Can a Progressive Mayor Govern New York City?

Can a Progressive Mayor Govern New York City?

Can a Progressive Mayor Govern New York City?

Bill de Blasio was elected to unite a divided city, but some rifts are hard to mend.


As the gears of federal government have ground to a halt, a new energy has been rocking the foundations of our urban centers. From Atlanta to Seattle and points in between, cities have begun seizing the initiative, transforming themselves into laboratories for progressive innovation. Income inequality, affordable housing, climate change, sustainable development, public health, participatory government—cities are tackling them all, bringing new urgency to some of the most vital questions of the day. Welcome to the age of big city progressivism! Cities Rising is The Nation’s contribution to the conversation.

New York Mayor Bill de Blasio Stood at a podium inside a church on Staten Island and told reporters of the “pain and frustration and confusion” in his city. It was December 3, less than a year into his first term, and the streets were alive with protests against the New York Police Department after a Staten Island grand jury decided not to indict Officer Daniel Pantaleo in the killing of Eric Garner, an unarmed black man. The mayor evoked his teenage son Dante, the star of his campaign, whose smiling face and natural hair had reminded New Yorkers that thousands of kids just like him were routinely stopped and frisked by the police for doing nothing but having brown skin. The burgeoning energy of a movement against stop-and-frisk had helped propel the mayor into office, and he echoed that movement in his speech. “Change is happening because the people willed it to happen,” he said. “It is my responsibility…to achieve that on behalf of the people.”

One month later, de Blasio once again stood at a podium—this time at NYPD headquarters, flanked by his controversial police commissioner, William Bratton—and answered questions about another group of protesters shaking up the city: the police. The NYPD had declared war on the mayor after two officers, Rafael Ramos and Wenjian Liu, were gunned down on December 20 by a man from Baltimore spouting hatred of the cops. Angered by de Blasio’s statement that he sometimes feared his own biracial son might come to harm at the hands of cops, police-union leaders publicly blamed the mayor for the officers’ deaths, and the department staged what many believed to be a protracted work slowdown. The mayor initially seemed cowed by this insurgency, which political observers quickly christened the biggest test of his mayoralty. But as he stood at the podium at police headquarters, he criticized the NYPD’s response and defended his record. “We’re going to find a way forward together,” he vowed.

But how does a mayor who has staked the success of his administration on ending New York’s “tale of two cities” find a way forward that pleases both sides?

When de Blasio ran in 2013, he surged to the front of the Democratic pack—and a landslide victory in the general election—by promising to address the injustices that have made New York an exemplar of urban inequality. In the year since, he has continued that theme, in language as well as policy, and created real change in New Yorkers’ lives. Some of these changes have been sweeping and very public, like the creation of a universal prekindergarten program that has sent more than 50,000 4-year-olds to school. Others have been quieter, like the tens of millions that de Blasio managed to wrest from Governor Andrew Cuomo for rent subsidies to homeless families. Along the way, he has lowered traffic deaths and kept the city functioning during a winter of epic snow. When Cuomo and his partner in bombast, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, threatened to quarantine travelers from West Africa last October after a New York doctor returned with Ebola, de Blasio displayed a welcome calm.

“In the sense of trying to have a city that’s accountable to everyday people, it’s entirely different,” says Deborah Axt, co–executive director of Make the Road New York, which works with immigrant and working-class New Yorkers in the areas of civil rights, housing and labor issues. “Wealthy people get it: this is no longer just their guy.”

Yet not all change has come easily, and some change hasn’t come at all. While de Blasio has been working on reforms to take the edge off of life in the gilded city, the cost of living in that city has kept rising, with rents up 3.3 percent across the boroughs—and more than 10 percent in Brooklyn. While he has reined in stop-and-frisk, his police commissioner has revved up “broken windows” policing, which disproportionately targets communities of color. His fellow Democrat, Governor Cuomo, has often proved more obstacle than ally, blocking key reforms. And cardinal injustices like homelessness, poverty and hunger remain stubbornly high. Then, of course, there is the matter of the NYPD rebellion.

For de Blasio’s conservative critics, the lesson of these disappointments—the police tempest, in particular—has been that the mayor’s reforms have gone too far, and it is time for him to reverse course. Yet a more obvious lesson from the highs and lows of the mayor’s first year is that New York’s entrenched power structures are hard to dislodge. When de Blasio took the oath of office last year, he inherited a city that had calcified around the interests of a powerful few. But it hasn’t always been this way.

In the decades following World War II, says New York University historian Kimberly Phillips-Fein, the city’s leaders had “a very different vision of what city government was supposed to be doing.” Flush with the federal dollars that flowed into the city in the era from the New Deal to the Great Society, New York’s leaders saw their role as an expansive one—opening health clinics, running a broad public-health program, and creating publicly funded daycare services. But after the fiscal crisis of the 1970s, Phillips-Fein says, the city shifted its priorities, focusing on private development and cutting social services, as if conceding everything to capital was the only way out of the crisis. These priorities have dominated ever since, from the gritty days of Abraham Beame through the gilded days of Rudolph Giuliani and Michael Bloomberg, who added a tough-on-crime ethos to the mix.

Forty years of doing business this way have created powerful interests that are used to getting what they want, when they want it, and they have done their best to make enlightened policy changes difficult in the city. Although progressive forces have rallied in recent years, the landscape remains rocky and uncertain—a fact that de Blasio himself has acknowledged. Changes “will take time, but that is not in any way an excuse or an unwillingness on our part to do anything but the fastest change we can,” he said as he stood in Staten Island’s Mount Sinai United Christian Church that December night.

As he heads into his second year in office, the question of how de Blasio manages to nurture change in New York City—to govern in a way that lives up to his promises, while navigating the constraints that come with his position—will continue to define his administration. Fortunately, his first year offers some helpful lessons for his second: clues to where change can be made with the flick of a pen, and where it requires a fight.

* * *

A few weeks after he took office last January, de Blasio stood on a sidewalk in Bushwick, Brooklyn, framed by a sign that read: One New York Rising Together. Surrounded by the City Council speaker, the public advocate and other officials, he announced plans to expand the city’s paid-sick-leave law to an estimated 500,000 more workers, doubling the impact of the original compromise bill. That bill was the result of three years of battles between then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg, then–Council Speaker Christine Quinn and business lobbyists, on the one hand, and advocates and a majority of the City Council on the other. The expanded bill passed before the original had even taken effect.

For many of the organizers whose work gave de Blasio a platform to run on, the expanded bill’s smooth passage signaled a new era in City Hall. While the billionaire Bloomberg had opposed nearly anything that would allow workers even slight relief (often with the support of Speaker Quinn, a Democrat), the collaboration between de Blasio, the movement and a majority of the City Council—now led by Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito—has been one of the most fertile sources of progressive policy in the last year. The municipal-ID card that Mark-Viverito and de Blasio championed is among the most recent examples. Signed into law last July and implemented in January, the card has been hailed by advocates as a “major victory” for undocumented immigrants and homeless New Yorkers, for whom it can now serve as identification. The card also allows holders to designate their own gender identity.

Municipal agencies like the Human Resources Administration have been another source of innovation, as new agency heads have taken advantage of their freedom to rewrite ineffective or troubled policy. Steven Banks, the commissioner of HRA, which oversees food stamps, public assistance and other antipoverty programs, has been among the most effective at this task. This past fall, he decided to phase out the city’s Work Experience Program—a “welfare reform”–era program that forced thousands of New Yorkers to pay off their benefits by doing make-work jobs. “That was a twenty-year-long fight that was created in New York under Giuliani and was exported across the country,” says Alyssa Aguilera, political director of VOCAL-NY, which organizes low-income New Yorkers affected by HIV/AIDS, the “war on drugs” and mass incarceration. “For him to come in and just nix it was major.”

Such differences are being felt in the realm of education, too. Zakiyah Ansari, advocacy director of the Alliance for Quality Education and a member of de Blasio’s transition team, says that the difference is palpable under the new schools chancellor, Carmen Fariña. It matters, she says, to have someone in charge who values public education (not the charter schools that Bloomberg advocated), but she also points to less-noticed changes like a reduction in the number of suspensions of children of color.

With Fariña’s help, de Blasio launched his signature first-year achievement, universal pre-K, last fall. This program has been widely hailed as a success, but the road to winning funding from Albany was full of twists and pitfalls that say a lot about how change is both made and stymied in New York City.

When de Blasio first proposed the program, he sought the state’s permission to raise taxes on the city’s highest earners to pay for both pre-K and after-school programs. Never one to green-light a tax increase, Cuomo balked, eventually countering with his own, more limited plan that relied on funding from the state budget. For the next few weeks, de Blasio and Cuomo tussled, with the governor waging a full-on campaign involving rallies, e-mail appeals and lobbying days in the capital. In the end, de Blasio was denied his tax increase—a defeat that somewhat reduced the program’s scope and impact, and that also made clear the kind of effective opposition he would face. But he did win $300 million, which was more than Cuomo had initially proposed and more than he would have gotten without a fight. And in September, thousands of New York’s youngest residents went to school for the first time.

* * *

It is not easy to collapse a year into simple lessons, but among the themes that emerge from the last twelve months is that de Blasio’s successes have largely been in those areas where he has been able to shift policies in favor of the city’s working class without coming into direct conflict with wealthy financiers, powerful real-estate developers or the police. Shaking up the actual distribution of wealth and power in the city has been a harder fight.

Housing is one of New York’s thorniest issues and also one of its most consequential. With median rents that regularly outstrip those of every city in the country other than San Francisco, and with a soaring homeless population, New York is in desperate need of new affordable housing. In earlier eras, the city might have looked to the federal government for help subsidizing its way out of this crisis, but those days are long gone; a mayor now has to address this issue on his or her own.

In May, de Blasio attempted to do just that when he announced a plan to build or preserve 200,000 units of affordable housing over the next ten years. The administration’s plan centers, in part, on inclusionary zoning, which mandates that some percentage of apartments in new developments be set aside as “affordable,” a loose designation that covers a wide range of income levels. It’s a policy that allows developers to keep building, but requires them to take a small hit to their profits by keeping some apartments cheaper. As such, it demands more from developers than previous plans—but it doesn’t demand enough, advocates fear. (Or, as The New York Times put it, de Blasio’s plan offers “few ideas that would rattle the real-estate industry.”)

In response, organizers are calling for much more affordable housing and at better levels, accessible to the city’s very poorest. The Real Affordability for All coalition, which includes VOCAL-NY, Make the Road and forty-eight other organizations, is calling for 50 percent affordable housing in any new development and has held actions to pressure the administration on developments such as Astoria Cove in Queens, which is slated to have 73 percent luxury apartments. But even at these higher levels, inclusionary zoning alone cannot solve the affordability crunch or stanch the gentrification in the outer boroughs, where many black and Latino neighborhoods have rapidly become whiter and more expensive.

De Blasio’s plan recognizes some of this, as he did on the campaign trail when he called for freezing rents on rent-stabilized apartments as a way to protect tenants. He also promised to appoint “pro-tenant, pro-stabilization” representatives to the Rent Guidelines Board (which rules on how much landlords can increase rent each year). But last June, after months of hearings, one of his appointees to the RGB proposed a 1 percent increase, which ultimately passed. It was a historically low increase, but one that continues the steady ascent in the city’s cost of living.

The failed rent freeze illustrates one of the mayor’s biggest struggles: in trying to please both sides on contentious issues, his administration has wound up pleasing no one. A 1 percent rent increase is barely consequential for many people in the city, but it is hugely symbolic to tenants while certainly not enough to win over landlords. Similarly, the appointment of Bratton as police commissioner alienated the reform community, whose work had given de Blasio’s campaign momentum, but it certainly hasn’t appeased an irate police force.

“I don’t envy his job,” says Joo-Hyun Kang, director of Communities United for Police Reform. “It’s going to be an incredibly hard job to change the NYPD. He’s certainly taken some positive steps that the prior mayor would never have done, including withdrawing the lawsuit against the Community Safety Act anti-profiling law that the prior mayor had filed, as well as committing to withdraw the appeal against the Floyd federal stop-and-frisk lawsuit. But there’s a number of areas where we have some concerns that are pretty significant.”

= These are the conditions that created New York’s “tale of two cities” in the first place and make it hard to imagine anything else. But it’s worth repeating Phillips-Fein’s point: the direction the city took back in the 1970s was the result of a deliberate set of choices, and different choices can be made now. New York is a wealthy city and financially stable, notes Andrew Friedman, co–executive director of the Center for Popular Democracy, and there’s no reason to think that spending money to rebuild its welfare services will result in a crisis.

One of the most effective mechanisms available to a mayor who wants to rewire the city’s priorities is the budget. John Mollenkopf, director of the Center for Urban Research at the City University of New York, points out that New York’s roughly $80 billion budget provides a lot of room to maneuver. “It’s sizable compared to many European nations,” he notes, adding that it dwarfs the budgets of most US states as well.

All of that money flows through well-established channels, but many of those can be changed. When the mayor proposes his next budget, for example, he can shift the money for “broken windows” policing to repairing actual broken windows, lights and sidewalks in public housing. He can direct funds to vital services, as he did when he restored the money for after-school programs chopped in the Bloomberg years. There are also regulatory changes that the mayor and the City Council can make; Mollenkopf suggests improving the city’s earned-income tax credit. In a city the size of New York, there are plenty of levers a mayor can pull without begging the permission of unelected power brokers.

New York’s two previous mayors spent little time seeking consensus among the city’s diverse residents before acting. Bloomberg in particular was able to win allies and silence opponents through the intimidating power of his money. Despite a term-limits law, the billionaire got himself elected to a third term with tactics that de Blasio, then a City Council member, described as “more reminiscent of a banana republic.”

De Blasio is right to pursue a different management style, but the forces he has to confront are, in many cases, not interested in compromise. When the governor or the city’s power elite won’t budge, the mayor may have to be willing to pick a side and use his public platform to rally support for more equitable policies. For example, New York can’t raise its minimum wage without approval from Albany—in contrast to cities like Seattle and San Francisco, which have raised it to $15 an hour. There are also continuing struggles around the funding for public schools. The mayor, Ansari argues, could join activists in this fight: “We need the connection and the power that he has, the bully pulpit, to come up to Albany with us and stand with parents and community members.” It would be a risk, as with pre-K, but it’s a risk worth taking.

Friedman notes that because of New York’s size and the “incredibly important” role it plays in the state’s economy, the mayor has a strong case to make for local control in areas like wages and rent laws. “I think that the mayor has an opportunity to…say: ‘We think New York should have the power to set a minimum wage [and] to get into more aggressive wage-theft enforcement.’”

This year will see a battle over the city’s rent regulation and other real-estate laws, which are decided in Albany. The mayor could play a key role here, joining the tenant activists who have packed Rent Guidelines Board meetings and marched for affordable housing. The question for de Blasio, says Phillips-Fein, is to what extent a mayor can “be a leader in pressing the state and federal government, and articulating a different vision for them to live up to as well.”

De Blasio is certainly no radical; the fact that his liberal stance on many issues sounds so challenging illustrates just how far the Democratic Party has moved in the direction of capital. The kind of speeches made by Franklin Delano Roosevelt, in which he “welcomed the hatred” of bankers, are a distant memory in an era when taxing bankers is considered “class warfare” and the city’s previous mayor likened a living-wage bill, in all seriousness, to Soviet-style communism. But de Blasio won because he echoed the words being spoken in the streets by the growing protest movements—and those movements have only expanded. To Axt, this means the mayor would have plenty of support if he chose to push back harder against his opponents, whether it was the police or the Real Estate Board.

After de Blasio’s election, many of the organizers who supported him echoed the fear that this would be another “Obama moment”: that having elected a candidate who ran on a platform of change, the left would then become complacent rather than challenge him to live up to his words. But if we acknowledge that what needs to change is not just the city’s mayor, not just a policy or two, but the entire framework that has put developers and Wall Street at the forefront for decades while allowing the city’s working class to fall further and further behind, then it is the job of progressive advocates to help challenge that framework.

To Ansari, that means not ending your protests or pressure just because you now have a seat at the table. “I don’t see how you can’t have an inside and outside strategy,” she says. “The people with the money are extremely powerful. They have influence and access. And if they have that, then the people always have to show their might and their power at the same time.”

Because New York is both a massive economic center and the home of much of the nation’s media, the demands made there echo across the country, as Axt notes. The willingness of de Blasio to meet with the #BlackLivesMatter protesters is one good indication that the protests are being heard. Giving in now, especially while the police continue their own protests, would leave the administration trying to appease the police while perhaps backing away from his campaign promises. “There has to be diversity of tactics,” Aguilera notes. “Having more progressives in office is just another strategy. It’s a little more turf we’ve got, but we have to continue to build more power.”

It’s a point de Blasio has conceded on a number of occasions. “This administration is a product of movement politics,” he said in a speech last April. As a result, the question of what it means to be a progressive mayor in the austerity decade will come down, in many ways, to progressives—and how much they are willing to demand.

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