Bill de Blasio responds to questions after the Democratic New York City mayoral debate Tuesday, August 13, 2013, in New York. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)
New York Public Advocate Bill de Blasio might just be elected the new mayor of America’s largest city.
And that has the current mayor of New York freaking out.
It’s not that Mike Bloomberg has much reason to fear that de Blasio would do harm to the city. When Bloomberg was elected mayor in 2001, de Blasio was elected to the city council, and though their positions differ on a good many issues, they have both worked within the broad mainstream of New York City politics and governance ever since.
But Bloomberg does fear de Blasio’s support for a slightly more equitable tax system—of the sort that might make New Yorkers like the billionaire mayor pay a few more bills.
So on the eve of the New York mayoral primary in which de Blasio is likely to beat the mayor’s unofficial favorite (City Council President Christine Quinn), Bloomberg was ripping the public advocate. Most of the headlines from Bloomberg over the weekend related to a bizarre comment he made about de Blasio’s highlighting of members of his family—including his African-American wife and their teenage son Dante—in public appearances and in television ads that focus on, among other things, the candidate’s long-standing opposition to the city’s “stop-and-frisk” law.
It is hard to imagine a more traditional political tactic than a candidate and his or her family campaigning together. But Bloomberg told New York magazine that de Blasio is running a “class warfare and racist” campaign because: “he’s making an appeal using his family to gain support. I think it’s pretty obvious to anyone watching what he’s been doing.”
That was a “Seriously?” moment, to which response has been universally negative. The mayor’s office went into damage-control mode immediately, complaining about the transcription of the taped interview; it was noted that Bloomberg said in the same interview of de Blasio: “I do not think he himself is racist.” But even Quinn labeled Bloomberg’s remark “unfortunate.”
The controversy distracted from another jab at de Blasio by the mayor—a hit that is likely to be central to the mayor’s effort to attack the public advocate in a potential mayoral primary runoff race (which is required if no Democratic contender gets more than 40 percent of the vote) and the November general election.
Bloomberg’s biggest gripe was with what he terms “class warfare.”
From the beginning of his campaign, de Blasio has highlighted issues of income inequality, arguing that New York’s story is becoming “a tale of two cities.” One of the candidate’s most popular platform planks is a proposal for “increasing taxes on the wealthy to fund early childhood and after-school programs.” It’s hardly a radical plan, and it comes not as part of a divisive appeal but as part of a platform that calls for “One New York, Rising Together.”
But the mayor does not like that the front-runner in the race to replace him points out a fact of life in the city Bloomberg has led for twelve years: “In so many ways, New York has become a Tale of Two Cities,” says de Blasio “Nearly 400,000 millionaires call New York home, while nearly half of our neighbors live at or near the poverty line. Our middle class isn’t just shrinking; it’s in danger of vanishing altogether.”
Bloomberg complains that “de Blasio’s whole campaign is that there are two different cities here. And I’ve never liked that kind of division. The way to help those who are less fortunate is, number one, to attract more very fortunate people. They are the ones that pay the bills.”
Grumbling about the whole de Blasio campaign, Bloomberg says: “It’s a destructive strategy for those you want to help the most. He’s a very populist, very left-wing guy, but this city is not two groups, and if to some extent it is, it’s one group paying for services for the other.”
The mayor is off-base on plenty of levels. The majority of New York’s revenues come from working people, not millionaires and billionaires.
And de Blasio’s “ask” of the wealthiest 1 percent is relatively modest: an increase in New York City’s top income tax rate from 3.876 percent to 4.41 percent. Only New Yorkers with incomes above $500,000 would pay any more.
Yet, the tax increase would yield $532 million to help pay for universal all-day pre-kindergarten and after-hours middle-school programs that would, overwhelmingly, benefit low- and moderate-income families.
That those families could use help is hard to debate. In 1980, according to New York’s Fiscal Policy Institute, New York’s wealthiest 1 percent collected 12 percent of all earnings. By 2012, the wealthiest 1 percent was pocketing 39 percent of all earnings.
“Here [in New York City], one of the country’s poorest congressional districts, primarily in the South Bronx, sits less than a mile from one of its wealthiest, which includes Manhattan’s Upper East Side. And here, a billionaire mayor presides over a homelessness crisis so massive that 50,000 men, women and children sleep in shelters each night. More New Yorkers are homeless these days than at any time since the Great Depression,” notes the Fiscal Policy Institute. “The numbers tell the story. Between 2000 and 2010, the median income of the city’s eight wealthiest neighborhoods jumped 55 percent…. Meanwhile, as the cushy precincts got even cushier, median income dipped 3 percent in middle-income areas and 0.2 percent in the poorest neighborhoods.”
Bill de Blasio’s response to that data is to say: “We need a game-changer, and at a time when so many families are struggling, it’s right and fair that we tax the wealthiest New Yorkers to achieve it. There is no investment that will prove more transformative for our kids.”
Mike Bloomberg accuses de Blasio of “class warfare.”
That’s tough talk. But instead of arguing with Bloomberg, perhaps de Blasio should borrow a page from Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
Noting that his 1936 reelection campaign was opposed by the forces of “business and financial monopoly, speculation, reckless banking, class antagonism, sectionalism, war profiteering,” the thirty-second president said: “Never before in all our history have these forces been so united against one candidate as they stand today. They are unanimous in their hate for me—and I welcome their hatred. I should like to have it said of my first Administration that in it the forces of selfishness and of lust for power met their match. I should like to have it said of my second Administration that in it these forces met their master.”