In October 2014, Nation columnist Eric Alterman sat down with New York Mayor Bill de Blasio in his City Hall office. Open and affable, de Blasio spent the hourlong interview reflecting on his whirlwind first year as mayor, his earliest political influences, the meaning of the word “progressive,” and why he sees no contradiction between movement politics and holding elected office. The interview, which has been edited and condensed for publication, was conducted as part of a study supported by the Center for American Progress, where Alterman is also a senior fellow. The study wlil be published as a forthcoming Nation eBook, Inequality and One City: Bill de Blasio and the New York Experiment, Year One, to be published in February.
Eric Alterman: Have you ever given any thought to why you are so focused on the issue of economic inequality? Obviously, it’s an enormous problem, but few, if any, politicians have made it as central a focus as you have.
Bill de Blasio: Like most things, I think it’s profoundly personal. My parents had me late—they were both 44—and they were quintessential children of the Depression, so that was part of the endless dialogue loop at family meals. And I think that notion of the people you’re closest to having experienced intense economic disruption left a lifelong imprint. There’s one piece, to begin.
I’ve come up in public schools throughout my life, and I think just the connection to every kind of person—including people who were grappling with poverty—gave me another perspective. A bit of it is academic: doing urban studies at New York University, doing Latin American studies at Columbia for my master’s that implicitly got into issues of disenfranchisement and poverty. Some of it is the work I did in Central America—being there, but also dealing with a lot of folks in the liberation-theology movement. It was a lot of different pieces. And then it kind of goes into overdrive through the Dinkins years, dealing with communities all over the city. So much of our foundation came from communities that were struggling.
Alterman: What was your exact job under Dinkins?
de Blasio: For most of the time, I was special assistant to Bill Lynch, who was the deputy mayor. So I just got incessant exposure to community leaders and activists. And then everything I’ve learned through twenty-three years with Chirlane [his wife]—everything she’s seen in her own life and what she’s experienced in her broader community. So I think it’s sort of one piece built upon the other. Even the eight years on the City Council—when you serve a distinct community or set of neighborhoods, a lot of that time is hearing people talk about their lives. Even pre–economic crisis, it was quite clear to me it was happening across a range of demographics different than might have been assumed. I had a huge Orthodox Jewish community; a lot of the folks within that community were really struggling economically, and that was a part of my constituency. I had a lot of folks who came to me, because you turn to your council member if you have some insurmountable personal financial problem or you can’t pay your mortgage. So all this was like a constant soundtrack. And then I was also the chairman of the General Welfare Committee, which was the social-services committee. So I had endless meetings with advocates and community leaders about the challenges they faced.