Few took Bill de Blasio seriously during the early days of his first campaign for mayor of New York in 2013. Early polls predicted that he would get no more than 11 percent of the Democratic primary vote against former city comptroller William Thompson and City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, both of whom enjoyed wider name recognition. Yet de Blasio beat them handily, and went on to defeat Republican Joseph Lhota in the November 2013 election with 73 percent of the vote.
It was a stunning victory after 20 years of mayoral leadership under Michael Bloomberg, a Democrat turned Republican turned independent, and Rudolph Giuliani, a staunch Republican. Other than a single term served by David Dinkins (1990–94), Bill de Blasio was the first unabashed progressive elected to City Hall in nearly a half-century. What distinguished him from every other candidate in 2013 was his adamant insistence that economic inequality was the defining issue of the day. His opponents did not seem to get that, but the voters did. The same voters also elected a progressive City Council, whose speaker, Melisa Mark-Viverito, aligned herself with the new mayor to advance their common agenda.
Like all modern mayors, Bill de Blasio likes to invoke the name of Fiorello La Guardia; but de Blasio is different from La Guardia. In fact, in the run-up to the last election, de Blasio accomplished something that none of his predecessors had, by building an electoral coalition that cut across the boundaries of race, class, and gender—the later broadly defined to encompass gays, lesbians, and transgender people. Surely, no chief executive better defined the important role that government must play in helping the needy than the Little Flower, but he had a mediocre record on race. He allowed the Housing Authority to be segregated, was blindsided when riots broke out in Harlem, and buried his own report on the angry eruption. We might add: La Guardia, who advanced landmark labor legislation as a congressman, did not believe that public employees should be unionized or engage in collective bargaining.
Mayor Robert Wagner instituted collective bargaining in 1954, and breathed life into the municipal labor movement, but his moderate, incremental style of liberalism left him unprepared to deal with the more militant forms of racial politics that accompanied the demands of Black Power activists in the mid-1960s. John Lindsay, his successor, responded to these pleas with enthusiasm. He was instrumental in incorporating African Americans and Latinos into the mainstream of city politics, and was the first mayor to speak out on behalf of women and gays. Lindsay, however, could turn a deaf ear when it came to white working-class residents from the outer boroughs, and he alienated just about every union leader in town. Two of the uglier episodes of his tenure involved racial conflicts with the United Federation of Teachers and the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association. He never quite understood that an effective progressive coalition is just not viable without meaningful support from organized labor.