A “new Democrat” for New York City?

October 23, 2013

Bill de Blasio will almost certainly win New York City's mayoral election next month, but will he meet the hopes of his supporters? Don Lash has a lot of doubts.

DEMOCRATS IN New York City have a 6-to-1 registration advantage over Republicans, and they dominate the City Council and other elected offices, but they haven't won a mayoral election in almost a quarter century.

Power has become increasingly centralized in the hands of the mayor during those years, so there is excitement among Democrats about the near-certainty that Bill de Blasio will defeat Republican Joe Lhota on November 5 to replace billionaire Republican-turned-independent Michael Bloomberg.

During the party primary won by de Blasio in September, liberals and progressives were energized by de Blasio's "tale of two cities" narrative, which focused on growing inequality among New Yorkers, in terms of income, opportunities and the way they are treated by government. Meanwhile, municipal employees, who have been working for years without contracts under a mayor who refuses to negotiate, are looking forward to having a seat at the negotiating table.

Even some left-wing critics of the Democrats at the city, state and national level see promise in de Blasio because of his appealing rhetoric and intriguing aspects of his background.

Bill de Blasio leads a rally for financial reform
Bill de Blasio leads a rally for financial reform (Americans for Financial Reform)

It's a sign of the depths of bitterness with Bloomberg that so many people are looking with hope to de Blasio and his promise to take New York City in a new direction. But when you look at his record and his actual political positions, there's less to this challenge than meets the eye.

THERE ARE a multitude of reasons that New Yorkers are looking forward to the end of Bloomberg's rule. During his 12 years in office, he used his immense and growing fortune to overwhelm and co-opt opposition through self-financed campaigns, a personal public relations machine and strategic use of philanthropy. He essentially bought off Democrats to get a third term by securing passage of a one-time suspension of term limits. He centralized power in his own hands and imposed a neoliberal agenda featuring massive cuts to education, housing, child care and other essential services, coupled with equally large giveaways to developers and other elites. He has driven through increased privatization and sharp attacks on public-sector workers. He presided over a hyper-aggressive and militarized police force that vastly expanded the use of "stop-and-frisk" racial profiling to harass and oppress communities of color, and he chiseled away at the right to dissent with attacks on the civil liberties of antiwar and Occupy Wall Street protesters.

Bloomberg's greatest success, though, was in creating the perception that there is no alternative to the neoliberal agenda--with opposition limited to the annual "budget dance" over the size and scope of cuts. Democratic officeholders have largely played along, happily taking credit for "saving" individual firehouses or libraries, without ever putting forward a meaningful and generalized alternative.

Thus, for many New Yorkers, the de Blasio campaign was a breath of fresh air simply because de Blasio set himself apart from Bloomberg. In the primary, he positioned himself as a critic of the Bloomberg administration, correctly judging that the presumed frontrunner, City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, would be seen as having been too close to and too uncritical of the mayor. When disgraced former Congressman Anthony Wiener fell out of contention over his sexting recidivism, de Blasio made a move to emerge from the pack, becoming more vocal in his criticism of stop-and-frisk just as a federal judge ruled that the policy violated its victims' constitutional rights.

De Blasio's campaign made very effective use of his family. De Blasio represents one first in city politics--he's potentially the first mayor from a biracial household. He is married to an African-American woman who has been an effective campaigner on his behalf, and his two children also became an engaging media presence.

One campaign commercial in particular, starring de Blasio's son Dante, was a breakthrough. Dante, then 15 years old, told New Yorkers that his father would be the only candidate to end the New York Police Department's reliance on a policy of wholesale stop-and-frisk. The ad was effective because New Yorkers--particularly New Yorkers of color--recognized that Dante, as a teenaged public school student of color, is a prime target for racial profiling.

One indication of the commercial's effectiveness was that it clearly rattled Bloomberg, who absurdly said it was "racist" for the campaign to use Dante to speak out against stop-and-frisk. In the end, De Blasio tied the only Black candidate, former Controller Bill Thompson, among African American voters in the primary.

De Blasio also jumped into a struggle to save a closing hospital in Brooklyn, even getting arrested in the process. He proposed a tax on high-income New Yorkers to guarantee early childhood education to all 3 to 5 year olds. He criticized the policy of displacing public school students to give rent-free space to well-resourced charter schools.

DE BLASIO'S PAST has encouraged many on the left to see him as something new and different in city politics. In the 1980s, he was an activist against U.S. policy in Central America as a member of the pro-Sandinista Nicaragua Solidarity League of Greater New York. In 1990, he described himself as a "democratic socialist," and he and his wife defied the ban on travel to Cuba to honeymoon there.

Many liberals see de Blasio's past shaping his present positions, an impulse shared by the Republican Lhota, whose attempts at old-school redbaiting have been energetic, but seemingly ineffective.

Liberal commentator Peter Beinert, for one, sees in de Blasio's success a threat to the "Clintonian orthodoxy" that has dominated among Democrats who came of age during the Reagan-Clinton era. These Democrats, according to Beinert, came to terms with the onslaught of neoliberalism by promoting "a pro-capitalist, anti-bureacratic Reaganized liberalism." Beinert sees Obama and those who follow his model, like New Jersey's new Sen. Cory Booker, as keeping to the Clintonian path.

However, Beinert believes de Blasio and other Democrats such as Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren have the potential to make a significant break, propelled by support from the "Millenials," who entered their "plastic years" with the economic insecurity and political turmoil that has dominated the 21st century so far. Most importantly for New York, Beinert says, de Blasio could herald the end of Wall Street's domination over the city:

Bill de Blasio's mayoral campaign offers a glimpse into what an Occupy-inspired challenge to Clintonism might look like. In important ways, New York politics has mirrored national politics in the Reagan-Clinton era. Since 1978, the mayoralty has been dominated by three men--Ed Koch, Rudy Giuliani and Michael Bloomberg--who although liberal on many cultural issues have closely identified Wall Street's interests with the city's.

Citing Beinert, but making even more extravagant claims, Harold Meyerson of the American Prospect portrays de Blasio as part of a leading edge of anti-Wall Street populism--his recent article couples de Blasio's primary victory with opposition to the appointment of Larry Summers to head the Federal Reserve. Meyerson sees Democratic critics of Wall Street, including de Blasio, Warren and others, as gaining the edge over Wall Street supporters like Booker and Chicago Mayor Rahm Emmanuel in a battle for control of "what is fast becoming a more progressive Democratic party."

The parallel to the excitement among liberals over the election of Barack Obama in 2008 is striking. Many saw evidence in Obama's past--his anti-apartheid activism as a student and his experience as a community organizer--that he was a new type of Democrat. His battle with Hillary Clinton for the 2008 presidential nomination made it seem that he was an alternative to Clintonism, and his victory to become the first Black president came despite racist attacks and red-baiting.

But disappointment, confusion and demoralization followed immediately as Obama immediately put members of the Clinton team--and Hillary Clinton herself--into influential positions in his administration. He maintained continuity with the Bush administration's foreign policy, expanded the surveillance state and covert warfare, and abandoned various promises, such as closing Guantánamo and fighting for the Employee Free Choice Act.

The key question, then, is how much the contrast between de Blasio and today's Clinton/Obama Democrats is a matter of style, presentation and rhetoric--and how much is a substantive difference in outlook. De Blasio's record gives us reasons for skepticism.

DE BLASIO transitioned from activism to government as an aide in the administration of New York's last Democratic mayor, David Dinkins. Dinkins, the city's first and so far only Black mayor, was smeared by his successor, Rudolph Giuliani, and portrayed as an anti-police leftist, but the reality was that he never challenged the finance and real estate interests that wield power in the city.

De Blasio moved on to a job in the Clinton administration, working in the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). He finished his time at the department as New York regional administrator under then-HUD Secretary Andrew Cuomo, the current governor of New York. During de Blasio's tenure there, the Clinton administration promoted the "reinvention" of HUD, resulting in downsizing and privatization of housing units and management functions. De Blasio didn't play a leading role, but there's no evidence that he was uncomfortable with the direction of the Clinton-era "reforms."

De Blasio's next position was campaign manager for Hillary Clinton in her 2000 Senate campaign in New York. One major contribution of his was damage control when Clinton was attacked as pro-Palestinian after she embraced and kissed Suha Arafat, the wife of Yasser Arafat, during a public event.

De Blasio was delegated to reach out to pro-Zionist leaders. Among those he cultivated a relationship with was state Assemblyman Dov Hikind, a racist and homophobe who notoriously donned blackface for a Purim celebration and denounced the inclusion of gay victims of the Nazis in New York's Holocaust Memorial. Hikind has described de Blasio as a "good listener" and supports his campaign.

De Blasio's contacts among leaders of Brooklyn's ultra-Orthodox community were crucial to his next step: winning a City Council seat from Brooklyn. In the current race, De Blasio has highlighted his opposition to the "very wrong-headed" boycott, divestment and sanctions movement against Israel--he says the mayor of New York "has to be a strong voice in support of Israel."

And the "populist" de Blasio ought to have to answer for his support, as a City Council member, for the Barclays Center sports arena and Atlantic Yards apartment complex, a gentrification behemoth set down in the center of Brooklyn.

AMBITION AND expediency may explain some of these positions, which are in line with the mainstream of the Democratic Party. What about the issues where de Blasio moved to the left of his major primary opponents? Do they represent, as Beinert and Meyerson would have it, a significant move toward progressive populism?

De Blasio's opposition to stop-and-frisk was an important development in his campaign, but it was more a reflection of the impact of grassroots activism against the NYPD than his personal commitment to the issue.

More telling is the fact that de Blasio floated the idea of bringing back William Bratton, the police commissioner under Rudy Giuliani, to replace Ray Kelly. While Kelly vastly expanded the use of stop-and-frisk, it was the "broken windows theory"--the idea that police should move aggressively against petty crime to prevent more serious crimes--popularized under Bratton that intensified the NYPD's offensive to assert control over low-income communities of color.

That de Blasio is seriously contemplating returning Bratton to One Police Plaza is a strong indication that he doesn't intend to challenge the Giuliani/Bloomberg police regime.

On the issue of social inequality, one of de Blasio's more specific proposals is to enact a special tax on incomes over $500,000, with revenues earmarked for pre-kindergarten, made available for all children aged 3 to 5.

There's certainly a need to make pre-K services readily available. But we should look closely at the details of de Blasio's plan. A dedicated tax would require action by the state legislature and approval by the governor, neither of which is likely. De Blasio hasn't called for any mobilization to pressure the state, nor is there much in his past to suggest he would--so it's not clear that he's really serious about the policy.

Even if the tax were to be enacted, it would hardly be a burden on the city's super-rich. De Blasio is proposing to raise city income taxes by about half a percentage point--from 3.876 percent to 4.41 percent--on annual income (not wealth) over $500,000. This cost the immensely wealthy about $500 for every extra 100K in annual income--so the total city increase in a tax bill for someone who makes more than $1 million in a year would be $2,500.

Taxing New York City's rich is certainly worth fighting for. But if de Blasio was serious about challenging the elites, he could do a lot more.

The city gives away more than $250 million a year in tax abatements for residential construction, much of it for luxury housing. Other development deals drain billions more from the city treasury--with close to $2 billion going to major league sports franchises alone. The city's development policies effectively subsidize gentrification, with taxes paid by all New Yorkers, many of whom are thereby priced out of their own neighborhoods.

De Blasio could propose the elimination of giveaways to developers as a way of providing child care and preserving essential services. He could lead the fight to change city development policies and priorities. Instead, he's issued a call for one narrow tax on the rich, without a strategy to make it happen.

With the Democratic primary behind him, de Blasio already sounds like less of a progressive. Some signs of his tacking right: He met Wall Street executives to reassure them of his support for the city's "home-town industry," he's raised huge sums from the bankers, and he solicited the active support of Hillary Clinton and Andrew Cuomo.

The election of a mayor who at least talks about the growing inequality in New York City, and who expresses opposition to stop-and-frisk, charter school favoritism and the attacks on public-sector workers is certainly an opportunity for the left. But the opportunity comes not from electing Bill de Blasio, but by relating to any new sentiment and confidence for activism and organizing among those eager to see Bloomberg go.

De Blasio recognized that his path to victory required moving to the left on a number of issues. That's because of the bitterness toward Bloomberg and the status quo in New York City, which crystallized in the past few years lay in the Occupy Wall Street upsurge, mobilizations against stop-and frisk and police violence, and the struggle against school closures and co-location of charter schools.

No one should wait for de Blasio to lead New York into a post-Bloomberg era. We have to begin organizing now to build the pressure for change that no politician can ignore.

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