It says something about our politics that today—more than a year after he announced his run for mayor, almost seven months since he won the Democratic primary and 100 days into his term as mayor—Bill de Blasio gave a speech laying out his philosophy of government.
He’s spoken often about inequality, of course, but that’s an issue, not an ideal. He talked much about universal pre-kindergarten, but that’s a policy, not a way of thinking. Today, in a speech to a friendly audience of pols and advocates at the Great Hall at Cooper Union, de Blasio talked about what it really means to run a progressive government.
The speech was retrospective in content, reviewing the many accomplishments of his first three months in office (stop-and-frisk, vision zero, snowstorms, UPK, a dance-free budget, paid sick-leave and so on), and some will spin it as an attempt to hit the reset button after the “stumbles” of the mayor’s “rocky” run so far.
Clearly, however, there was more to it than that. “We have to think about what animates us to keep this work moving forward,” de Blasio said at one point.
Indeed, the speech was meant to establish a superstructure on which the administration will layer the stuff it does from Day 101 to Day 1,460 and maybe even Day 2,920.
The need for the framework was obvious. “We’re getting beyond the immediate campaign promises now,” as one progressive political operator recently said when I asked him what de Blasio’s agenda would look like from here on out.
During the campaign de Blasio talked a great deal about a small number of big ideas—policing reform and UPK chief among them—and those policies are now in place. So the administration will shift to smaller targets, pursuing each policy with an eye toward reducing inequality. Zoning changes and workforce development and post-Sandy rebuilding might not have the simple appeal of, say, a tax hike on the rich, but they can have a powerful cumulative effect on inequality. And many of them don’t require Albany’s approval.
But in order to harness the political power of the progressive movement behind those smaller-bore changes, they need to be cast as part of a broader movement. As the mayor put it, “This administration is a product of movement politics. It is a movement of people who share a vision, people …who believe in our city’s progressive traditions.”
That product, the mayor said, is a government run efficiently that “respects everyone’s dignity” and aims to maximize inclusion. “We believe we are at our best when everyone gets a shot,” the mayor added, noting further, “We believe in grassroots, people-powered government.”
Teacher retention, community hospitals, faster repairs to public housing and municipal ID cards were among the policy ideas the mayor touched on. Those seeking details—and many are—will have to wait for another day. (The mayor did provide new clarity on affordable housing, saying that it ought to reach “across the income spectrum” to include the “middle class,” which, depending on how that gets defined, could rehash one of the arguments of the Bloomberg era, when some advocates protested that scarce affordable housing dollars were subsidizing apartments for families with six-figure incomes.)
A year ago, I wrote a story for The Nation about the tentative hope that the city would elect a progressive mayor. A thread in that piece was the very question of what it meant to be progressive, a question de Blasio was trying to answer today, and will continue to try to answer over the next four or eight years. This blog said early on that de Blasio’s mayoralty would be a test of whether progressive values work—but it will also define, in nitty-gritty policy terms, what those values look like, at least as interpreted by the mayor of America’s global city.
On the hardwood floor of the stage in the Great Hall today, just next to de Blasio’s feet, an arrow had been marked in white masking tape, presumably indicating which way he was to exit the stage. It led left, pointing him down the stairs and out the door toward the sun-bathed sidewalk where his gleaming black SUV waited. The rest of his journey he’ll chart himself.