When Bill de Blasio was elected mayor of New York City last November, speculation began about whether his victory would lead to a resurgence of genuine liberalism within the Democratic Party or whether de Blasio would be unable - and perhaps unwilling - to make a sharp break with the business-first policies of his billionaire predecessor Michael Bloomberg.
Call it the Obama question. In 2008, Barack Obama was entrusted with the dreams of a generation. Six years of bank bailouts and drone bombings later, the sound of those dreams shattering on the pavement still echoes wherever a politician attempts to renew hopes about peace and equality.
De Blasio came out swinging at the beginning of his term, grabbing headlines with proposals that ranged from major (raising taxes on the rich) to minor (adding more affordable housing to a Brooklyn real estate deal.) Now that de Blasio has been in office for half a year, however, it is becoming apparent that his overall strategy is to pursue progressive policies to reduce inequality without provoking conflict with the city's rich and powerful who benefit from that inequality. If this contradictory strategy sounds familiar, that's because it's the same one used by the current occupant of the White House, with disappointing results.
Setting the Bar Low
De Blasio's successful campaign theme of New York being "a tale of two cities" focused primarily on the two issues of discriminatory policing and economic inequality. It was refreshing to see an unabashedly liberal campaign succeed so decisively in a city that likes to think of itself as progressive but had elected Republican mayors for the past 20 years. But it was also clear that de Blasio was setting a low bar for himself by promising to tackle these enormous problems with comparatively minor solutions.
Bratton has a new theory - or at least a new name for racial profiling - called "predictive policing."
In the case of policing, de Blasio embraced the growing movement against the city's "stop-and-frisk" policy, which subjects thousands of people of color to daily warrantless searches. Yet by the time de Blasio ran for mayor, the number of stop-and-frisks was already declining under Bloomberg and his police chief Ray Kelly - most likely in response to the growing public pressure. Stop-and-frisk is just one manifestation of the larger problems of racial profiling and the city's prioritization of the petty street crime of poor people over the widespread business crimes of wage theft and tenant harassment. De Blasio was silent on these bigger issues even as he garnered plaudits for promising to phase out a stop-and-frisk policy that was already being phased out.
There is another parallel here with Obama, who established antiwar credentials by ending a war in Iraq that George W. Bush was already trying to wind down but went on to increase and "innovate" US militarism via drone strikes, cyber warfare, surveillance programs, and the regular use of special operations. De Blasio, for his part, followed up his opposition to stop-and-frisk by making his new police commissioner William Bratton, a known proponent of increasing and innovating police powers. It was Bratton who, in his first stint as NYPD chief under Rudy Giuliani, set the city on its path towards stop-and-frisk to begin with by introducing the "broken windows" theory of policing, which calls for aggressive policing in poor neighborhoods for minor crime in the belief that this will reduce more serious crime. These days, Bratton has a new theory - or at least a new name for racial profiling - called "predictive policing." Since coming back to New York under de Blasio, Bratton has followed the party line about reducing stop-and-frisk while also making it clear that he hasn't changed his fundamental policies. This year the NYPD has begun arresting break dancers on the subways and led an early morning, military-style raid on gangs in a housing project that seemed more calculated to grab headlines than to help the project residents.
As this article goes to press, outrage is building over the death of a Eric Garner, a Staten Island resident who was attacked and put in an illegal choke hold by police with no apparent provocation, as captured by a disturbing cell phone video. The officers were responding to a report of a fight that Garner had helped to break up by the time they arrived, at which point they turned on Garner for allegedly selling loose cigarettes. This police harassment may not technically have been recorded as a "stop-and-frisk," but that is cold comfort to the many family and friends who loved Eric Garner.
De Blasio's search for a foil in Cuomo is the latest example of Democrats creating their own intra-party gridlock when there are no Republicans in power to blame.
On the issue of economic inequality, de Blasio's key campaign pledge was to raise taxes on the wealthy to fund a universal prekindergarten program, a progressive proposal but hardly a major blow against the city's tremendous inequality. A far more direct path of wealth redistribution was available to the new mayor. Some 300,000 teachers, firefighters and other municipal employs had been working for years without raises under expired contracts because Bloomberg had stopped negotiating in good faith. By the time de Blasio came into office, these city workers were asking for $7 billion in retroactive raises, an amount that de Blasio argued the city could not afford. Of course, many city workers hadn't been able to afford the city's rising costs, as they were losing a combined $7 billion over the previous years. But instead, the new mayor has been in the process of negotiating contracts worth far less, to the approval of the city's business class.
More strangely, the way de Blasio promised to raise revenues for universal pre-K was not through means that are within his mayoral authority, such as raising taxes on real estate or Wall Street transactions, but rather through an income tax increase that would have to be approved by governor Andrew Cuomo, who was widely known to oppose the idea. Thus, from the beginning, de Blasio prepared for himself an excuse for not being able to fulfill his promise. (Eventually Cuomo agreed to find money in the state budget for de Blasio's pre-K program without raising taxes, a partial victory that is good for pre-K, but means less money for other services.)
De Blasio's search for a foil in Cuomo is the latest example of Democrats creating their own intra-party gridlock when there are no Republicans in power to blame. Recall that before Obama had House Republicans to blame for blocking his agenda, beginning in 2010, he had two years of a Democrat-controlled Congress, during which time the conservative "Blue Dog" caucus emerged inside the party to play the role of Republicans and provide cover for the weakening of Obama's health care bill. Back in New York, Cuomo himself was elected governor alongside a Democratic sweep in the state legislature, which was followed by the defection of "independent Democrats" to the Republican aisle, a mysterious maneuver that has helped Cuomo justify his far-from-liberal economic policies of attacking state unions to fund tax cuts for business.
De Blasio buoyed liberal hopes in June when he helped broker a deal between Cuomo and the Working Families Party, a coalition of unions and liberal organizations that traditionally supports Democratic candidates but was internally divided over endorsing the governor for re-election this November. In exchange for the group's endorsement, Cuomo pledged to bring the independent Democrats back into the party fold and to pass progressive legislation around a range of issues, including allowing the city to raise its minimum wage. It is premature, however, to declare that de Blasio and the Working Families Party have succeeded in shifting the state Democratic Party to the left. As Jarret Murphy in The Nation noted, "The governor walked away with what he wanted. The [Working Families] party got an IOU." In an ominous sign of the strength of that IOU, Cuomo started walking back some of his promises within days of the agreement. Cuomo - and now the Working Families Party - will continue to face electoral opposition from his left, first from Zephyr Teachout in the Democratic primary, then from the Green Party's Howie Hawkins in the general election.
De Blasio has enacted a number of smaller progressive measures on a range of issues. One of his first initiatives was an expansion of the city's paid sick leave policy to businesses employing between five and 20 workers. The mayor was also instrumental in leading the Rent Guidelines Board to pass its lowest ever annual increase on rent-regulated apartments - although tenants' organizations were disappointed and perplexed that de Blasio's appointees approved any increases at all even while the mayor claimed to be for a complete rent freeze. And de Blasio signed legislation creating municipal identification cards that would give undocumented New Yorkers access to the many basic services that require photo IDs, although the acclaim for this measure was tempered by criticisms from the New York Civil Liberties Union that the new law does not adequately protect the privacy of those applying for the ID.
Many immigrant organizations are also frustrated with the continued practice of detaining people in city jails for extra time to allow federal immigration officials more time to determine their immigration status. "Unfortunately, there has been no change in the relationship between ICE and NYC under de Blasio," says Abraham Paulos of Migrant Power Alliance, which has launched the "ICE FREE NYC" campaign to bring more attention to the issue. "The City is still handing information and people over to ICE just as easily as it has been under the Bloomberg administration."
"For years since, you could get by calling yourself a liberal in New York State politics simply by loving prochoice arguments and same-sex marriage as much as you loved Wall Street and real estate developers."
It is far too early to make an assessment of some of de Blasio's initiatives, particularly his 10-year plan to create and preserve 200,000 units of affordable housing by requiring that affordable units be included in real estate developments requiring city approval. Even here, however, the limitations are already apparent. For one thing, as Sandy Boyer points out, "the sheer size of New York's housing problem dwarfs de Blasio's plan. More than 2 million people in New York City are paying at least half their monthly income on rent."
There is a similar problem of scale with de Blasio's proposal to expand the reach of the city's "living wage" law, which requires employers receiving city money to pay workers $11.50, not even close to what it takes to lift a family above the poverty line. The challenge facing de Blasio in these and other issues is that small improvements for working-class New Yorkers are but a drop in the bucket compared to the oceanic gap between the city's rich and poor. New York Times columnist Ginia Bellafante, hardly a radical, put a finger on the dilemma facing Democratic politicians in the post-Occupy climate.
"For years since, you could get by calling yourself a liberal in New York State politics simply by loving prochoice arguments and same-sex marriage as much as you loved Wall Street and real estate developers. That is no longer so, which leaves centrists moving toward compromises that look semi-noble and liberals in the position of seeming to have settled for too little and sacrificed their souls too much."
The other problem with de Blasio's housing plan is that it is dependent on the decisions of private real estate developers, which gives the city's most powerful industry even more influence. Already, some are speculating that the mayor might have retreated from fighting for expanding the living wage bill because he doesn't want to antagonize the builders he needs to make his housing plan work. It could be argued that the days of building new public housing are over and that de Blasio's reliance on the private sector is the only realistic course. But that logic accepts that there is no substantial alternative to the policies of Michael Bloomberg, whose own housing policy is in fact the model for de Blasio's.
Reasoning with the Unreasonable
De Blasio's supporters want to argue that his election represents the end of the Bloomberg Era. But what does that mean? Bloomberg had an explicit vision for New York as a "luxury city" whose vitality depended on its ability to attract investments and investors from around the world. De Blasio's timid reforms suggest that he accepts this model - perhaps reluctantly - but thinks that with all this money coursing through the city, a little more should trickle down to the majority of its 8 million inhabitants. It sounds like a reasonable idea, except for the fact that those at the top of unequal societies tend to be quite unreasonable.
De Blasio found this out in February when he made the seemingly minor decision to deny the application of three Success Academy charter schools to expand into public schools. That move unleashed a storm of protest from Success Academy head Eva Moscowitz and her network of funders in the financial industry, who launched a $3.6 million ad campaign denouncing the mayor and organized a high-profile rally in Albany featuring governor Cuomo.
Within a few weeks, Cuomo had passed a state law stripping the city of the power to determine charter school expansion, and de Blasio had backed down and was privately phoning Wall Street executives to assure them that he has nothing against charter schools. De Blasio's team tried to portray his surrender as an attempt to avoid a "perilous distraction" so that he could get back to his main focus of reducing inequality. But how is de Blasio going to fight hedge funders and investment bankers over inequality if he won't even stand up to them over three charter schools? Is it possible that we will look back at the Moscowitz tempest as a tone-setting early surrender, a smaller echo of Obama's decision in his initial months in office to bail out the banks without demanding any meaningful reform in return?
Ultimately, what happens during the rest of de Blasio's term will depend less on the mayor himself than on it the organizations that helped put him to office. Civil rights groups who protested "stop-and-frisk" when Bloomberg was mayor are so far taking a quieter approach under de Blasio, despite Bratton's regressive policies. Unions are praising the new mayor for negotiating meager contracts that barely keep up with inflation. This strategy of viewing the mayor as an ally flies in the face of the evidence that protest works. Kevin Prosen, a Queens teacher and member of the Movement of Rank and File Educators inside the teachers union, believes that his union and others should take note of the success of the "opt-out" movement in getting New York state to back down from its emphasis on standardized tests.
"There have been two substantial retreats in New York politics around education issues over the last few months," Prosen says. "One is Cuomo and the State Education Department's backtracking on Common Core. The other is De Blasio's capitulation on charter schools to Eva Moskowitz and Cuomo. In both cases, substantial pressure has been brought to bear from independent actors; parents and students in one case and the charter lobby in the other. This shows the importance of building an independent force that can push our issues and counter the well-funded mobilization of the privatizers."
After Obama was elected, it took three full years before some of his supporters grew tired of waiting for their hopes to turn into change; the result was Occupy Wall Street, which brought the issue of economic inequality to the forefront of the national consciousness. Bill de Blasio was one of the first politicians to recognize that changed consciousness with his "tale of two cities" campaign. Those who supported the new mayor don't need to wait two and a half more years to start holding his feet to the fire.