There are conventions in politics as dependable as the tides. For instance, once elected, a politician’s rhetoric shifts from the inspirational to the incremental, and after months of saying nasty things about their opponent, they make nice. Both tendencies aid and comfort the status quo.
In the weeks since he was elected mayor of New York City, Bill de Blasio has abided by neither custom. He has hewed to his emphasis on inequality as the defining challenge facing our city, and he has not softened his critique of Mayor Bloomberg. This has been true at the press conferences at which de Blasio named members of his administration. And it was true at 12:01 this morning, when he stepped out of his Brooklyn home to recite the oath of office and become the 109th mayor: The brief event began with a quote from Paul Wellstone, and ended without so much as a nod to the man whose twelve-year mayoralty ended as de Blasio’s commenced.
It’s the same message discipline that allowed de Blasio to rise from fourth in the primary polls to mayor-in-waiting by the time the first votes were counted on September 10. He stuck to his focus on the idea that the Bloomberg era had alienated too many New Yorkers from the roaring success of their own city. Back in late November, the now-former billionaire mayor dismissed de Blasio as the flavor of the month, telling a radio interviewer: “I liken it to hemlines—you know, hemlines are fine, but next year they move them up or down, because people want a change.” But as Paul Moses wrote yesterday in Commonweal:
Please, let’s give New Yorkers some credit for recognizing what their own interests are. De Blasio won because he appealed to the many people who had come to feel alienated in their own city. Voters were given very clear choices on issues at the core of local governance—how to run the police department and schools, and whom to tax—and roundly rejected the Bloomberg approach. The result is likely to resonate across the country.
Echoing that last sentiment is the The New York Times, which carried a front-page article today arguing that
The elevation of an assertive, tax-the-rich liberal to the nation’s most prominent municipal office has fanned hopes that hot-button causes like universal prekindergarten and low-wage worker benefits—versions of which have been passed in smaller cities—could be aided by the imprimatur of being proved workable in New York. “The mayor has a remarkable opportunity to make real many progressive policies and prove their merit,” said Gavin Newsom, the lieutenant governor of California, who as mayor of San Francisco introduced a form of universal health care and allowed same-sex couples to wed. “De Blasio matters,” Mr. Newsom said. “A lot of us are counting on his success.”
Now is the part of the article where I’m supposed to qualify everything I’ve said to this point, noting the steep challenges de Blasio faces because of the constraints on his power and the fiscal dangers presented by the unsettled labor situation he inherits, mentioning the rather slow rollout of his administration (although the pace did pick up on Tuesday with his naming homeless services, transportation, labor relations and economic development leaders), and giving some ink to the people who are protesting his selection of Bill Bratton to lead the NYPD.
But no one needs to be reminded that, as the cliché reminds us, it ain’t going to be easy. All life experience up to this point makes that clear. De Blasio’s formal swearing in, at noon today, will be a hopeful note that events over the next four or eight years transform into either a bright and shining major scale or a disappointed minor chord. For now, let’s abandon convention and get the pitch right, per Wellstone. What is the progressive idea again?
It is the belief that extremes and excesses of inequality must be reduced so that each person is free to fully develop his or her full potential. This is why we take precious time out of our lives and give it to politics.