There were well over 200 forums in the race for mayor of New York City this year. Forums on housing and crime, on youth issues and senior centers, on the environment and animal rights and health and more. At these forums, candidates got to say what they were going to do to solve problems. Rare was the forum where someone didn’t say they were going to “work to get the federal government to do its share” or something like that. It always sounded like a bit of a dodge.
Turns out Mayor-elect Bill de Blasio, at least, was serious about making the pitch to Washington. At an event last week when he named his deputy mayor for health and human services, de Blasio said that he was “going to begin a mission that I look forward to working with my fellow mayors on, certainly work with the president on, to slowly but surely turn the congressional focus in particular back to investments in education, infrastructure, mass transit, housing, the kinds of things that would change New York City so fundamentally,” as highlighted by Bloomberg News.
Mayors of New York have long sought and often gained a national spotlight, from John Lindsay’s role investigating urban riots (before unsuccessfully running for president) to Rudy Giuliani’s reputation as crime-fighter (before unsuccessfully running for president) to Mike Bloomberg’s anti-gun and pro-environment stances (he considered running for president but didn’t bother).
There was an element of self-promotion involved in each of these bids for coast-to-coast attention. Duh. But they were driven by policy reality, too. Bloomberg’s bid for sane gun laws was a reflection of the fact that the city is never going to solve its violence problem until the flow of guns purchased legally in other states stops. And even if every building installed a green roof and every worker biked in to the office, climate change was never a problem that New York was going to solve alone.
This is particularly true for de Blasio’s agenda. The skeptic’s trump card these days on income inequality is not that it’s nonexistent or nonproblematic, but that it’s the result of massive economic forces like globalization and increasing returns to technology—forces that the city of New York cannot resist by its lonesome.
That’s not entirely true—from its tax system to its approach to zoning and development, there are ways city policy affects the distribution of income and wealth—but it’s true enough that if de Blasio is going to make good on his promise to, as he put it last week, “address income inequality forcefully and directly,” he’s going to need federal help.
Even just maintaining city services as they are will be an effort. About 11 percent of the city’s current $72 billion budget comes from federal grants—which, in the Bloomberg administration’s current projection, are set to shrink from $8.1 billion this year to $6.3 billion in fiscal 2015.