New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s first 100 days—a partnership between The Nation and City Limits.
At Bill de Blasio’s inauguration, no one stole the new mayor’s spotlight—not Harry Belafonte’s unhistory, not “Imagine” unplugged, not even a former president. The only person who came close was Letitia James, who was sworn in as public advocate. Clad in a bright red coat, powerfully postured and—incredibly—with Dasani Coates in tow, her inaugural address was a frontal assault on the Bloomberg legacy.
In the forty-eight hours since the festivities on the City Hall patio, James has had to clarify remarks that seemed to suggest she was a source for the December New York Times series that profiled Coates, one of the city’s 20,000 homeless youth. And de Blasio has rebuffed suggestions that his swearing-in ceremony was over the top in its Bloomberg-hating.
What’s received less attention, but might be more interesting, was the warning James issued toward the end of her speech.
"All of us share a progressive vision for this city’s future,” she said as she congratulated de Blasio and Comptroller Scott Stringer. She pledged to work with her two fellow city officials. Then she said, “Of course, if working people aren’t getting their fair share, if our government isn’t securing the reforms New Yorkers were promised, you better believe Dasani and I will stand up—that all of us will stand up—and call out anyone and anything that stands in the way of our progress.”
The question is, Who did the public advocate mean by “all of us” who are going to stand up, and who are the “anyone” who might stand in the path of progress? Could the new mayor himself get called out at some point?
In theory, at least, that’s James’s new job. The city’s number-two official, the public advocate takes over temporarily if the mayor cannot serve, presides over full City Council meetings, can gather information from city agencies, has the right to propose legislation and makes appointments to some city boards. Its role is sometimes defined as that of an ombudsman: someone to look out for the little guy and monitor the operation of city government. But in New York’s strong-mayor system, the advocate is also positioned as a check and balance on the mayor.
The office has little statutory power and a very modest budget, so when it has wielded influence it has done so through its media profile and largely through its adversarial role at City Hall. The first public advocate, former consumer affairs commissioner Mark Green, was the perfect progressive adversary to the conservative Giuliani administration from 1994 through 2001; he made ample use of the bully pulpit, generated a lot of headlines and was a reliable thorn in Rudy’s side.
Betsy Gotbaum, a former city parks commissioner, tried a more conciliatory approach during the first Bloomberg years and was not rewarded for the effort. Hobbled by her paltry budget, even the more aggressive Gotbaum of later years never got the ink that Green had enjoyed, although she was a consistent voice for enlightened policy. De Blasio succeeded Gotbaum in 2010. His office issued dozens of solid reports, but de Blasio’s well-known designs on the mayoralty cast all his actions in a campaign context.
So James is in a unique position: she’s the first public advocate to serve alongside a mayor with whom she is largely ideologically aligned. Though James and de Blasio were on opposite sides of the Atlantic Yards controversy, and while James opposes and de Blasio supports the Bloomberg soda ban, the two have often been allies. In 2008 they were the faces of the opposition on the City Council to the mayor’s proposal to overturn term limits. They endorsed each other this fall.
In campaign debates this year, James said she supported de Blasio but pledged to operate independently. At her inauguration day reception, I asked one of her campaign volunteers, Erl Kimmich, what he thought that would mean. “I think they can really work together. There are so many elements of power in New York City—financial power, all the institutions that are already existing,” he said. “With her as public advocate, I think that she can help focus the energies of the grassroots.”
In other words, the public advocate could be a kind of organizer in chief. Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr., also at the reception, put a slightly different spin on it. “She has an uncanny ability to know what the ground level is feeling and saying,” he said of James. “Not just Bill de Blasio, but the City Council, all public officials—sometimes you lose sight of that.”
So that, according to Diaz, is what James will provide to the mayor—political street recon to keep him on track.
With her reference to calling people out, does James have something a little more aggressive in mind? Progressives love the FDR quote about the importance of pressuring the pols we agree with. “I agree with you, I want to do it, now make me do it,” the late prez said; President Obama paraphrased it seventy years later, and progressives in New York recognize they’ll sometimes need to have de Blasio’s back, and sometimes need to shove it.
Lack of power and shaky media reputation or not, James could be the shover in chief. She’s no stranger to combat—winning a vacant Council seat in 2003 by beating the brother of the assassinated councilman who vacated it, and doing so with only the backing of the Working Families Party; jousting (often breathless with what seemed like barely suppressed rage) with Bloomberg commissioners for years as a councilwoman; winning a public advocate’s race that she was counted out of early on. It will be interesting to see whether James can go from throwing body blows to the more nuanced art of grappling. As de Blasio watched James return to her seat—hand-in-hand with her new “BFF”—after her final fusillade at the Bloomberg administration, a page was turned: the next mayor in James’s cross hairs, if it ever comes to that, will be Bill de Blasio.
For progressives, there were a lot of inspiring things about Bill de Blasio’s formal swearing in as mayor on Wednesday: prayers that recognized the city’s incredible diversity, the dignity of Harry Belafonte, the power of poet Ramya Ramana, and the way all three citywide officials (the mayor, Public Advocate Letitia James and Comptroller Scott Stringer) so passionately articulated elements of the progressive agenda.
Then there was President Clinton.
All former presidents deserve respect, and anyone who had to meet Newt Gingrich more than once merits a round of applause. And yes, during the eight disastrous years of Dubya, many would have traded in their Ralph Nader stickers to bring Bubba back.
But in spite of his rock-star status and brilliance as an orator, Clinton has questionable value as a symbol of the kind of progressive change de Blasio has promised. He’s more accurately a symbol of dashed progressive hopes.
One remembers Bill Clinton’s inauguration in 1993. George 41 and Barbara taking the Reagan era with them out of town on Marine One. Bill and Hillary getting out of their car to walk during the inaugural parade. The Rock, the River, the Tree. And so on.
In office, however, Bill Clinton pushed NAFTA over labor’s objections and sought Most Favored Nation trading status for China in the face of severe human rights concerns. He waived human rights requirements to facilitate Plan Colombia, which provided military aid to the Bogota government. He oversaw much of the financial deregulation that enabled the 2007–08 financial crisis. He widened federal authority to impose the death penalty. He signed into law the harsh 1996 immigration bill, backed measures that vastly expanded executive power to fight “terrorism” and supported the odious Defense of Marriage Act.
Clinton did have some progressive instincts, reflected in his appointing Supreme Court Justices Breyer and Ginsburg, resisting the most Dickensian aspects of the Republican anti-welfare crusade, and his failed healthcare push. And he did have to deal with an ascendant, Contract-With-America-waving GOP.
But through his “third way” approach, Clinton legitimized the conservative argument for reducing or eliminating government. He moved the Democrats to the center. The Republican party simply moved right.
Presidents get great afterlives, fueled largely by fiction. Nixon was ultimately eulogized as a misunderstood genius, Reagan as a warm and cuddly grandfather to us all. And Clinton is now beloved by lefties who intensely disliked much of what he did. Weird.
Is de Blasio set up to confound the left as much as the forty-second president did? It’s a possibility. But the Clintons’ presence yesterday may have reflected a personal, rather than political, connection: De Blasio worked in the Clinton administration and ran Hillary Clinton’s first campaign for the Senate. Plus, de Blasio ran this year well to the left of any territory that Bill and Hill staked out during their time as candidates.
What’s more, the political atmosphere has changed vastly since the president’s era of triangulation, mainly because we have seen what it wrought. At City Hall on Wednesday, Clinton fully endorsed de Blasio’s focus on inequality before the new mayor took the oath of office with his hand on a bible FDR was given at his first inauguration.
Back when “the era of big government” was over, the New Deal was not a popular reference for the Clinton team. Today, it works. Like Maya Angelou said when Bill Clinton was the face of hope twenty-one years ago:
“History, despite its wrenching pain
cannot be unlived, and if faced
with courage, need not be lived again.”
Read Next: Jarrett Murphy on Bill de Blasio’s inauguration.
There are conventions in politics as dependable as the tides. For instance, once elected, a politician’s rhetoric shifts from the inspirational to the incremental, and after months of saying nasty things about their opponent, they make nice. Both tendencies aid and comfort the status quo.
In the weeks since he was elected mayor of New York City, Bill de Blasio has abided by neither custom. He has hewed to his emphasis on inequality as the defining challenge facing our city, and he has not softened his critique of Mayor Bloomberg. This has been true at the press conferences at which de Blasio named members of his administration. And it was true at 12:01 this morning, when he stepped out of his Brooklyn home to recite the oath of office and become the 109th mayor: The brief event began with a quote from Paul Wellstone, and ended without so much as a nod to the man whose twelve-year mayoralty ended as de Blasio’s commenced.
It’s the same message discipline that allowed de Blasio to rise from fourth in the primary polls to mayor-in-waiting by the time the first votes were counted on September 10. He stuck to his focus on the idea that the Bloomberg era had alienated too many New Yorkers from the roaring success of their own city. Back in late November, the now-former billionaire mayor dismissed de Blasio as the flavor of the month, telling a radio interviewer: “I liken it to hemlines—you know, hemlines are fine, but next year they move them up or down, because people want a change.” But as Paul Moses wrote yesterday in Commonweal:
Please, let’s give New Yorkers some credit for recognizing what their own interests are. De Blasio won because he appealed to the many people who had come to feel alienated in their own city. Voters were given very clear choices on issues at the core of local governance—how to run the police department and schools, and whom to tax—and roundly rejected the Bloomberg approach. The result is likely to resonate across the country.
Echoing that last sentiment is the The New York Times, which carried a front-page article today arguing that
The elevation of an assertive, tax-the-rich liberal to the nation’s most prominent municipal office has fanned hopes that hot-button causes like universal prekindergarten and low-wage worker benefits—versions of which have been passed in smaller cities—could be aided by the imprimatur of being proved workable in New York. “The mayor has a remarkable opportunity to make real many progressive policies and prove their merit,” said Gavin Newsom, the lieutenant governor of California, who as mayor of San Francisco introduced a form of universal health care and allowed same-sex couples to wed. “De Blasio matters,” Mr. Newsom said. “A lot of us are counting on his success.”
Now is the part of the article where I’m supposed to qualify everything I’ve said to this point, noting the steep challenges de Blasio faces because of the constraints on his power and the fiscal dangers presented by the unsettled labor situation he inherits, mentioning the rather slow rollout of his administration (although the pace did pick up on Tuesday with his naming homeless services, transportation, labor relations and economic development leaders), and giving some ink to the people who are protesting his selection of Bill Bratton to lead the NYPD.
But no one needs to be reminded that, as the cliché reminds us, it ain’t going to be easy. All life experience up to this point makes that clear. De Blasio’s formal swearing in, at noon today, will be a hopeful note that events over the next four or eight years transform into either a bright and shining major scale or a disappointed minor chord. For now, let’s abandon convention and get the pitch right, per Wellstone. What is the progressive idea again?
It is the belief that extremes and excesses of inequality must be reduced so that each person is free to fully develop his or her full potential. This is why we take precious time out of our lives and give it to politics.
Before he became leader of the nation’s largest school system in 2011, current Chancellor Dennis Walcott was a social worker, nonprofit executive, Board of Education member and deputy mayor. His short-lived predecessor at the Tweed Courthouse (the New York City school department’s headquarters) was Cathie Black, who’d been a publishing executive. Joel Klein, who ran the DOE from 2002 into 2010, had been a top US Justice Department official and Harold Levy, who preceded Klein, was a corporate lawyer.
The last actual educator to head New York’s school system, Rudy Crew, left in 2000. But neither Crew, who arrived in 1995, nor Ramon Cortines, who ran the schools from 1993 to 1995, had experience in New York City schools before taking over the department. In fact, the last person with prior NYC education experience to serve as chancellor was Dr. Harvey Garner, who in 1993 ran the schools for two months.
All this is to say that the appointment of Carmen Fariña to be Bill de Blasio’s schools chief is a significant departure from a pattern set by at least the past three mayors of looking for outsiders, and even non-educators, to serve as chancellor.
This wasn’t the only change evident at the Monday event when the mayor-elect introduced Fariña. Rejecting a key doctrine of the Bloomberg era—that outside advice from consultants was essential to school reform—Fariña said, “We need outside experts at times, but we know what needs to be done,” adding later that if New York City doesn’t have the capacity to address a question about urban education, who does?
She also called for more art, science and social studies instruction—noting that those areas of learning are important not just to children’s larger lives, but to their performance on the all-important tests. She suggested neither a refusal of philanthropic help nor an embrace of all the strings that come attached to that generosity, saying: “Public education is an investment, not a charity.”
Most strikingly, she talked about an absence of “joy” in today’s school system. “Teachers and administrators have been maligned as not wanting things to work,” she said, mentioning at several points how important it will be to celebrate school success and tell teachers, “You’re doing a damn good job.”
There hasn’t been a lot of talk about joy during the Bloomberg years. Not many pats on the back for teachers either.
Progressive voices in education cheered Fariña’s selection. “I think it’s an excellent choice: The first chancellor we’ve had in years who actually understands curriculum and instruction and that it takes more than pressure to help schools improve,” NYU’s Pedro Noguera told me. “I think she will do a terrific job.” Brooklyn College professor and education advocate David Bloomfield noted that, “Fariña brings experience to the job that we haven’t seen in decades. Even prior to Mayor Bloomberg, recent chancellors were selected from outside the system. Carmen’s deep knowledge of New York City and its schools, prior to and including the Tweed bureaucracy, is of incalculable value. Her practice and celebration of language diversity is similarly a great new asset.”
There didn’t even seem to be any upset over the fact that de Blasio, who had at points in the mayoral campaign promised an open and transparent process for selecting the chancellor, actually conducted his search in the standard, secretive fashion.
Fariña’s selection was the biggest appointment de Blasio he’s made since naming Bill Bratton to run the NYPD almost a month ago. It came at an opportune time, with concerns starting to grow over the pace of the transition, and with eyebrows being raised about the ethnic makeup of de Blasio’s team (and about the Bratton selection itself).
Angelo Falcon, the director of the National Institute for Latino Policy and one of the observers who’d questioned de Blasio’s commitment to diversity, told me he’s reserving judgment but noted the import of the selection of Fariña (an immigrant from Spain): “The schools chancellor position is of special importance to the Latino community because the largest group of public school students are Latinos and yet we have been poorly represented in policymaking positions in the Department of Education.”
The big question, of course, is what it will mean in practice, in the schools. Fariña politely rebuffed most specific policy questions on Monday, saying she’s still studying up. So most of what Fariña and the mayor-elect had to say was about process, with a heavy emphasis on a changed tone.
The key phrase, from the chancellor-designee: “This progressive agenda says we know there are things that have to happen but they need to happen with people, not to people.”
There’s no doubt that tone was one of the problems with Bloomberg reforms, with parents and teachers often feeling dismissed or devalued. But some policies are tough sells whether you say them with a smile or not—and some education policies will be hard for the incoming administration to escape.
Dr. R. L’Heureux Lewis-McCoy, a professor at City College and a keen analyst of education and the way the system has historically harmed students of color, told me, “Fariña is a good choice because her pedigree and orientation towards education is very different than Bloomberg’s cabinet and approach to education. However…if New Yorkers are interested in schools that work well for all children, they will need to continue advocate for progressive educational policies. In the coming term as mayoral control ends the role of community control will be critical. It’s critical that Fariña is receptive to a wide range of voices that are interested in driving up the quality of public education, both traditional public and charter schools. She is a good strategic choice because we know a good degree about her political leanings, but know little about what her policies will look like on the ground.”
Read Next: Mychal Denzel Smith on New York's School-to-Prison Pipeline.
On Sunday Mayor-elect Bill de Blasio made his most important minority appointment to date, naming former federal prosecutor Zachary Carter, a black man, to be his corporation counsel. Will that quell concerns about the diversity of the incoming administration?
Last week, the National Institute for Latino Policy’s Angelo Falcón—an irascible and astute observer of city politics—sent a letter raising concerns about the “marginal” appointments of Latinos to the incoming administration. Falcón, who had earlier complained about the relatively light representation of Latinos on de Blasio’s sixty-member transition team, was not satisfied with the appointment of Lilliam Barrios-Paoli to be the new deputy mayor for health and human services or of Gladys Carrión to run the Administration for Children’s Services.
Over the weekend, LatinoJustice Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund president and general counsel Juan Cartagena praised both those appointments as milestones for Latinos, then added: “But more than two Hispanic appointments from among 80 positions under mayoral control is needed. There is much to work with in the Latino community, a community with a lot of talent. So the new mayor cannot now rest in addressing the future of the city—a Latino future is in his hands.” Meanwhile, Brooklyn Councilman Charles Barron had complained prior to the Carter selection,”Only Whites and Latinas have been selected [thus far]. Some from the Giuliani administration and Goldman-Sachs. So much for progressive!”
Carter was de Blasio’s ninth appointment. He was the first black person named to a post by the incoming mayor. In addition to the Latinas Barrios-Paoli and Carrión, de Blasio has also named Bill Bratton to head the police department, Anthony Shorris as his first deputy mayor, Emma Wolfe as director of intergovernmental affairs, Dean Fuleihan as budget director, Alicia Glen as deputy mayor for housing and economic development and Laura Santucci as his chief of staff; all are white.
If you’re thinking, gee, that kind of crude ethnic tally sounds like, well, a crude ethic tally, you’d be right. But the deeper point Falcón seems to be making, and what goes to the heart of the political obstacle facing Latinos in New York, is precisely that getting a token number of appointments will not be enough.
As the writer Ed Morales reported in City Limits last year, Latinos have a fair amount of official representation in New York City. While Mayor Bloomberg’s appointed cabinet has not been especially diverse, the ranks of elected officials are: one of the city’s five borough presidents, 11 of its 51 current Council members, two of its twelve-member congressional delegation, six of its state senators and ten of its Assembly contingent are Latino. Overall, those numbers don’t reflect Latinos’ 27.5 percent share of the city’s population, but the problem isn’t a vast underrepresentation. The problem is that those numbers aren’t adding up to a feeling that government responds to Latino needs.
As Morales wrote, “there is a growing number of elected officials whose numbers do not add up to increased political power for the Latino community.” He quoted Falcón:
“I remember when we wanted to get more Latino cops but now the largest number of Latinos working for the city happen to be working for the police department, and what do we have, stop and frisk? So the idea that somehow having more Latinos in there to change the culture of the police department obviously didn’t happen.”
A feature of this mismatch between diversity and delivery is that some city offices are considered typical havens for Latinos—the social service agencies, for instance, and maybe the housing department. On one hand, those agencies serve hundreds of thousands of Latino New Yorkers, and have real relevance in the lives of hundreds of thousands of others. On the other hand, they lack the profile of, say, One Police Plaza or Tweed Courthouse.
That’s what’s interesting about the pick of Carter, perhaps most famous for his role prosecuting the police officers linked to the 1997 precinct-house sodomy of Abner Louima. Little boys and girls don’t dream of growing up to be corporation counsel, and while most New Yorkers could tell you who Ray Kelly is, few could identify Michael Cardozo, Bloomberg’s corporation counsel for his entire tenure.
However, Cardozo was incredibly important to nearly every aspect of the Bloomberg administration’s agenda, from defending stop-and-frisk and FDNY hiring practices to pursuing the soda ban and stricter gun controls to protecting the mayor’s tax, environmental and other ambitions. So, what the post lacks in street-level profile it more than offers in real-world influence.
De Blasio is still very early in the appointment process; another announcement is expected later today (Monday). Things may look quite different even by the time he’s sworn in roughly forty-eight hours from now. But whatever surnames and skin-tones emerge, folks who worry about government reflecting the populace it serves will be analyzing not the raw numbers, but where appointees stand in proximity to the real levers of power in New York.
Read Next: Jarrett Murphy wonders if Mayor Bloomberg is incoming Mayor de Blasio’s managerial inspiration.
Story lines about New York’s mayors are like the soiled wads of gum that polka-dot our sidewalks. They get ground in quickly and are pretty hard to ever remove. David Dinkins, for instance, is widely remembered as the mayor who presided over an alarming crime wave before Rudy Giuliani rode in to restore order. Only true city-nerds recall that the murder rate began its fall under Dinkins, or that the increase in the size of the police force—which facilitated some of the aggressive crime-fighting strategies of the Giuliani era—was set in motion by New York’s first black mayor.
Sometimes these mayoral story lines get written even before a mayor takes office. Mike Bloomberg’s reputation as a great manager colored the lens through which his mayoralty was seen from the beginning. Now Bill de Blasio’s lack of managerial experience is being set up as the Achilles’ heel of his administration.
This is especially true among observers outside New York, among whom the conventional wisdom is that the mayor has been extremely successful as a manager, and that his successor could learn something from him. So said E.J. Dionne in The Washington Post this week:
To achieve his goals, de Blasio will need the evidence-based approach and crisp management style that Bloomberg championed. Bloomberg told the New Yorker’s Ken Auletta that he wanted to be known for having set “a tone that the city can be well run and can invest in the future.” That’s not a bad description of what de Blasio needs to do.
It certainly isn’t. Nor is it a bad description of what Bloomberg did… sometimes. Indeed, to watch Bloomberg give a budget presentation was to witness a public official with full fluency in the issues he was discussing—a frighteningly rare treat. But for better and worse, Bloomberg was never the manager-in-chief some observers paint him as.
On one hand, the manager-in-chief label sells the mayor short: he was in many ways, from the rezonings to the school reforms to the health stuff, more visionary—whether we liked the vision or not—than a mere bean-counter.
More importantly, the Bloomberg management record was sometimes distinctly un-crisp.
CityTime was a massive boondoggle, and it was far from the only technology project that could have done with better management. The 2010 snowstorm was a dangerous lapse in supervision, and the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy, when power outages kept tens of thousands of people in the dark and trapped in high rises, was a management disaster. The selection of Cathy Black as schools chancellor was deeply irresponsible. The conditions that developed in New York’s public housing over the Bloomberg years were not anyone’s idea of good management in action, nor was delegating so much authority to NYPD commissioner Ray Kelly over arresting protesters and spying on Muslims. And if the evidence-based approach was so beloved by Bloomberg, why did the city double down on stop-and-frisk despite ample evidence that it was not effective, or expand the conditional cash transfer despite middling results on its trial run?
The point isn’t that Bloomberg was a bad manager; actually, he was a decent one. The point is that operating the enormous and complex city bureaucracy is bound to result in some management failure. So when de Blasio screws up, as is inevitable, let’s be careful about labeling him a bad manager or comparing him unfavorably to Bloomberg just because that’s what the script says.
Because in the end, we don’t just need our mayors to be managers. We need them to be leaders. Bloomberg himself recognized this with his reference, to Auletta re-quoted by Dionne, about “investing in the future.” Investment isn’t just about efficiency; it’s about being guided by your values in assigning resources to benefit people you may never meet. Bloomberg didn’t invest nearly enough attention or political capital on the growing problem of income polarization in the city. Hopefully, de Blasio will manage to.
There were many times during the Michael Bloomberg era when the mayor’s considerable marketing expertise was self-defeating. The 2004 promise to slash homelessness by two-thirds and his 2006 vow to significantly reduce poverty were dramatic and earned the mayor nationwide praise at the time, but now stand as reminders of Bloomberg’s shortcomings. As cool as it sounded, PlaNYC wasn’t a real strategic plan, making what was actually an earnest and prescient attempt to make the city more sustainable seem overhyped. And nothing stained the mayor’s effort in 2008 to overturn term limits more than the favorable City Council testimony of nonprofit leaders who, it later emerged, had benefited from private donations by the mayor.
Mayor-elect Bill de Blasio could suffer from a similar problem. Just as Bloomberg was a brilliant marketer, de Blasio is considered a genius political tactician. Naysaying aside, de Blasio got Hillary Clinton into the US Senate, and he later won tough races for City Council in 2001 and public advocate in 2009. In the space of a few short weeks this summer, he went from fourth to first in the Democratic primary battle. It’s hard to notch so many wins without getting the reputation, as someone put it about de Blasio, that he’s “more Machiavelli than Marx”—more invested in strategic calculation than in the principles at play.
I don’t think that’s fair; de Blasio is not some airbrushed political chameleon. But the video released on Christmas Eve in which de Blasio’s daughter Chiara revealed her struggles with depression, alcohol and pot will only harden the impression that Blasio is more spin than substance. It was just a little too skillfully handled: The perfect timing of its release, the careful editing, the schmalzy music. It’s not that Chiara seems anything less than totally genuine talking about her past. It’s just that when a candid confession is packaged with so much showmanship, it starts to seem less candid.
Given the high profile of his family in the de Blasio campaign, the Chiara story was fair game for the media, and it’s a credit to those reporters who heard rumors about her troubles during the mayoral race but didn’t pursue them when the de Blasio campaign refused to comment.
And given the fact that she’s his 19-year-old daughter, it’s also fair play for the mayor-elect to want to exert some control over the way the story came out. It just would have been better—and more in keeping with the avowed goal of helping other teenagers wrestling with similar demons—to do it with less varnish. Inviting a responsible journalist in to interview Chiara would have allowed the mayor-elect to influence the timing and tone of the story without appearing to manipulate every detail.
Five days out from the inauguration of the first Democratic mayor in twenty years, all this talk of media strategy and family skeletons seems like a distraction from real issues. But this administration’s approach to telling its own story—the good, the bad, the ugly—will be incredibly important to gauging everything from de Blasio’s public safety initiatives to the performance of schools during his tenure.
From day one, Mayor Bloomberg stressed “transparency.” But this often meant providing a large volume of information that the administration wanted the public to have, not what the public necessarily wanted to get. Whether it was the September 11 oral histories that it took a court battle to shake loose or the sector-level crime stats that the NYPD is still making it unnecessarily difficult for us to see or the simple but usually unanswered question of where the mayor was over the weekend, the Bloomberg era was one of extreme message control.
For the next mayor, a little less media discipline might be a good thing—more engaging to a cynical citizenry, and more worthy of a valuable message like Chiara’s.
Back in 2009, at the height of outrage over the financial crisis and the bailouts that went to many of the very firms whose drive for profit created the crash, Rolling Stone’s Matt Taibbi famously wrote that Goldman Sachs was “a great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money.”
Now a ten-year veteran of the bank will be Bill de Blasio’s deputy mayor for housing and economic development—and in overall charge of his plan to create or preserve 200,000 units of affordable housing.
Fans of Alicia Glen, however, say she’s not part of the squid-ish part of Goldman’s operation. She’s the managing director of its Urban Investment Group, which oversees the bank’s compliance with the Community Reinvestment Act, or CRA, the law that requires banks to lend in the low-income neighborhoods from which it draws deposits. Goldman received a rating of “outstanding” from the Federal Reserve on its CRA examination this year, same as it had in 2010. Only one in nine banks reviewed last year got that highest rating.
Glen was an assistant commissioner at the city’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development from 1998 to 2002, right before she joined Goldman. Earlier, she worked for a legal services firm that assists low-income people, and then as a real estate lawyer. She’s given campaign contributions to Howard Dean, John Edwards and Barack Obama on the federal level, and has favored Comptroller-elect Scott Stringer (right now, he’s the Manhattan Borough president) with $7,374 of the $10,909 in city campaign contributions she’s made over the years. She donated to both de Blasio and the man who placed second in the Democratic primary, former Comptroller Bill Thompson, this year.
Not surprisingly, Glen was a player in many of the complex interactions of private money and public policy that characterized the Bloomberg era: investing in Mayor Bloomberg’s CitiBike program and a state program to improve access to healthy food in low-income neighborhoods, cheering the gentrification Harlem in a Financial Times story and calling for more experimentation with social impact bonds.
That kind of corporate involvement in policymaking can be unsettling: If it were that easy to align the profit motive with the public interest, why would we have food deserts in the first place, right? But when it comes to building affordable housing, the private sector is already deeply involved, because it has to be; after all, somebody’s got to buy the tax credits and the municipal bonds that make the system go. In fact, one of the knocks on Mayor Bloomberg’s affordable housing plan—which celebrated 160,000 units this past weekend—was that it was dwarfed by the amount of affordable housing simultaneously devoured by the private real-estate market. With federal support for housing fading, it takes a lot of imagination to build affordably, because the more “affordable” (i.e., cheaper) an apartment is, the bigger the gap between operating cost and rent rolls. Somehow that gap has to get filled.
If symbolism matters, it’s nice that Glen’s title will be “deputy mayor for housing and economic development.” Under Bloomberg, only the “economic development” part got top billing, even if the portfolio was more or less the same. The linkages between the two issue areas are at the heart of de Blasio’s housing hopes, which rely to a substantial extent on inclusionary zoning, in which developers are compelled to create affordable units when they build any other kind of unit.
It’s a cool idea, but for it to generate affordable units requires substantial new real estate development in a city that’s already seen a lot of that recently. Managing that—and the eternal tension between residential and industrial uses, which will be a key factor in whether manufacturing makes some kind of real comeback in New York—would be Glen’s gig.
• De Blasio named Laura Santucci, the executive director of his transition team, to serve as his chief of staff. Before that, she was acting director of the Democratic National Committee.
• The local chapter of the National Organization of Women endorsed de Blasio’s preferred candidate for City Council speaker, Councilwoman Melissa Mark-Viverito, with chapter president Sonia Ossorio saying: “Mark-Viverito has been a powerful ally and advocate for women and girls. Electing Mark-Viverito to the number two position puts our city in the absolute strongest position to level the playing field for women. She is a leader that reflects both the values and diversity that are New York City. This is why a majority of City Council members have publicly agreed to support her as the next Speaker.”
• A Marist poll found that “about two-thirds of registered voters in the city—66 percent—are hopeful about de Blasio becoming the next mayor of New York City. Fourteen percent are content, while 11 percent are disappointed. Two percent describe themselves as angry, and 7 percent are unsure. “
Bill de Blasio swept from also-ran to mayor-elect on a notion that New York City needed sweeping change, but facing questions about how steady his hand would be as a manager of the massive bureaucracy that is our municipal government. In the trickle of appointments so far, the public advocate has done a lot to answer the questions about his managerial muscle—by bringing in veteran insiders to run the police department and his budget office, and to serve as two of his deputy mayors.
The pattern repeated itself Sunday with the appointment of Gladys Carrion to head the city's Administration for Children's Services, our child welfare agency, which investigates claims of child abuse and neglect, runs the local juvenile justice system and oversees childcare and other services. Carrion has headed ACS's state counterpart, the Office of Children and Family Services, since early 2007.
In that capacity, she oversaw OCFS's response to damning reports by the U.S. Justice Department and a state task force about the conditions in the state's juvenile detention facilities, and instituted reforms—none more important than the closure of several facilities and an effort to house detainees closer to home.
Carrion replaces Ronald Richter, whom Bloomberg appointed in 2011 and many in the child-welfare world hoped and/or expected would stick around. (When I told an interviewer in 2012 that I thought being head of ACS was the one job I would never want because of the enormity of the task of protecting all New York's children, Richter called to tell me that he thought he had the best job in the city.)
So far de Blasio has picked a former NYPD commissioner to be his NYPD commissioner, a Bloomberg commissioner to be one of his deputy mayors and a former Port Authority e.d. to be another, a 20-year veteran of the statehouse to be his budget chief and now a state child welfare official to become a city child welfare official. None of the choices can be faulted on competence. The question that even some de Blasio fans raise is, at what point do you surround yourself with so many insiders that truly substantial change becomes impossible
The obvious rejoinder is that the mayor-elect has to make sure he has skilled people minding the store day to day or else he'll never accomplish his bigger agenda. That was the clear case for Bill Bratton, whose selection as police commissioner bought de Blasio credibility on crime—an issue on which the tabloids were gearing up to hammer him over.
While their jobs are vastly different, ACS and the NYPD reflect similar political risks: High-profile cases of child neglect and abuse, for obvious reasons, will trigger questions about an administration's competence just like crime waves do. Also like the NYPD, ACS is often viewed—particularly in low-income communities of color—as an abusive, outside force. Instead of stopping and frisking you, they take your kids. Richter and others at ACS recognize that reputation and have made moves to alter it.
Child welfare in New York City looks vastly different than it did when Rudy Giuliani—who started ACS in 1996 amid the outrage over Elisa Izquierdo's death—was mayor. In fiscal year 1998, there were on average 41,000 city children in foster care. Last year, there were 13,000. Even the number of abuse/neglect investigations has been trending down.
Last week I spoke to a former Bloomberg commissioner, and asked about the insider versus outsider question. How important is experience compared to a fresh set of eyes? The former commissioner said it would have been very difficult to run their agency without having worked there for years—knowing all the players, knowing how policy worked behind the scenes. The hard thing, sometimes, was managing people whom you'd known from before you were the boss, the former commish said.
Carrion will bring some combination of the advantages and disadvantages of deep government experience to her new gig. That's clear. It's also clear that she won't have the transition spotlight much longer: de Blasio has another announcement scheduled for noon Monday, when we'll get another look at how the next mayor plans to play the insider-outsider game.
Complexes are not good. Whether Oedipus or Sybil, prison-industrial or military-industrial, you want to avoid complexes and think twice about dating people who have them. Unfortunately, according to our outgoing mayor, New York City has got one—namely “a labor-electoral complex that is undermining our collective future.”
In a final major speech delivered to a friendly crowd at the Economic Club on Wednesday, Mayor Bloomberg said the biggest threat now to the survival of the city is the rising cost of employee pensions and healthcare. “Here in New York City, over the past twelve years our pension costs have gone from $1.5 billion to $8.2 billion,” he said. “That’s almost a 500 percent increase—when inflation totaled only 35 percent.” Healthcare costs for employees and retirees were also soarding. Together, the mayor said, those benefits costs represented a drain that has already dragged other cities into bankruptcy and will threaten the same in New York’s near future if we’re not careful.
“And let’s face it: The future that most elected officials worry most about is their own. Winning election—or reelection—is the goal around which everything else revolves,” the mayor said. “But we cannot afford for our elected officials to put their own futures ahead of the next generation’s, and to continue perpetuating a labor-electoral complex that is undermining our collective future.”
The complex the mayor is refering to is the sinister tendency of unions to support politicians who they like. Not many big municipal unions supported Bill de Blasio in the 2013 primary (DC 37 backed John Liu, and the UFT went for Bill Thompson) but de Blasio is closely linked to the Working Families Party, which is backed by labor, as well as to SEIU-1199 and the Communications Workers of America.
So insidious is the threat of the labor-electoral complex that Bloomberg himself succumbed to its spells more than once. In 2004, he granted a generous contract to DC37, the massive union that represents many municipal workers; in the 2005 campaign, DC37 endorsed Bloomberg. Also in 2005, he gave a sweet deal to the UFT, who coincidentally sat out that year’s election.
The mayor apparently kicked the habit after his first re-election, bravely deciding in 2009 to rely only on his nine-digit campaign spending and the support of a small but hardy band of newspaper barons to get him a third term.
Now. the mayor having gotten wise to their schemes, not a single municipal employee has a contract, leaving de Blasio with a towering stack of labor negotiations to work through. But that, says Bloomberg, is a good thing: Because he held the line against granting another contract that exacerbated that pension/healthcare problem, the mayor argued, unions were now desperate to get a deal and willing to compromise.
The mayor’s logic is interesting. He claims on one hand that it would be horribly irresponsible for elected officials not to solve the pension problem. On the other, he argues that he’s performed brilliantly … by not solving the pension problem, and instead leaving it for his successor.
Across town on Wednesday, de Blasio didn’t sound particularly grateful to the mayor for putting him in this enviable position. “We are going to be facing literally an unprecedented situation in the history of this city. We have never faced the fiscal stress created by having our entire workforce in a situation in which the contracts are not finalized and completed,” he said, adding that the contract situation will threaten his progressive agenda.
On Thursday, the city’s Independent Budget Office released its annual fiscal outlook, which reported, “The Bloomberg Administration’s financial plan assumes the unions will settle for no back pay for the years without contracts or raises. A costless settlement for these prior years remains a long shot as part of an accord with the unions.”
That report also noted that, while health and pension costs are a big deal, the biggest cost factor facing the city isn’t pensions or medical costs. It’s debt service on all of Bloomberg’s capital spending, which is due to rise 15 percent in the next year to $6.9 billion on its way to $7.6 billion in 2017.
It’s one thing for Bloomberg to say that health and pension costs are a concern—they are, and at some point the unions’ desires could undermine the rest of what the de Blasio administration needs to do. I don’t know if, in a city with 50,000 people in the homeless shelters, stagnant wage growth and nearly half of households at or near poverty, those costs are the biggest worry we’ve got. But you can make the argument that rising benefit expenses could hamstring our ability to respond to those other problems.
But the idea that the mayor, by leaving his successor with a rising debt-service tab and dozens of unfinished contracts, has moved the city closer to resolving its fiscal imbalance—that’s more than a little self-serving. Mike Bloomberg has done many fine and sensible things as mayor, like the smoking ban, bike lanes, increasing the high-school graduation rate, bus rapid transit, the investigations of gun retailers, the tech campus on Roosevelt Island and so on. But putting his successor on solid fiscal footing is not one of them.
Read Next: Ten steps de Blasio should take to end stop-and-frisk once and for all.