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Searching For de Blasio

Steven Wishnia Sep 24

I met Bill de Blasio when he was campaigning near my neighborhood bagel shop the weekend before the September 10 Democratic primary.

Holding a bag with two pumpernickel and two cinnamon-raisin, I introduced myself, mentioned the publications I write for, and told him that I’m working two part-time jobs making half what I made before the recession and that a lot of other people are in similar situations. “This is the worst economy I’ve ever seen,” I said.

“Let me tell you what I’m going to do,” he responded. Ending the Bloomberg administration’s harassment of small businesses with not-so-petty fines would encourage them to hire more people. Expanding access to the City University of New York would get more people an education.

Coming from someone who’d made economic inequality a central theme of his campaign, these ideas sounded tepid, essentially a liberal version of trickle-down economics. I suggested a new Works Progress Administration, the 1930s federal program that at its peak employed 3 million people nationwide. It built LaGuardia Airport and Brooklyn College, refurbished Central Park and hired artists, writers, and actors.

“In a perfect world,” de Blasio answered. As if this idea, one of the greatest achievements of 20th-century Democratic liberalism, was hopelessly idealistic.

Rejecting Bloomberg

In a city where recent surveys have found that the top 1 percent claim almost 40 percent of income while nearly half the people live in poverty or not far above it, de Blasio’s “tale of two cities” slogan connected with voters. His victory was unquestionably a rejection of Michael Bloomberg. City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, long the perceived front-runner and the enabler of Bloomberg’s third term, finished a distant third. Though she would have been the city’s first openly gay or lesbian mayor, she lost her own district, the Greenwich Village-Chelsea “gay seat,” to de Blasio. From 1989 to 2009, the map of mayoral election returns almost exactly mirrored the city’s racial map, but de Blasio carried the mostly black neighborhoods in Harlem and central Brooklyn over African-American Bill Thompson, who ran a more centrist campaign.

The city’s 1 percent, who have had mayors actively working for their agenda for 20 years, are predictably appalled. Some are moving toward Republican Joseph Lhota, a Giuliani acolyte who as head of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority raised the subway fare yet again, and who recently implied that he’d rather run over kittens than delay the Q train for half an hour. With the likes of fossil-fuel billionaire David Koch (richer and further right than Bloomberg) raising money, their strategy is to portray de Blasio as the candidate who will “turn New York into Detroit” or bring it back to the 1970s, with blocks of charred rubble and joggers getting raped in Central Park by “wilding” gangs of black teenage boys. (The five youths jailed in that 1989 case, one of the highest points of racial tension in the city’s recent history, were framed. Their confessions were coerced, and another man whose DNA matched the evidence later confessed.)

Yet that scheme may not work without the widespread crime and racialized fear that fed Giuliani’s popularity, or the nine-figure sums Bloomberg poured into his campaigns. The Real Estate Board of New York’s PAC, Jobs for New York, spent more than $4 million to elect City Council candidates sympathetic to its pro-development agenda, but it had mixed results. Incumbent Margaret Chin turned back a challenge in Chinatown and Laurie Cumbo took an open seat in Fort Greene, but Sara Gonzalez was unseated by community organizer Carlos Menchaca in Red Hook-Sunset Park.

An alternative plan would be to domesticate de Blasio, to tell him that yes, we know you have to talk populist to get elected, but you have to govern “responsibly.” He raised almost $4.5 million for his campaign, and among those giving him the $4,950 maximum were the Rent Stabilization Association (which actually lobbies against rent controls) and Leonard Litwin, a real-estate billionaire who is the most prolific stretcher of the state’s campaign-finance loopholes.

"Hope and Change"

So how much substance is behind de Blasio’s “tale of two cities” talk? This isn’t the first time in recent memory that people fed up after years of plutocratic, authoritarian rule voted enthusiastically for a politician who promised hope and change, one who has a photogenic multiracial family and got lambasted by the 1 percent as a raving socialist.

De Blasio will definitely be an improvement over Bloomberg in many areas. He won't appoint hardline anti-tenant members to the Rent Guidelines Board, or bust a strike by school-bus matrons making $14 an hour. But how likely is he to pursue policies to reduce economic inequality that directly challenge the power of the 1 percent, that will bring down the wrath of the city’s Wall Street and real-estate power elite? Is he willing to risk the fate of Dennis Kucinich, who as mayor of Cleveland in the late 1970s refused to privatize the city’s electric-power system to pay off bonds, and fell from “boy wonder” to “the mayor who let Cleveland go into default”? Will the most he does to bring down our too-damn-high rents be requiring a few more “affordable” apartments in luxury developments?

“If you had told me 35 years ago that in the New York of the future an apartment would be $2,500 and the minimum wage would be seven bucks an hour, I would have said that's a radical agenda,” I told de Blasio when I met him. “It’s happened, and we need a radical agenda to turn it around.”

I don’t know how much he wanted to hear that.