By almost any measure, Bill de Blasio enjoyed a remarkable year of accomplishment as New York City’s first progressive mayor in twenty years. To the surprise of many, he was able to institute a universal pre-K program for 50,000-plus 4-year-olds in time for the September 2014 school year. Whether the issue was education, housing, criminal justice, immigrants’ rights, or public welfare, de Blasio made important down payments on his promise to use the power of the nation’s largest municipal government to address the inequality crisis that fueled his landslide 2013 election victory.
But as de Blasio himself has repeatedly noted, city government can do only so much. So long as Washington remains crippled by the power of money—to say nothing of the capture of the Republican Party by reality-rejecting right-wing extremists—New York City’s, and indeed, all municipalities’ power to address the crisis will remain severely hamstrung. That’s why the mayor argues it is necessary for him to help lead the movement that got him elected into the national arena to try to reshape his party and the national political conversation in a direction more congenial to efforts to address economic inequality. To do that, he has convened a number of progressive luminaries to sign onto a new “Progressive Agenda to Combat Inequality” modeled after New Gingrich’s 1994 “Contract With America” and to try to find ways to inspire, and to pressure, Democratic candidates across America to embrace its ideas.
I sat down with the mayor on the year’s first sunny spring afternoon at his official residence at Gracie Mansion to question him about the nuts and bolts of his effort and how he plans to try to institutionalize it over time. What follows is a transcript of our conversation, condensed and edited for clarity and space.
Eric Alterman: The inequality crisis sure has taken off since you made it the centerpiece of your mayoral campaign. Even Republicans feel a need to at least talk about the issue. But I’m a little confused about how you can hope to address it on a national level as mayor of New York City. I understand you’ve become a national leader and spokesman on this issue, but I’m confused about what you plan to do besides merely further elevating the discussion?
Mayor de Blasio: Well, it’s great question, so let me break it down. Being an optimist by nature, I would say if I were a legislator there’s still a lot I would be trying to do right now on the issue of income inequality. And because I do have a background in organizing, I would be trying to figure out how to organize a grand progressive coalition around these issues. A holistic solution to income inequality is going to take a lot of work, but every time you prove that one of the strands is achievable and that it has a positive impact on people’s lives you take another step towards proving the bigger theory of the case.