In an editorial today, The New York Times calls on Mayor Bill de Blasio “to be bold to the point of confrontational, to endure name-calling, resentment and lower poll numbers. The rap on him is that he hasn’t run anything,” the editorial continues. “The rap on liberal Democrats is that they can’t run this unruly city.”
The Times was specifically referring to de Blasio’s first budget—due February 12—and the tone it will set for negotiating new deals with all the unions representing city workers. More on that in a minute. But the “rap on liberal Democrats” is something Comedy Central’s Jon Stewart brought up Monday night when de Blasio appeared on The Daily Show. The host asked the mayor about fears that the city could return to a time “when it was less orderly and things were more chaotic and how do you tell people that is not the case?” Here was de Blasio’s answer:
“Whenever you see a progressive moment, whenever you see progressive leaders come in to office, that charge is thrown in one way or another.… It’s specious. It’s not true. The bottom line is, we know the great threat to this country is inequality, the great threat to this city is inequality.… People need a core hope in our society. They need a core amount of visible opportunity. And that’s been slipping away. So if you want to talk about destabilizing realities in our society, talk about inequality.”
As Dan Morris—the former Red Horse Strategies consultant who recently launched a new advisory firm called Progressive Cities—notes, de Blasio’s ability to deliver real change in the city actually depends upon a sense of emergency. “You need to create and sustain an urgency of crisis around an issue,” like universal pre-k (UPK), Morris says. That’s why de Blasio has clearly pursued an inside strategy in the corridors of power in Albany, and a very aggressive public campaign, rallying union leaders, business bigshots and nonprofit and academic luminaries to the cause; he even had his wife voice a commercial hyping it.
The lack of a sense of crisis around economic justice, at least in the mayor’s suite at City Hall, is one reason, Morris adds, “so much of the progressive urban policy over the past decade happened in other cities and then served as a model for people in New York and elsewhere in other cities to replicate.” San Francisco led the way on paid sick leave, Los Angeles broke ground on the living wage and community schools took root in Cincinnati.
Here in New York, when finally acknowledged as real, inequality was often dismissed as something that municipal policy couldn’t really address. “I know the argument, but I’ve never been persuaded by it. It’s total nonsense and rubbish,” Morris argues. “If that were true then why would there be this growing movement to get paid sick leave? Why this growing movement to get the living wage?”
But that notion fueled the naysaying around the UPK plan, which was treated as a pie-in-the-sky idea by many during the mayoral campaign. Now, a month into de Blasio’s mayoralty, “they’ve already re-framed the debate and gotten Cuomo to move very far on this issue,” Morris notes. “They haven’t won yet, but they’re in a winning position.”
What it all means is that de Blasio is walking along a few different tight-ropes. He has to neutralize the fear of a return of an urban crisis when it comes to crime and the budget, but cultivate a sense of crisis around inequality. At the same time, he has to make it clear that the inequality crisis is not so overwhelming that city policies can’t make a difference. And he has to avoid alienating anyone enough that his large store of political capital gets whittled down.
So far the latter seems to be what’s happening; the business community has been pretty acquiescent about the expansion of sick leave and the UPK tax push. “One of the things he prides himself on is he’s a person who looks at every issue from every angle like a masterful strategist,” says DC37 political director Wanda Williams of de Blasio. “I suppose what’s happening is he’s trying to figure out how to be accommodating—I don’t mean giving anything up to the business community, but making them comfortable with him.”
One way de Blasio has done that is with his totally un-radical personnel choices so far. More are supposed to come today or later this week, which is good because the slowness of the transition empowers people who want to go back to that rap the Times referenced. (DC37, at least, is not alarmed by the slow roll-out. For her part, Williams says, “I think one of the things he’s been very good at is assembling a staff. I think he’s been very deliberative at finding people who share his values.”)
As the Times points out, now de Blasio has to figure out how to deal with the unions and their pent-up demands for raises, both for the future and for past years. This might not be as difficult as everyone thinks. At least publicly, some in labor are talking modestly about what they expect to get. “We are hopeful that we’re going to get something—it might not be everything we want, but unions in the past four few years have gotten nothing from the previous administration,” Williams says. Workers want raises, but “it’s also important to us that people have a decent city to live in.”
It might not be as simple or friendly as that when unions and de Blasio’s negotiators are across the table from each other. Everyone seems to know that the city is going to pay a big tab left over from the Bloomberg years, but probably not the full IOU the unions are presenting. Since it’s known that it will be a costly episode, the big thing for de Blasio is to just get it out of the way, and not have the labor negotiations become a crisis unto themselves.
Once the labor deals are done, and the UPK fight ends, the question is what will come once those two familiar storylines are gone. “What you’re likely to see is a large-scale effort, spanning a number of priority issues for the left, to sustain a political moment that’s conducive to getting things done,” says Morris. There are lots of crises to talk about.