New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s first 100 days—a partnership between The Nation and City Limits.
The most important election that the voters don’t get to vote on—the selection of New York’s next City Council Speaker—is the consuming buzz in New York’s political world on Wednesday.
Politicker reported yesterday that Mayor-elect Bill de Blasio has been making calls to returning and incoming councilmembers lobbying for Manhattan-Bronx Councilwoman Melissa Mark-Viverito, who has the support of the Progressive Caucus—which, according to the same report, claimed to have the 26 votes necessary to elect her head of the fifty-one-member council.
Politicker also quoted unnamed insiders saying that de Blasio’s overt advocacy for Mark-Viverito had infuriated some of the county Democratic chairmen, who have traditionally held sway over the picks for Council leadership.
City & State reported today that those county chairman have coalesced around Manhattan Councilmember Daniel Garodnick to be the next speaker—and that they claim to have enough votes.
To most members of my huge national audience, and even among some of my millions or dozens of readers in the city, all this gamesmanship over a legislative post may seem like a distraction (if a welcome one; how else are we to pass the time before we can get to Anchorman 2?).
But it’s vital to de Blasio’s agenda that he get a speaker he can work with. He saw evidence of this during his own time in the Council. In de Blasio’s first term, from 2002 to 2005, Speaker Gifford Miller often resisted Bloomberg, irritating the easily irritated billionaire. In de Blasio’s second Council stint, from 2006 to 2009, the more accommodating Quinn made life easier for the mayor—no more so than when Bloomberg asked to overturn the term limits law.
While New York has a strong mayor system, the Council has a huge role to play on the budget and decisions about zoning and other land-use policies. The speaker has the ability to tightly control that role, by naming committee chairs, deciding which bills get hearings and which can come up for votes and apportioning discretionary funding for the members to spend, with favored colleagues getting lots of dough and squeaky wheels getting little. In fact, one of the top items on the Progressive Caucus wish list is to reform the Council rules and reduce the power of the speaker—but that probably won’t happen unless one of their own gets the chair.
Because the speaker can dish out goodies and discipline and set the agenda, almost all Council measures pass unanimously. Even notable gadflies vote with the speaker 90 percent of the time, simply because the speaker rarely brings a bill to a vote if passage is not assured. What’s more, the last three speakers have run, albeit unsuccessfully, for mayor, so whoever gets the post is by default the person best positioned to succeed or even challenge de Blasio.
Everyone thought de Blasio’s big problem was going to be Albany, because the state legislature has to approve changes to the income tax like the one de Blasio wants to use to fund his signature initiative, which couples early childhood education and middle-school after-school programs. Republican control of the state Senate is an obstacle to that idea, and the cagey governor-who-might-run-for-president may not be an ally either.
All that gets much more complicated if the city’s own legislature hamstrings the new mayor. Plus, it kinda looks bad if de Blasio loses his first big fight. But be careful about overstating the scope of it.
Mark-Viverito, who represents a district including East Harlem and parts of the South Bronx, is generally well regarded by the left in the city, making headlines last year for clashing with Ray Kelly over aggressive police tactics. Her liberal credentials are such that some observers thought de Blasio would prefer someone more centrist as his partner across City Hall. When I recently asked a room of anti-poverty advocates what they thought of her front-runner status, they were all smiles and thumbs up.
Garodnick is no right-winger (those are hard to find on the City Council), though he is not a member of the Progressive Caucus. His district includes a long slab of the Upper East Side—the only large section of Manhattan that chose Republican Joe Lhota over de Blasio in November. According to Politicker, he’s passed more legislation than his rivals for the council.
Just because the mayor-elect doesn’t get his top pick doesn’t mean his mayoralty is over. There are battles and there are wars. Eight years ago Christine Quinn famously outmaneuvered Bill de Blasio for the City Council speakership. That seemed to work out alright for him.
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There were well over 200 forums in the race for mayor of New York City this year. Forums on housing and crime, on youth issues and senior centers, on the environment and animal rights and health and more. At these forums, candidates got to say what they were going to do to solve problems. Rare was the forum where someone didn’t say they were going to “work to get the federal government to do its share” or something like that. It always sounded like a bit of a dodge.
Turns out Mayor-elect Bill de Blasio, at least, was serious about making the pitch to Washington. At an event last week when he named his deputy mayor for health and human services, de Blasio said that he was “going to begin a mission that I look forward to working with my fellow mayors on, certainly work with the president on, to slowly but surely turn the congressional focus in particular back to investments in education, infrastructure, mass transit, housing, the kinds of things that would change New York City so fundamentally,” as highlighted by Bloomberg News.
Mayors of New York have long sought and often gained a national spotlight, from John Lindsay’s role investigating urban riots (before unsuccessfully running for president) to Rudy Giuliani’s reputation as crime-fighter (before unsuccessfully running for president) to Mike Bloomberg’s anti-gun and pro-environment stances (he considered running for president but didn’t bother).
There was an element of self-promotion involved in each of these bids for coast-to-coast attention. Duh. But they were driven by policy reality, too. Bloomberg’s bid for sane gun laws was a reflection of the fact that the city is never going to solve its violence problem until the flow of guns purchased legally in other states stops. And even if every building installed a green roof and every worker biked in to the office, climate change was never a problem that New York was going to solve alone.
This is particularly true for de Blasio’s agenda. The skeptic’s trump card these days on income inequality is not that it’s nonexistent or nonproblematic, but that it’s the result of massive economic forces like globalization and increasing returns to technology—forces that the city of New York cannot resist by its lonesome.
That’s not entirely true—from its tax system to its approach to zoning and development, there are ways city policy affects the distribution of income and wealth—but it’s true enough that if de Blasio is going to make good on his promise to, as he put it last week, “address income inequality forcefully and directly,” he’s going to need federal help.
Even just maintaining city services as they are will be an effort. About 11 percent of the city’s current $72 billion budget comes from federal grants—which, in the Bloomberg administration’s current projection, are set to shrink from $8.1 billion this year to $6.3 billion in fiscal 2015.
Few areas of city policy are as directly affected by federal budget decisions as housing—especially public housing, which has suffered mightily from inadequate funding of annual operating expenses and capital support going back several years. The New York City Housing Authority, which houses a city the size of Baltimore in its traditional public housing and Section 8 apartments, has a $6 billion capital backlog and faces a nine-figure operating deficit this year. If de Blasio could simply get Washington to stop cheating on its commitments to public housing, that would be a major win for low-income people in the city. But the very strength of public housing’s role in New York, compared to most places, complicates the national argument. The five boroughs have 179,000 units of traditional public housing. The number-two city, Chicago, has 23,000; New York has more public housing than the next twenty-two cities combined. So, while public housing is no doubt important to all those cities, thanks to two decades of initiatives to demolish and replace federally constructed homes, New York has a lot more to lose than anywhere else if public housing is allowed to wither on the vine.
Other aspects of the urban agenda—mass transit, for instance—might have more universal appeal. But the federal ambivalence towards cities is not a Tea Party trend. As the mayor-elect noted last week, “The federal government used to feel a commitment to our cities. That has been cut and cut and cut some more since Ronald Reagan was elected in 1980,” even as cities have become more important to the country’s economy.
Urban issues drove the last two waves of progressive national policy. The New Deal reflected, to a great extent, a partnership between the Roosevelt administration and forward-thinking urban leaders like Fiorello LaGuardia and Edward Flynn, the Bronx Democratic boss who was one of FDR’s key advisers. The Great Society aimed squarely at urban poverty and political engagement. The former wave reshaped many cities; the latter didn’t get much chance to, overtaken as it was by a conservative wave that wrapped itself around a rural, agrarian myth of the “real” America. President Obama promised to change that, creating a cabinet-level post for urban policy and some pilot programs to foster transit-oriented development and attack concentrated poverty, but these were all slowed down by the budget wars with Republicans.
Now de Blasio will try to change that. “All of the capacity that our cities have being maximized is the best thing that could happen to the United States,” he said last week. Meanwhile, his predecessor Mike Bloomberg will, according to a City Hall notice, give his final major speech this week “on the rise of American cities, the strategies needed to continue urban progress and the threats cities face.”
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“I do solemnly swear that I will support the Constitution of the United States and the Constitution of the State of New York and that I will faithfully discharge the duties of the office of mayor of the city of New York according to the best of my ability, so help me God.”
When Bill de Blasio becomes mayor of New York City in twenty days he’ll recite a fifty-three-word oath in which, basically, he’ll promise to try his hardest to “faithfully discharge” his duties.
That doesn’t begin to describe what he’s signed up for. Not only is de Blasio moving from the low-profile, low-power post of public advocate—a kind of civic watchdog unique to New York and invisible to many of its citizens—to the enormous challenge of managing a $70 billion budget and occupying the most intimately scrutinized elected position in America. He has to do all that with the hopes of the progressive movement on his back.
That may sound naïve or hyperbolic, but that’s exactly what some people said about de Blasio’s “tale of two cities” critique, and they were wrong on the politics and on the policy.
Sure, if you’re so inclined, you can look at de Blasio’s résumé, with his stint at the side of the “New Democrat” Clintons and his nimble traipse through the politics of real estate development, and conclude that the mayor-elect is more shrewd strategist than true believer. But it doesn’t matter. Whether in his heart he’s Chance the Gardener or John Doe or the Real Deal, people want him to be the Real Deal, so that’s what he’ll be expected to be.
And if you detect New York chauvinism at work here, tell me, what progressive has a higher profile or a bigger mandate to reverse the erosion of American working-class living standards than the guy who’ll be mayor of a city with more poor residents than Philadelphia has people?
The scope of that potential and the size of the challenge confronting de Blasio are why The Nation and City Limits are teaming up to produce this blog on the transition now underway and the first 100 days of the mayoral term that begins January 1.
There is no question that New York City is at a crossroads. De Blasio’s surge this fall had even Crain’s, the leading business publication in town, acknowledging the reality of income inequality. The New York Times is this week giving unprecedented space to a series about a homeless girl navigating the city remade not so nicely by the Bloomberg era. A coalition of big foundations set up a tent in Tribeca to collect people hopes and suggestions for the first Democratic mayor since 1993.
“It feels like a New York transformed, for me,” says Andrew Friedman, co-executive director of the Center for Popular Democracy. “There’s a world of issues where it feels clear that the de Blasio administration is going to move with significant progressive policies in line with what we’ve been fighting for for years,” like paid sick leave, a municipal ID, stronger living wage provisions and more.
So, yeah, there’s an amazing array of hopes being pinned to de Blasio. But there are questions, too. At his Election Night victory party, people voiced doubts about the winner even as they cheered the size of his margin. Can he help the poor without neglecting the environment? Can he afford to empower black and Latino communities and gay and lesbian organizations? Can he deliver?
To some degree, John Lindsay—the last progressive who tried to transform New York—had it easier. He didn’t have to fret about being compared to John Lindsay. De Blasio will always have to worry that any hint New York is slipping back to the bad old days will cost him the support of the city’s center, and especially the editorial boards.
That’s why the mayor-elect made the decidedly conventional picks of Anthony Shorris, a veteran mover and shaker, as first deputy mayor and, for police commissioner, William Bratton, who in some ways pioneered the stop-and-frisk strategy that Ray Kelly put on steroids. Fact is, de Blasio needs a skilled manager in City Hall and someone with editorial-board credibility at One Police Plaza. “You’ve got to make people comfortable,” says one veteran pol. “He’s got to send business a signal and the elites a signal.”
Meanwhile, the city’s left is scarred by disappointment with Barack Obama, who never even pretended to be as progressive as de Blasio but still managed to accommodate away much of the hope invested in him.
Yet progressives seem to recognize that they need to give de Blasio some room to operate. Thus they largely acquiesced to the choice of the un-beloved Bratton. “I think people are very sympathetic to the fear that we are one crime spree away from putting the whole progressive agenda on the rocks,” says one advocate.
Of course, the looming question is, will something come up that has progressives pushing back? People recognize the unique political requirements for police commissioner and first deputy mayor. But when it comes to the schools chancellor, or the head of the city’s social services department, de Blasio will be under more pressure to name someone who excites people. There is already some concern that the mayor-elect has backed away from a promise to have an inclusive process for selecting the next schools chief.
City Limits has covered urban policy in New York since the fiscal crisis, always with an emphasis on stories that affected low-income neighborhoods, communities of color, the outer boroughs—sort of the “second city” in the Dickensian reference de Blasio made a slogan. Racially skewed policing, income inequality, affordable housing…those 2013 buzzwords have been our stock in trade since ’76. We can get deep into wonk territory on land-use policy or charter school co-locations, but we see all of it as part of the bigger endeavor to create a more just city.
That means we can be tough on officials, especially ones who speak the language of progress. (We’ve been tough on de Blasio at times: A profile I wrote in 2009 ticked off his spokesperson, who thought I took cheap shots. He was probably right.)
But now de Blasio is more than just another ambitious politician: He’s to be mayor of the greatest city in the world and the bearer of a multitude of hopes and expectations. We’ll be watching who he brings in to help him, the speeches he makes, the policies he changes and the moves the game’s other players—the press, advocates, labor, state pols and local leaders—make. The first 100 days is a crude convention, but it will give us a sense of who the 109th mayor of New York really is.
“He’s a real progressive dude,” says the veteran pol. “More progressive than people realize.”
Read next: What does the choice of Bill Bratton for NYPD commissioner signal about the future of de Blasio’s tenure?