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Pinned Down at City Hall

Under steady attack from the right and a growing disappointment to his supporters on the left, there’s only one way Bill de Blasio can revive his fading fortunes

Ethan Young Mar 4

The 1993 unseating of New York City’s first —  and so far only — mayor who wasn’t a white guy is pertinent to Mayor Bill de Blasio’s mid-term predicament. Mayor David Dinkins’ ouster involved a near-riot by police outside City Hall, led by Rudy Giuliani. Rudy, that former fair-haired boy of city government reform, stirred the cops to a high boil with chants and curses aimed at the incumbent. As a result, after one term, the progressive alliance that pushed out presumed mayor-for-life Ed Koch in 1989 was beaten by a cop-centered law-and-order drive. Race and real estate values were major but unspoken driving forces in the election.

Today, de Blasio is a progressive to the mainstream media; by red state standards, he’s a Bolshevik. His base is eroding, in part due to relentless attacks from the press, but also because of a history of compromises with powerful foes. Voters now see him as a fading liberal, demoralizing his supporters and inflaming the right.

A little context is necessary here. De Blasio’s election was a win for progressives in New York City, because it brought together a range of demographic groups — working-class voters of various nationalities and races, unions and upscale liberals. The mayor is a textbook example of a one-time radical whose political instincts and savvy took him to the heart of Democratic Party politics in the city and state. He flew a lefty flag and sped by Christine Quinn, the presumed Democratic centrist heir to former Mayor Michael Bloomberg. De Blasio promised reform, especially in the key areas of education, policing and housing. He has delivered but also defaulted on some of what his base demands and expects.

As for the right, it has a different shape in New York than a lot of the country. We have our New York Post readers, but they tend to be fueled more by the sports pages and photos of scantily clad young women than by Rupert Murdoch’s perpetual editorial lies and slander. For all intents and purposes there is no Tea Party. Instead we have several centers of corrupt power.

Economic power in the city is dominated by finance, insurance and real estate, otherwise known as the FIRE sector. Their main concern is that government keep money flowing toward them, changing hands among smaller businesses and not diverted into public services. Their enemies are the public sector unions and community groups that were the main get-out-the-vote engine of de Blasio’s campaign. Big money in the city views de Blasio as a threat, reflected in hostile press reporting depicting a city consumed by raging crime and homelessness, and a mayor in thrall to greedy citizens and thuggish unions. Crime is not actually rising, though homelessness is. But the presence of the poor is viewed as the presence of crime by much of the wealthy property owners taking over Manhattan and Brooklyn and finding new “hot spots” to promote for gentrification in the Bronx.

The police department is a power in itself. The ranks are dominated by whites who fear civilians. Officers answer not to City Hall but to the commissioner. Many are on the take, while many more see their job as using force to keep the populace in line. This modus operendi is backed up by orders from the top and by a department culture that views police as victims of an ungrateful city. The largest police union, the Patrolman’s Benevolent Association (PBA), has become the most outspoken voice of hostility toward black and brown city residents, and the NYPD is in serious trouble for its spying and interfering with Muslim civilians. 

The tensions between the mayor and the NYPD are unusual because de Blasio’s commissioner, Bill Bratton, was seen as the only available counterweight to his predecessor. Ray Kelly served for 12 years under Bloomberg, making him the longest-running top cop in the city’s history. Kelly built up a loyal hierarchy, with a hard-line street confrontation strategy that became too much for the majority of New Yorkers. This was a big factor in de Blasio’s election; he was running against Kelly’s record as much as Bloomberg’s. Bratton had previously served as commissioner under Giuliani before being bounced because he was just as camera-hungry as his boss, a big no-no for the showboating ex-mayor.

Bratton was de Blasio’s pick because he had the background and ties to the NYPD to enable a promised shift away from Kelly’s abusive “stop-and-frisk” policing. Bratton favored a more moderate, but still abusive, “broken windows” approach, emphasizing arrests for minor crimes rather than constant harassment of civilians. This dialed back a grossly unjust standard of policing, but only slightly. Bratton has held firm to the view that the NYPD must be only lightly regulated from outside. Those hit by aggressive policing are feeling abandoned by the mayor. Yet between Kelly loyalists and the PBA, both mayor and commissioner are still at loggerheads with a restless, paranoid armed force.

These poles of power are setting limits on what de Blasio might (or might not) do to fix the gaping holes in public services. But his biggest headache is his endless battle with fellow Democrat, Gov. Andrew Cuomo. 

The de Blasio-Cuomo “feud” is about the divide in the Democratic Party. Both the mayor and the governor proclaim their dedication to government serving the public, unlike the rightwing anti-government populism that has become the single message of the GOP. Cuomo represents the deal-making, machine maintenance approach, in the tradition of Ed Koch and Rahm Emanuel. Like those two specimens, he has his eye on bigger things and is openly reaching for them: power, money and the support of the powerful and rich. In contrast, de Blasio is trying to balance the demands of the powerful while winning points with his base through reforms. Cuomo seems determined to pull the rug out from under the mayor, most recently by shorting New York City in the state budget, to solidify his influence in the capital city of capital.

In short, de Blasio is surrounded by dangerous enemies. And, as noted, the Murdoch press — which includes the biggest-selling paper in town, the Wall Street Journal, and numerous TV channels — is going for the jugular, claiming that the days of urban decay have returned thanks to another alleged black-controlled bleeding heart in City Hall. 

Yet de Blasio is not completely isolated. His relations with public sector unions are stable. The City Council is the most progressive one in recent memory, including several new members who won seats in the midst of his own success. 

What de Blasio needs is the favor, not just the votes, of the majority of New Yorkers. The diverse population relies heavily on public services, and many are steadily being pushed out of the city by housing costs. There is no history of renters bringing comparable power to head off or drive back real estate on a large scale. But that is what has to happen — and it has to be backed by the mayor — if the glaring contradiction at the heart of the city is ever to be resolved. Money for public education has to be expanded, not siphoned into privatization schemes, which Cuomo supports. De Blasio has to get further out in front, taking the lead in demanding what local capitalists and a hostile state legislature seek to prevent. 

All this will, of course, open a floodgate of opposition, not just statewide but nationally, and increase the polarization between the “two cities,” the overfed and the underserved. It’s a steep price to pay, and could end de Blasio’s mayoralty. It’s an indication of the severity of the crisis that only an organized opposition, with or without the mayor (but preferably with), has a chance against the entrenched power of the money and property movers. If de Blasio can’t emulate Bernie Sanders and effectively address the demands of the real city, directly to the voters, he will continue to be outflanked.

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