The 2017 campaign has come and gone in New York City, and while the race for mayor was bereft of suspense, it was not without significance. Mayor Bill de Blasio’s defeat of Republican nominee Nicole Malliotakis and a set of third-party candidates means he is the first Democrat reelected to City Hall since Ed Koch in 1985 and the first progressive returned to that office since John Lindsay in 1969.
That’s at once an enormous accomplishment and a step into the unknown territory of trying to solidify the achievements of his first term while delivering policies that better reflect the progressive ideals the mayor articulates.
Massive tasks await him, like beginning the process of closing Rikers Island, the city’s massive jail complex, and making a real dent in the homeless-shelter population. Huge challenges also loom in Albany, where the mayor’s feud with Governor Andrew Cuomo continues to infect crucial policy discussions, and in Washington, where Republican antipathy to cities—especially “sanctuary” cities—could create genuine crises in coming years. Meanwhile, de Blasio’s ethical lapses and poor relationship with the press threaten to muddy his second term as much as they marred his first.
This fall, veteran journalist Juan Gonzalez and respected scholar Joseph Viteritti each published revealing books about de Blasio’s life, his rise to power and the progress—and shortcomings—of his mayoralty. Gonzalez’s book, Reclaiming Gotham: Bill de Blasio and the Movement to End America’s Tale of Two Cities (New Press), situates New York’s mayor within a broader context of progressive ascent in many US cities. The Pragmatist: Bill de Blasio’s Quest to Save the Soul of New York (Oxford), which Viteritti penned, places de Blasio within the historical trajectory of progressive mayors from Fiorello La Guardia to Robert Wagner to Lindsay to the present day.
I sat down with both men on October 24 to talk about de Blasio’s past, present, and future. It’s worth noting that the conversation occurred before de Blasio announced an expansion of his housing plan to 300,000 units over 12 years—a larger version of the plan that, below, Gonzalez criticizes as too small. It’s also important to note that our talk took place before the latest round of revelations about de Blasio’s dealings with the corrupt donor Jona Rechnitz, in which Rechnitz claimed to have been given access to the mayor in exchange for donations to de Blasio’s political operation.
The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Jarrett Murphy: You both do a good job of setting de Blasio within a larger context. And Juan, [your book] is looking at him as part of this larger urban progressive movement. What do you think is his role in that?