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Juan González: De Blasio Reconsidered

The legendary NYC journalist assesses the mayor’s first-term successes and failures.

John Tarleton Dec 22, 2017

Issue 231

When Juan González retired last year from a long and distinguished career as a reporter, including 29 years at the New York Daily News, he didn’t miss it. “Forty years was enough,” he said recently as we walked over to a Chelsea coffee shop following his morning stint co-hosting Democracy Now!. 

That may be. But González still has an unerring instinct for where the big story may lie. This fall he came out with his fifth book, Reclaiming Gotham: Bill de Blasio and the Movement to End America’s Tale of Two Cities (New Press, 2017) that looks at the impact of New York City’s 109th mayor and other progressive urban leaders like him who have taken power in recent years. 

Where many on the left have been critical of de Blasio for his close ties to the real estate industry and his tepid attempts to reform the NYPD, González argues that de Blasio has accomplished more for the working people of the city than any mayor since Fiorello LaGuardia in the 1930s. Nonetheless, he adds, de Blasio will need a “hard push” from activists to fulfill the most important items on his second-term agenda.   

John Tarleton: After 20 years of rule by Mayors Giuliani and Bloomberg, there was tremendous anticipation following Bill de Blasio’s 2013 election on the promise to address the “Tale of Two Cities.” How do you assess de Blasio’s performance so far as he prepares to begin a second term?

Juan González: I place de Blasio in the context of a much broader movement that has erupted across the United States in recent years that has brought progressive mayors to power in a number of cities. De Blasio is not the most progressive of these elected officials. The difference is that de Blasio administers the largest city in America, a city that is the center of world capitalism, that directly employs more than 300,000 people and whose $82 billion annual budget exceeds that of many nations. So we’re talking about a huge administrative apparatus that is now being led by someone who espouses progressive views.

“Cities today are the only hope for progressive politics.”

I supported John Liu in the 2013 Democratic primary, not de Blasio. So I have actually been surprised by how much of a progressive agenda he has enacted — universal pre-k, paid sick leave, increased minimum wage and much more. You would have to go back to Fiorello La Guardia in the 1930s to come up with a mayor who has directly and concretely affected the lives of ordinary New Yorkers at the level that de Blasio has. Has he fallen short in several areas? Yes. I think the biggest has been the construction of new affordable housing. But in the sum total of all the reforms that he has managed to effect in a condition of a deep right-wing drift in this country, I think it’s remarkable.

Why is it important for the left to win control of municipal governments?

Cities today are the only hope for progressive politics, not just in the United States, but in the industrial world. Federal and regional governments are going increasingly to the right. They’re becoming increasingly xenophobic, pro-capitalism, pro-imperialism.

The cities are the only place where there’s racial diversity, where there’s tolerance, where there’s the desire for sustainable development. You have to build a base area somewhere. And for me, the only place to build mass base areas right now is not in the labor movement, because the labor movement has been decimated. It’s in the cities. But to do it in the cities, you have to build cross-class alliances and negotiate. You have to risk the possibility that your leader turns out to be a total fuck-up (laughs) and gets caught up in the trappings of power and celebrity. That’s a risk you take, because there are no radical political parties to hold them accountable.

In Reclaiming Gotham, you assert that de Blasio has curbed the urban growth machine model in which the government assists the real estate developers in maximizing profits from the land they control. Yet, when I look around New York, I see ever more luxury condo towers being built for people who live in a whole other stratosphere.

In certain areas de Blasio has definitely sought to suppress the old urban growth machine model. He’s refused to subsidize any more mega-project deals like Hudson Yards or Atlantic Yards where housing is an adjunct to a much bigger commercial development project. On the existing rent-stabilized housing, he’s produced historic lows in rent increases, which has directly benefited tenants and hurt landlords. And he’s investing heavily in fixing public housing.

Where he has failed, and where I think almost all of the progressive mayors have failed, is in coming up with a model to build new low-cost housing in urban America. In the absence of any federal or state attempt to build low-income housing, he has adopted the erroneous viewpoint that you can trade height or density for affordability. The difference is that you’re now requiring a certain percentage of affordability, whereas previous administrations have pretty much left it up to the whims of the developers.

I think he’s too beholden to the developer community on the issue of how to build affordable housing. He’s giving up too much height, he’s not requiring enough affordability and the affordability that he’s requiring is not at the lowest levels of income that are necessary to meet the crisis. The key thing that he would need to do is get the for-profit developers out of affordable housing and just do it as nonprofits — whether cooperatives or nonprofit housing developments.

Another problem that often plagues progressive mayors is how to manage their police department. In de Blasio’s case, it often seems as if he is more a captive of the NYPD than the man who is ultimately in charge of it.

I don’t think he became a captive of the police force. But he did make compromises with it. As I mention in my book, de Blasio was a young aide to Mayor David Dinkins in 1992 when there was a famous police riot at City Hall against legislation to create the Civilian Complaint Review Board. It was total bedlam. The police, I believe, stopped working under Dinkins and the annual number of murders peaked at 2,000 compared to the 300 or so we have now.

Because of what he saw under Dinkins, I think when de Blasio got into office he realized, “I have a very ambitious social agenda. If I have to battle the police from the beginning, I’m not going to be able to accomplish much of my social agenda.”

So, he decided to bring in Bill Bratton as police commissioner because he felt that Bratton had the respect of the city’s elites and of the rank-and-file — and that Bratton could take care of the police department while he implemented his social agenda.

I wouldn’t have chosen Bratton, but I understand why de Blasio did it. Bratton was still into broken-windows policing which was effectively ended when City Council voted to decriminalize all the minor offenses like holding a can of beer or urinating in public that people got locked up for. Bratton’s gone, and broken-windows policing is effectively gone. And now the city is doing things like a bail program for people who can’t afford bail that they didn’t have before. So there’s been substantive changes in criminal justice that overall ranks New York City as among the more progressive cities when it comes to criminal justice systems today.

What do you expect de Blasio will focus on in his second term?

He’s outlined universal 3-K as a next big step. It’s two reforms in one. You are providing an extra year in school for every child, and you are saving the parents of those children huge child care costs. On building affordable housing, he’s made deeper affordability requirements for lower incomes, but it’s not enough yet. Activists have to keep pushing him on this issue. It’s nowhere near what needs to be done.

The other thing he has to make real is the closing of Rikers Island. You should read the report on Riker’s Island by former New York State Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman. It’s a phenomenal report about how mass incarceration failed, and the damage it did to Black and Latino communities. Pushed by outgoing City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, De Blasio has vowed that Rikers will be closed by 2027. He will be term-limited out of office by then. In the meantime, he will have to take steps to reduce the prison population, find sites for the replacement local jails, expend the money and start building.

Will it be politically feasible to site smaller local jails?

They existed previously. You had the Bronx House of Detention that was torn down to build the Gateway Mall. There was a Brooklyn House of Detention, there was a Queens House of Detention. Some of them could still be retro-fitted. It’s all a question of how big the population is. At its height, Rikers had 16,000 people. Now it’s down to about 8,000. So if you reduce the population more you won’t need it, and then you’ll be able to do the local jails.

What do you think the impact will be from the Republican tax bill that just passed Congress? It takes direct aim at blue states such as New York and California that have high taxes and higher levels of social services.

The dirty secret of New York government over the last five years is that the city and the state are swimming in surpluses. All you have to do is read State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli’s reports, because he charts quarterly how big the state surplus is growing. And now the city has a budget surplus of about $4 billion. The city’s population has grown by 375,000  people since 2010. There are more jobs. Tourism is also at an all-time high, a million people a week visit the city. And of course Wall Street continues to have record years that the city benefits from. So I think that it’s possible to weather the federal storm. It’s not going to be easy, but it’s possible to do it.

De Blasio is often portrayed in the media as restless to move on to higher office. What do you see in his political future?

It would be nonsense for him to run for president. I think he would have a better chance running for governor after he completes his second term as mayor. His problem is he is unpopular with whites. In New York City, 40 to 45 percent of whites supported him for mayor while he registers 65 percent with Latinos and 80 percent among African Americans. Why is that? I believe that his reforms have more directly affected African Americans and Latinos. I’m certain 300,000 of the 500,000 workers who received paid sick leave work in bodegas or in the backs of kitchens are Latino, and the tenants whose rents were frozen are largely African American and Latino.

The immediate suburbs of New York City are becoming more Democratic, and more Black and Latino. Whether the combination of the suburbs and New York City would be enough to offset the rest of the state, I don’t know. But he certainly has a better chance to run for governor than he has to run for president.

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Illustration by Charlyne Alexis.