In a story that ran in Saturday’s edition headlined “De Blasio Picks More Liberal Activists Than Managers for City Posts,” The New York Times declares that “In Bill de Blasio’s City Hall, it seems more and more, there is only a left wing.” It points to recent appointments of Steven Banks, “a longtime critic of city policies affecting low-income residents” to be HRA commissioner as evidence that the mayor “has built a team filled with former activists—figures more accustomed to picketing administrations or taking potshots from the outside than working from within.” The list of lefties reads as follows:
Carmen Fariña, his schools chancellor, had quit the Bloomberg administration in protest over its emphasis on standardized test scores. The mayor’s top political strategist, Emma Wolfe, rose from campus activist to organizer for the advocacy group Acorn, the health care union 1199 SEIU and the Working Families Party before helping Mr. de Blasio get elected public advocate in 2009. His wife’s new chief of staff, Rachel Noerdlinger, was the longtime gatekeeper for the Rev. Al Sharpton. And his new counsel, Maya Wiley, was most recently in the running to lead the N.A.A.C.P. Laura Santucci, his chief of staff, is a former acting executive director of the Democratic National Committee and a former political aide at 1199 SEIU. Zachary W. Carter, his corporation counsel, was an appointee of President Bill Clinton as the United States attorney in Brooklyn and led the prosecution of police officers in the beating of Abner Louima, a Haitian immigrant.
The article goes on to say that “at least a few appointees have been less ideological and more managerial,” naming Deputy Mayor Anthony E. Shorris and Transportation Commissioner Polly Trottenberg.
Oddly, NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton—one of de Blasio’s first and most important appointments and the one that earned him raised eyebrows from some leftists and street protests from others—is not mentioned. Maybe that’s because Bratton was an outspoken critic of his predecessor Ray Kelly and therefore, while no left-wing nut, not sufficiently managerial.
Indeed, you could enter into evidence many names that run counter to the idea that de Blasio has stacked his administration with progressive activists. His deputy mayor for human services, Economic Development Corporation head, NYCHA general manager, homeless services commissioner and youth services commissioner all come directly from the Bloomberg administration. His deputy mayor for economic development comes from Goldman Sachs, and his deputy mayor for strategic initiatives comes from an organization that gave Mayor Bloomberg an award for his anti-poverty crusade. The planning chief has deep roots in the midtown business community, the budget boss is a career adviser to the state legislature and the child welfare chief is moving from the Cuomo administration. A developer heads the Housing Development Corporation. I could go on. You can bet your favorite pair of Sansabelt slacks that none of these people have The Anarchist’s Cookbook on their bookshelves.
Now, it is true that some of de Blasio’s more recent appointments, namely Banks and Wiley, are very vocal advocates for a very different way of governing than Bloomberg practiced. And, yes, some appointments are more important and influential than others, so lefties could be outnumbered in de Blasio’s cabinet without being outgunned. I’ll also admit that some lefty handwringing about the composition of the de Blasio team—in which I have been a sweaty-palmed participant—missed the forest for the trees. And the questions about de Blasio’s ability to communicate and to manage the city (as long as they are questions and not, two months into his term, conclusions) are fair game.
But what is definitely off-target is the notion, which the Times repeated Saturday but certainly didn’t invent, that “more managerial” appointees are somehow ideologically neutral.
This misconception underlay a lot of the skewed analysis of the Bloomberg administration, which was seen as apolitical, as merely interested in unimpeachable goals like efficiency and transparency. Observers were apparently thrown by the fact that Bloomberg combined liberal social beliefs with a devotion to market forces, and wed a comfort with activist policy to a $26 billion-wide blind-spot to the perils of plutocracy. It was a complex ideology—and hard to categorize because we have so few classic liberal Republicans these days—but it was an ideology nonetheless. Calling it otherwise gave many of Bloomberg’s ideas a nonpartisan sheen they didn’t deserve. (“What’s wrong, man: Are you against efficiency?”) Ideology is not like a beard, that some people have and some people don’t. It’s like skin color: even white guys have it.
This misconception threatens to get de Blasio compared to Bloomberg not as a progressive taking over from a centrist but as an ideologue seizing power from a technocrat. And that means that de Blasio’s policies could be debated not on their merits or the critique behind them but merely on the fact that they reflect a strong belief. That’s something de Blasio’s cabinet will have to resist, even if “working from within” is new to some of them.