramp-up time, and account for the fact that two thirds of New York state public school children are served outside New York City, there’s no way Cuomo’s plan pays for the kind of effort de Blasio got elected to provide.
That’s probably because the governor depicts a different landscape than the one de Blasio built his campaign around. The mayor talks about “a tale of two cities” and inequality as a defining issue for government to tackle. In contrast, the governor yesterday listed tax reduction as a primary goal of government, and his budget director actually referred to the estate tax as the “move to die” tax—version 2.0 of the silly code-words the GOP first started throwing around in the 1990s about the “death tax.”
While he did say that government also “forges community…provides relief and restores economic opportunity,” Cuomo never once mentioned poverty in a state with the tenth-highest overall poverty rate (17.2 percent) and eleventh-highest child poverty rate (25.4 percent) in 2012. (And that’s not just New York City poverty dragging the state down: after the Bronx and Brooklyn, the highest county poverty in New York State is in Franklin, Tompkins, Chautauqua and other upstate counties.)
But even if Cuomo pledged to match every dime de Blasio wanted to get from high earners, his plan would meet suspicion because of the history. As that October report put it:
The original UPK statute was a grant program that anticipated, by the end of a five-year phase-in period, that each school district would receive a grant providing a minimum of $2,000 and a maximum of $4,000 per student, based on district wealth and need factors; the initial grants were to begin at a minimum of $260 per student level, and ramp up each year over the five-year period. Five years after the law’s enactment, however, the state was far from reaching the full funding level that had originally been contemplated: for 2003-04, only $204 million was appropriated for the program, less than half of the $500 million originally projected for that year, and only about a third of the districts in the state were participating.
After his election in 2006, Governor Eliot Spitzer tried to restore the program, but after two years staying on track, “state fiscal constraints from the 2008 recession caused the state, starting in 2010, to essentially freeze further increases,” the report found.
And the demise of the 1997 pre-K plan is just one example of New York City’s being promised help from Albany that never quite arrives. In another one, parents of city schoolchildren won a landmark ruling a decade ago that found the state’s education funding formula had systematically shortchanged the city, and a settlement called for the state to fund the city more generously, but budget cuts soon derailed that make-good.
Hence the reaction to Cuomo’s speech from groups like Make the Road New York , which said in a statement: “We are pleased that Governor Cuomo has made universal Pre-K a priority, but we are concerned that without a designated funding stream there will not be sufficient funds to fully implement this proposal, and that the programs could evaporate the next time there is a deficit.”
Cuomo’s Big Idea is that he’s brought a different way of doing business to Albany—pragmatic, honest, efficient; he’s not even shy about comparing his governance favorably to his own father’s tenure. And there’s truth to the notion that Cuomo has swept some of the chaos out of the annual budget process, achieved major legislative successes and pursued very smart if unpopular ideas (like consolidating local governments). But his position on pre-K doesn’t appear that different from what was done in the past—basically, less than we needed to do.
Two years ago, Cuomo looked unstoppable: what he wanted from the legislature, it seemed, he got. But it’s different now. He didn’t get the women’s equality agenda he pushed for last year, or some of the ethics reforms he wanted. Now he’s asking for those again, and more. So his stand on pre-K will be part of a complex mix of give and take negotiated among the governor, an Assembly strongly in favor of pre-K and a state Senate where there’s been substantial support for the idea, all with a statewide election coming up in 2014 and, for Cuomo, maybe a national contest in 2016.
It should be fun to watch. Whatever you do, New Yorkers, don’t “move to die” before it all plays out.
Read Next: Jarrett Murphy on de Blasio’s supposedly “dead-on-arrival” plan to tax the rich.
Early last year, the Kennedy School of Government gave its Innovations in American Government Award to the administration of then–New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg for its approach to fighting poverty. Kennedy School Scholar Julie Boatright Wilson, who evaluated the New York City Center for Economic Opportunity for the awards program, told The New York Times that CEO impressed her because “you really get his sense of measuring performance and wanting to know how you’re doing.” Bloomberg’s innovative approach to poverty also earned him an award this autumn from the Children’s Aid Society because, while the mayor had not, as he pledged in 2006, reduced poverty, he had at least kept it steady. These were just a few of the accolades Bloomberg’s anti-poverty push earned from editorial writers and academics impressed with its experimental approach to trying new ideas to fight poverty.
On Friday, Bloomberg’s successor, Bill de Blasio, announced that he was going to support a change in city law on paid sick leave. A lukewarm compromise passed last year by Speaker Christine Quinn, who had held up a vote on the issue at Bloomberg’s request but finally succumbed to pressure from the left, had extended the basic human right of paid sick days only to employees of firms with fifteen or more workers, subject to industry-specific carve-outs, delays in implementation and a trigger mechanism that relied on a set of economic indicators to determine whether to go through with the policy or not.
De Blasio and Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito new bill will extend the right to firms with as few of five workers, eliminating the carve-outs and dropping the delays.
There is absolutely nothing innovative about paid sick leave, which most workers have enjoyed for their entire working life. And that’s the great thing about it.
According to the most recent report on its website, Bloomberg’s CEO in fiscal 2012 ran an impressive array of small-scale programs that, added up, helped 45,367 people. Two other programs grouped under the CEO umbrella—tax credits—benefitted 25,000 households. (A separate tax prep program helped roughly 100,000 households file their returns, but didn’t necessarily confer any benefits on them.)
There are 1.7 million poor people and 600,000 poor households in New York City.
De Blasio’s change to the sick-leave law will benefit some 500,000 people. Not all of those beneficiaries will be poor, but you get the drift—this move is going to impact a lot more people a lot faster than any economic innovation put forward by the Bloomberg team. There’s no way paid sick leave will cure poverty, but it will prevent many thousands of low-income workers from falling behind on rent or having to skip a meal because they got strep throat or that terrible barfing disease that New Yorkers share with one another this time of year.
Bloomberg’s anti-poverty team came up with many good ideas—tackling health problems that hold poor students back, getting internships for low-income kids, building in support for students in community colleges, training people for careers as nurses—for fighting poverty. The problem is, by its very nature as a policy test kitchen, none of the CEO programs was ever given the funding to go to a scale where it would actually make a dent against the breadth or depth of poverty in New York.
Many policy experts agree that de Blasio ought to continue several Bloomberg era anti-poverty programs, including CEO itself. The fiscal and political challenges to mounting a sustained effort against poverty are enormous, so it helps to have CEO-type research so you can say that something definitely works.
But in this context and others, the glorification of “innovation” for its own sake can be as harmful as it is stimulating. The premise behind innovation is often that “the old approaches just plain didn’t work” but that’s plainly untrue when it comes to the US fight against poverty, which, while imperfect, achieved some impressive gains. And there are times when the answer to the problem is so obvious that it’s just wasting time to innovate a new program and wait to see what the metrics say. We’ve known for twenty years that the inability of low-wage workers to get their heads above the poverty line was a threat to the social contract, but that didn’t sway the Bloomberg administration on the importance of paid sick-leave or requiring living wages at developments lavishly subsidized by the taxpayer.
Moving from pilot programs to broad changes isn’t easy. The obstacles to making big moves are obvious: people who enjoy the status quo aren’t itching to change it, and they use the power they’ve accrued to maintain it. But de Blasio’s move Friday is proof positive that they can be overcome. Compared to the sound and fury that greeted talk of paid sick leave in years past, the business community was pretty quiet after de Blasio’s announcement. On one hand, that’s because business interests saw this move coming and braced for it. On another, the business community may have been sufficiently cheered by de Blasio’s appointing trusted insiders to the key posts of NYPD commissioner and first deputy mayor—because, let’s face it, for many business leaders in the city, public safety and basic competence are all they expect from municipal government.
But it’s also clear that business leaders recognize de Blasio’s landslide election (terrible turnout notwithstanding) represents a real shift in the city’s direction. “Elections matter,” is how Public Advocate Letitia James put it on Friday, and the timing couldn’t have been better, going into Martin Luther King Jr. weekend. How many times have you heard that voting makes no difference, because Republicans and Democrats are so fundamentally alike? The sick-leave saga refutes that notion soundly, with the different paths pursued by a liberal Republican (Bloomberg), centrist Democrat (Quinn) and progressive Democrat (de Blasio) now clear to see.
Read Next: D.D. Guttenplan on New York City’s last radical mayor, and what de Blasio can learn from him.
In the foreground to President Obama’s major address today on his evolving sense of the boundary between legitimate national security and illegal surveillance, there came this week a reminder of New York City’s own surveillance state, in a press release from the city’s Law Department about the multimillion-dollar settlement struck with people who were arbitrarily arrested during demonstrations around the 2004 Republican National Convention.
The settlement was the bad news, according to the Law Department. The good news, for them, was that the city prevailed on all the systemic issues the RNC lawsuits raised—about mass arrests, about “no-standing” and “demonstration” zones, about “keeping sensitive and confidential intelligence documents from being disclosed” and “the importance of the intelligence gathered leading up to the RNC, which was pivotal in shaping the policies adopted during the event.” That intelligence included infiltrating protest groups and sending detectives to other states to spy on leftist groups that were planning to attend the convention.
When those clandestine activities were publicized in 2007, they were shocking. Now, we shrug. In part that’s because New Yorkers have gotten used to a redefinition of the line between police power and private liberty. But it’s also because government spying is inherently secretive—so we don’t have anything like a complete picture of whom the NYPD has spied on since.
Those facts frame Mayor de Blasio’s approach to intelligence gathering and civil liberties. During the campaign, de Blasio was forced to address the surveillance of Muslims, which we know involved cultivating informers who helped lure a few Muslim New Yorkers into terrorist plots; spying on mosques and restaurants; keeping tabs on youth groups; and sending detectives across state lines to gather material and maintaining something called “the demographic unit.”
Back in 2012, de Blasio defended the NYPD’s approach. “Based on what I’ve learned, I believe that the NYPD is currently limiting its work to the pursuit of specific leads and that there is a substantial legal review process connected to those decisions,” he said in a speech reported by The Wall Street Journal.
In 2013, he changed his tune, telling a Muslim audience in October that he’d end the broad surveillance of their community. “The efforts of surveillance have to be based on specifically specific information, and obviously you need to go through a careful vetting process,” de Blasio said, according to CBS.
Now that de Blasio is mayor, will he actually roll the spying back? That’s one question. A better one is, How will we know?
Linda Sarsour, the executive director of the Arab American Association of New York, is patient. She says the fact that David Cohen, the former CIA man who ran Ray Kelly’s intelligence operation, has left “is a good sign but had nothing to do with new administration.”
“De Blasio says he wants a thorough review of intelligence programs,” she adds. “He may be waiting for the new inspector general to be appointed.” (De Blasio must appoint a commissioner of the Department of Investigation, who then appoints the IG.) Sarsour and her allies may also ask for a comptroller audit of the intelligence gathering programs. “We also have three lawsuits. Results from those are key. They are still in process.”
As comprehensive as those challenges are, it’s not clear that any of them can get the city to face up to a deeper atmosphere of suspicion, a broader resistance to dissent and a widespread acceptance of surveillance—all things that characterized the Bloomberg years.
The deeper atmosphere of suspicion was embodied in a 2007 NYPD report called “Radicalization in the West: The Homegrown Threat” that listed as a signature of radicalization such steps as “giving up cigarettes, drinking, gambling and urban hip-hop gangster clothes,”and “becoming involved in social activism and community issues.” It’s unclear how deeply these ideas penetrated into the NYPD’s intelligence mentality. But creating a broad matrix of signals that someone is a threat is the way a law-enforcement agency can manage to target a wide swath of some population, while also claiming to only be following legitimate leads.
The Bloomberg administration was rightly criticized for the systematic surveillance of Muslims, but that was part of a larger security apparatus that has escaped any comprehensive review. The Bloomberg administration prohibited a pre–Iraq War march in 2003 on “security” grounds, barred RNC protesters from gathering on Central Park’s Great Lawn out of an alleged fear that they might hurt the grass, made an effort to systematically videotape protesters and infiltrated Critical Mass rides. Meanwhile, private and public security cameras proliferated as the NYPD sent up hugely expensive security zones in the financial district and midtown, and the city won the right to search the bag of anyone who rides the subway.
Some of those steps may have been reasonable—public housing residents, for instance, often clamor for surveillance cameras as a weapon against street crime. Just like Obama, de Blasio has to strike a balance. Maybe someday he’ll follow the president’s lead and explain exactly where the balance should be, so that New Yorkers can figure out whether to trust him.
Because, as is the case with the federal government, we’ll never know with absolute certainty whether the NYPD’s clandestine reality always and everywhere matches the mayor’s public rhetoric. We’d need spies for that.
Read Next: Peter Van Buren debunks ten common myths about NSA surveillance.
Murder by firearm is an urban threat so terrifying that the Bloomberg administration stopped and frisked hundreds of thousands of people ostensibly trying to find guns, district attorneys ran buy-back operations at local churches to get guns off the street and a nonprofit funded by the former mayor sent undercover private investigators to firearms shops and gun shows to expose the shady dealings that fueled the illegal gun trade.
After all, the threat is real: in calendar year 2012, some 239 New Yorkers were murdered with guns.
But in fiscal 2012, 21 percent more New Yorkers (291 of them) were killed in automobile accidents than were slain by bullets.
Six years ago Mayor Bloomberg—during whose term traffic fatalities dropped significantly—announced a plan to to cut the number of traffic deaths in half by 2030. For a mayor who often set ambitious goals, it was pretty modest. During the 2013 campaign, Bill de Blasio promised something far bolder: eliminating traffic fatalities to zero within ten years. He did so in response to organized lobbying by transportation advocates and families of people killed by cars, many of whom had taken up a goal called Vision Zero, a fatality elimination effort that originated in Sweden in 1997.
On Wednesday, de Blasio took a step toward making good on his promise, announcing a working group composed of the NYPD, health department, transportation department and taxi commission to develop a plan for increasing traffic enforcement, improving fifty dangerous corridors and intersections, making more 20 mph zones and going to Albany to get permission to install more speed cameras. The mayor also said that a small set of traffic cameras recently installed would start generating tickets this week. And his police commissioner, Bill Bratton, increased personnel in the Highway Division by 10 percent on the way to a 50 percent increase.
When Bloomberg left office, there were stark warnings that an era of enlightened, ambitious government—the spirit of leadership that had yielded the smoking ban, PlaNYC 2030 and so on—was over. Life under his class-obsessed successor was going to be some dreary Leninist experiment; think Dr. Zhivago, without the pretty girl. De Blasio’s commitment—assuming it’s genuine—to VisionZero is a big middle-finger-out-the-window-while-leaning-on-the-horn at that notion.
If you think targeting traffic death is political softball, think again. “The critical work of redesigning dangerous corridors and intersections, lowering speed limits and increasing penalties for drivers who kill or maim will doubtlessly meet resistance in certain quarters,” said StreetsPAC in a statement yesterday. “The mayor will need to be firm in his resolve. “
Indeed, it may mean wrangling with some community boards and local interests—including our beloved small businesses—over redesigning streets and intersections to be safer. The whole point of VisionZero is that traffic safety requires moral commitment, not cost-benefit analysis. “Under Vision Zero,” reads material from Transportation Alternatives, “safety is prioritized over all other objectives of the transportation system, including mobility.”
It will also mean changing the culture of the police department, which will have to shift focus and resources. Cristina Furlong of Make Queens Safer, who hailed today’s announcement as “historic for the city of New York and a great model for the country,” says that under Bloomberg, “the police department was not on board to make changes to how traffic was enforced. They had other priorities.” And it’s not just the brass: the police union has opposed increases in the use of traffic cameras, preferring that the city hire cops instead.
Finally, it’ll require convincing Albany to give New York City home rule over traffic measures like speed cameras and slow zones. And past attempts to get that authority have failed. In the state Capitol, “there definitely is a windshield perspective among people who aren’t from New York City—legislators from Western and Northern New York who drive cars everywhere,” says Keegan Stephan, an organizer from the transit advocacy group Right of Way. But the opposition isn’t only cultural, it’s also transactional: If the city wants something, legislators from other areas have to feel they’re getting something in return. “It’s horse trading. It’s the political process,” says Juan Martinez, the general counsel at Transportation Alternatives. “At the end of the day, there are things that shouldn’t be fooled around with. Stopping preventable, violent deaths is one of them.”
Given those obstacles, advocates may have to push de Blasio. “I think the fact that we mobilized grieving families across New York City made this happen so quickly,” says Furlong of Wednesday’s announcement. They may need to stay mobilized. What the mayor unveiled on Wednesday was “pretty much everything the community has been asking for,” but “the most important thing is that this is just a first step,” says Stephan, whose organization unveiled a VisionZero Clock just before the inauguration measuring whether the city is on track to de Blasio’s goal. With eleven deaths so far in 2014, it’s not.
If de Blasio delivers the policies he’s promised, there’s another question: Can New York actually reach the target? “The goal is literally to reduce fatalities on our roadways to zero. That is our singular focus,” the mayor said on Wednesday.
Sweden has not reduced its traffic fatalities to zero, but it has cut them in half. The rate of traffic death in Sweden is one of the lowest in the world, and less than a third the per capita rate in the United States.
A 2011 report by Transportation Alternatives said that “over a hundred lives could be saved every year if New York’s traffic fatality rate was the same as many of our peer cities.” A decrease of a 100 deaths would be notable—essentially equal to the progress made against traffic fatalities during the Bloomberg years—but would not get the city to zero. The elusive variable is driver and pedestrian behavior.
Red light cameras and tickets will probably have an immediate effect,” says Furlong. “Changing drivers’ mentality will be more of a long-term thing.”
Read Next: Mychal Denzel Smith asks, “Will black deaths matter in de Blasio’s New York?”
Here it is fourteen days into the Bill de Blasio mayoralty, and we’re still talking about a tax plan that was supposedly “dead on arrival” even before the Democratic primary back in September.
Yesterday in Albany, the Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver said, “Thanks to the momentum generated by Mayor Bill de Blasio, we will take the universal pre-K program that we originally proposed, bolster it, expand it so that every 4-year-old in this state can benefit from early education and make it sustainable.”
The program Silver referred to is the signature policy proposal from de Blasio’s campaign, the provision universal early childhood education and middle-grade after-school services paid for by a tax on high earners. The reference to sustainability is a nod to de Blasio’s insistence that the program be paid for by the high-earner tax, and not some other budget carve-out that could disappear in subsequent years.
Last week, Bronx State Senator Jeff Klein—who serves as co-leader of the upper house as part of a power-sharing deal between a breakaway group of Democrats and the Republican caucus—said he also supports the tax plan.
There are times on a trip when, even if you haven’t reached your destination, it’s instructive to look at how far you’ve come.
Back in August, even before the primary candidates had held an official, televised debate, the Daily News endorsed Christine Quinn, saying of de Blasio:
Additionally, his call for raising taxes on the wealthy to drum up hundreds of millions of dollars annually to pay for pre-K education sells well but hasn’t a chance at a time when the next mayor will have to fight like hell just to preserve the status quo for New Yorkers.
A few weeks later, The New York Times also backed Quinn. It praised de Blasio mildly, but noted:
Mr. de Blasio’s most ambitious plans—like a powerful new state-city partnership to make forever-failing city hospitals financially viable, or to pay for universal prekindergarten and after-school programs through a new tax on the richest New Yorkers—need support in the State Capitol, and look like legislative long shots. Once a Mayor de Blasio saw his boldest ideas smashed on the rocks of Albany, then what?
De Blasio’s opponents picked up this theme. In their final pre-primary debate, Quinn said de Blasio’s tax plan was “dead on arrival” at the State Capitol, labeling it “pie in the sky.” After de Blasio overturned all the handicapping and won the primary on the first round, Governor Cuomo sat with the Daily News editorial board and, according to the News, “virtually shot down the possibility next year that the state would take up a de Blasio plan to hike the city tax rate.” Cuomo’s re-election hopes and/or designs on the presidency, the thinking went, made it all but impossible for him to consider a tax hike. Soon, de Blasio’s Republican opponent, Joe Lhota, took up the line of argument that Quinn tried, calling the plan “dead on arrival” in a debate with the Democrat. Through it all, de Blasio refused to consider a “plan B” or “negotiate against [himself].”
That seemed like rhetoric at the time. It doesn’t now.
Last week, de Blasio convened union leaders in support of the pre-K plan at the same time as Cuomo held an event to tout a $2 billion package of tax cuts. Some saw this as the two men taking one step closer toward a real groin-kickin’, gravel-in-the-eyes-throwin’, beer-bottle-on-the-bar-breakin’ street fight over the mayor’s tax plan (which, you have to admit, would make for compelling drama, given their political history together and the fact that de Blasio’s lengthy reach versus Cuomo’s more powerful build create an interesting match-up).
Maybe that fight will still come to occur, but it was interesting that Cuomo’s package of tax cuts addressed property taxes, businesses taxes, estate taxes and so on, but not the personal income tax, which is what the de Blasio plan would affect. By my unsophisticated math, if de Blasio’s plan—which requires some $500 million a year in new revenue—goes through and Cuomo gets his other cuts, he can still claim to have cut $1.5 billion in taxes. And hey, it’s not like a future Cuomo presidential campaign is ever going to be able to claim that he transformed New York State into a low-tax environment—just that he lessened the overall bite.
What’s more, Cuomo’s recent tax proposals were clearly aimed more at upstate, where the economy is worse and Cuomo needs more votes if he is going to accomplish his perceived goal of trying to eclipse his father’s widest electoral margin. If Cuomo needs anything from downstate in order to achieve a stunning re-election landslide, it’s Democratic turnout, and that’s where those unions who’ve jumped on the de Blasio UPK bandwagon come in.
Strange things often happen in Albany: good ideas (see “pricing, congestion”) die, bad ideas (see “stadium, West Side”) die and things once thought politically impossible (e.g., Mayor Bloomberg securing mayoral control of the schools) actually occur. De Blasio’s plan could still end up in tatters on the lifeless concrete plain of Empire State Plaza.
But it’s valuable to note that the conventional wisdom, which so often narrows the parameters of political debate, appears to have underestimated the mayor, the legislature or both. If everybody had listened to the editorial boards, or the governor or Quinn or Lhota, and written off de Blasio’s plan and de Blasio, we wouldn’t be here. If de Blasio’s first big idea doesn’t get smashed on the rocks of Albany, what then?
Read Next: Jarrett Murphy asks, “What does a progressive school policy really look like?”
You might see conservatives in New York City buying one-way, outbound LIRR tickets or double-barricading their doors this morning. Such is the panic in their ranks after the City Council on Wednesday elected East Harlem City Councilwoman Melissa Mark-Viverito to be its next speaker. “She’s in,” writes Andrea Peyser in the New York Post. “We’re toast.”
Mark-Viverito got the council’s unanimous support, despite an unusually public and pretty intense weeks-long battle involving her chief rival, Dan Garodnick, the county Democratic chairs, the new mayor, unions, the Council’s Progressive Caucus and an avalanche of bad press for her. Her win is seen as a major coup for Bill de Blasio, who now has a strong ally on the other side of City Hall—maybe even a stronger one than Mike Bloomberg had in Christine Quinn.
But because Mark-Viverito’s ascendance is in tandem with that of the Progressive Caucus, the way power is wielded on the east side of City Hall is subject to change.
Years before her close alliance with Bloomberg was the focus of campaign-trail complaints, Quinn’s use of the speaker’s levers of power drew grumbling from other councilmembers. The ruthless use of discretionary funds (the money members are allowed to dole out in their districts) and leadership positions to reward supporters and punish dissenters, the refusal to bring measures with overwhelming support up for council votes, the blocking of mere hearings for bills she didn’t like—even her control of the lawyers who turned policy ideas into legislative language for councilmembers—were seen as anti-democratic. And the same was said of previous council leaders.
Thus, one of the many planks of the Progressive Caucus’s agenda calls to scale back at least some of those speaker powers. It seeks to “reform the New York City Council rules,” namely to
—Take the politics out of “Member Items” by giving all members an equal amount or amounts determined by need-based formulas and insisting on full transparency.
—Ensure timely consideration of legislation or oversight supported by a majority of Council Members.…
—Dramatically expand participation by New Yorkers in government processes through innovative tools such as participatory budgeting and new technologies to integrate customer service, data for City decision-making, and meaningful and inclusive public input.
—Implement recommendations from the Campaign for Community-Based Planning to achieve a better balance of comprehensive and community-based planning, empower and reform community boards, and more genuinely engage communities in the planning process.
(The latter two points aren’t tied to changes in the speaker’s power but could change the way the council wields some of its budget and land-use powers.)
If the caucus makes good on these reforms, Mark-Viverito will still have plenty of authority. But keeping the council in line behind the mayor’s agenda, or her own, or some combination of the two, will be harder for her than it was for Quinn or her predecessors. That’s especially true if the rift over her own election as speaker creates a rival caucus of those who supported Garodnick or are otherwise uncomfortable with Mark-Viverito’s platform, as some sources suggested might occur. That would be a major cultural shift for a body accustomed to unanimous or nearly unanimous “yes” votes on almost all the measures it passes.
It would also look more like real democracy, which is often sloppy and unsatisfying. This means the left in New York may have to encounter the age-old question of whether the political systems’ process or product matters more—a debate that has often divided the city’s good government groups, who focus on how the sausage gets made, and social reformers, who look more at ends than means. Wrapped up in that argument are the complex dynamics of power in New York City. If you empower the individual councilmember versus the speaker, does that weaken the council as a counter-balance to the mayor? If you strengthen the council as a counter-balance to the mayor, does that undermine New York City’s relationship with Albany, which controls—among other things—much of its taxing authority and its rent laws?
These arguments about whether there is a way to have a progressive process and still deliver progressive policy change may surface even in the push for reform. Taking second billing on yesterday’s council agenda was the naming of the members of the council’s rules committee, which will oversee any changes to the way business is done in the body. As Garodnick supporters prepared to lay down arms, some griped about the fact that all seven members nominated to the committee (including Brad Lander, who co-chairs the Progressive Caucus, as chairman) were Mark-Viverito backers.
“Brad has assured me that will not be the case going forward,” Councilman Mark Weprin, a Garodnick supporter, told City & State. “We’re all going to be working together. Kumbaya, we’re all one big happy family.”
In other news: Some may have found de Blasio’s inauguration tacky and divisive, but at least it was (relatively) cheap. According to figures reported to the Campaign Finance Board, the new mayor spent just over $1 million on his swearing-in, compared to the $2.5 million Bloomberg spent on his first inauguration, in 2001. Bloomberg’s 2005 and 2009 re-swearings cost $1.7 million and $900,000, respectively.
Read Next: More from Jarrett Murphey on Melissa Mark-Viverito.
If Bill de Blasio had built his mayoral campaign around a promise to reduce crime, we’d simply tally up the number of murders, rapes, assaults and other offenses in a year or two to see whether he was succeeding or not. If he’d campaigned on a vow to improve schools, we could (with caution) look at test scores or graduation rates.
As it turns out, de Blasio chose a bigger, more amorphous target: inequality. Unlike former Mayor Bloomberg, who committed to reducing homelessness by two-thirds and to substantially reducing poverty (he failed on both counts), de Blasio never made a specific promise of how much he would reduce inequality. But he did vow to reduce it, and to hold him accountable, we need to come up with a consistent way to measure progress against inequality. So I asked a group of policy experts—some of whom are involved in the transition and couldn’t be quoted by name—to suggest how to track de Blasio’s impact.
The most common and compelling way to measure inequality is to look at how much income flows to the top 1 percent, or how income is divided among income quintiles—the top fifth, the bottom fifth and the three fifths in between. These measures capture the incredible concentration of wealth at the top of the the income scale over recent decades. Statistics in this vein provided the talking points for the Occupy movement and the sentiments into which de Blasio’s campaign tapped.
But interestingly, none of the experts I surveyed thought these measures were the best ones to judge de Blasio by. Reporting lags were one reason. Another was that those statistics can reflect social changes other than the interplay between the haves and have-nots. For instance, Detroit has less income inequality than New York, but that’s not because it’s a workers’ paradise. Furthermore, while redistribution through the tax system can have some effect, city policy is unlikely to do much about the share of income the top 1 percent gets; Wall Street bonuses and corporate compensation packages are what moves that needle.
But here are some other ways we can measure whether de Blasio’s mayoralty measures up:
1. Number of workers earning a living wage. Across the political spectrum in New York there is a consensus that the economy has generated a huge number of low-wage jobs over the past decade, and that that’s a problem. There’s a lot of disagreement about how to address that problem, but a measure that looked at how many of the city’s workers are earning enough to get by would capture how much progress de Blasio made at reversing this signature trend of the Bloomberg years. Related measures could look at the evolution of after-tax household income, because this would encompass the impact of tax credits.
2. Rent burden. Tracking the share of New Yorkers who spend more than 30 percent (the recommended proportion) or 50 percent (true panic level) of their income on housing would roll together a few key themes. Rent burden goes to the heart of the affordability crisis in the city—the notion that people of limited means are being squeezed out—and reflects the interplay between rent and income that underly that crisis. What’s more, says Nancy Rankin, the vice president of policy, research and advocacy at the Community Service Society of New York, the rent burden measure is relevant “because rents eat up a large and increasing share of the meager earnings of low-income New Yorkers, because Bill de Blasio has made increasing affordable housing an explicit goal and because it is something he could influence more than national and global economic forces.”
3. Perceptions. As one expert pointed out, much of de Blasio’s critique of inequality was about “an inequality of lifestyle in the city, which I don’t think is easily measured.” Indeed, the fact that many New Yorkers feel alienated from the city’s success was a key theme in candidate de Blasio’s rhetoric. On one hand, measuring perception is always a risky proposition; people often perceive a much greater personal threat from crime than is accurate. On the other hand, people’s perceptions of whether they feel more or less economically secure would sum up all the different ways inequality affect them in a way that no suite of statistics could. And it would reflect how well de Blasio’s team is doing at communicating about its policy program.“More needs to be done to explore the extent to which people feel that they have access to a range of social opportunities,” the expert says.
4. The poverty (and near-poverty) rate. There’s long been a debate about whether inequality really matters, or whether it’s poverty alone that we should all focus on. So it’s interesting that, to measure a mayor’s progress against inequality, the poverty rate is what at least one scholar thinks we should focus on. The argument for using this measure is that the poor are the ones most harmed by inequality and the people most likely to be affected by government policy. The federal poverty rate has long been recognized as deeply flawed, ignoring the impact of government benefits and differences in the cost of living from one place to another. But the Bloomberg administration created a more realistic measure, and one of the last laws signed by Mayor Bloomberg commits the new mayor to reporting annually on that city measure of the poverty and near-poverty (people living under 150 percent of the poverty line) rate.
Other measures could be handy, too: labor force participation, the racial school achievement gap, the numbers of blacks and Latinos at elite high schools, the number of CUNY community college students transferring to senior colleges.“My recommendation would be for the new mayor to focus on a panel of metrics that illustrate different ways progress can be gauged (and decision-making shaped) in addressing income inequality,” says James Parrott, the deputy director and chief economist of the Fiscal Policy Institute.
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The second-most-important election in this municipal campaign cycle has yet to occur—that’s the vote for City Council speaker, which has come down to a contest between two councilmembers from Manhattan: Melissa Mark-Viverito, who has the support of Mayor Bill de Blasio, and Dan Garodnick, who has the support of the press.
De Blasio’s campaigning for Mark-Viverito—he reportedly did some high-pressure phone lobbying and made some promises along the way—was something the city hadn’t seen in at least a generation. And given how harshly de Blasio criticized former Speaker Christine Quinn for working closely with former Mayor Mike Bloomberg, it looked pretty hypocritical for de Blasio to hand-pick the speaker he has to work with.
But if de Blasio’s offensive on Mark-Viverito’s behalf was unprecedented and a tad unseemly, the counterstrike by the mainstream media have more than made up for it.
There have been articles about an opponent who claimed Mark-Viverito put a curse on her building.
Another noted that the councilwoman had inherited a lot of property from her dad, yet still enjoyed a tax benefit on a building she bought before she inherited the property from her dad—in other words, a tax benefit for which she was completely qualified when she was 29. (This was a story that Mark-Viverito’s opponents had shopped around during her re-election campaign this fall, but found no takers.)
A piece this weekend talked about her role in a zoning dispute, where she supported a carve-out for a healthcare facility that provided a lot of jobs to the neighborhood—and then donated to her campaign. According to The New York Times, this episode displayed Mark-Viverito’s “polarizing style.”
Some of the questions about Mark-Viverito are legit, and it’s appropriate to shine light on the people vying to be the second-most-powerful person in New York. But the light has been shining pretty exclusively on one candidate. The Times did run a story today about Garodnick, but it was sharply different in tone from its Mark-Viverito coverage. Headlined “In Bid to Be Council Speaker, a Tenants’ Champion Fights an Uphill Battle, with the subhead “Daniel R. Garodnick is challenging Melissa Mark-Viverito, who is backed by a City Council majority, powerful labor unions and Mayor Bill de Blasio,” it tells the Cinderella story about the long-odds fight of a former securities lawyer with the backing of most of the city’s Democratic bosses just trying to get a fair shot at the title.
Left unmentioned in any of this coverage that emphasizes Mark-Viverito’s union ties and campaign contributions and Garodnick’s role as a tenant advocate is that fact that in the three council races each has run, Mark-Viverito has received sixteen donations at the maximum level of $2,750, for a grand total of $44,000, with the money coming from the unions for healthcare workers, hotel employees and teachers, while Garodnick has received 142 of those maximum donations for a total of $457,900, with the money coming from the finance industry and real estate.
The nearly exclusive attention on Mark-Viverito is novel. Eight years ago, when de Blasio and Quinn were battling behind the scenes for the speakership, neither the Times nor the Daily News covered it deeply. Each ran a horse-race article or two, though the Times did single out de Blasio for supporting changes to campaign finance and term limits laws. Four years before that, the speaker race between Angel Rodriguez and Gifford Miller received scant coverage, except a piece or two that noted Rodriguez’s potential to be the first citywide Latino official.
Rodriguez lost to Miller. Now Mark-Viverito eyes the same prize, and her supporters suspect her ethnic background is why she’s been targeted. More likely it betrays a deep antipathy towards de Blasio in the press, where some feel he used demagoguery to beat Quinn, others worry he’ll embarrass the left by poor management, some distrust the way he’s remade himself from political inside to social critic and more than a few oppose him ideologically.
A clarification: Garodnick raised $170,500 in 76 donations at the City Council race maximum of $2,750 and an additional $287,400 from 66 donations at higher levels from his aborted campaign for comptroller in the last cycle.
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