Where is de Blasio headed?

February 27, 2014

New York's new mayor is still sounding many of the progressive themes that got him elected--and that presents opportunities for labor and the left, writes Don Lash.

THE ELECTION of Bill de Blasio as mayor of New York raised hopes enormously in a city ravaged by two decades of explicitly neoliberal administrations. After all, de Blasio succeeds Republicans Rudolph Giuliani and Michael Bloomberg, who actively encouraged gentrification and championed privatization, corporate school "reform," and aggressive, militarized policing.

With bitterness riding high at the 12 long years of Bloomberg's reign--the last four facilitated by leading Democrats who suspended term limits to allow the billionaire media mogul a third election--de Blasio broke out of the pack of Democratic candidates with a shrewd turn to the left late in the primary campaign.

He strengthened his opposition to "stop-and-frisk" and emphasized his "tale of two cities" narrative highlighting the vast and growing income inequality in the city. At campaign appearances, his signature policy proposal was universal early childhood education, funded by a dedicated tax on annual incomes over $500,000 a year. De Blasio won the primary by a margin decisive enough to avoid a runoff, and the general election by a landslide over Republican Joe Lhota.

New York Mayor Bill de Blasio
New York Mayor Bill de Blasio (Kevin Case)

His victory was shaped by years of grassroots activism against the Giuliani-Bloomberg status quo--against police abuse, gentrification and inequality. Liberal commenters hailed de Blasio as "an Occupy-inspired challenge to Clintonism," in the words of Peter Beinert.

But it was always the case that de Blasio had different inspirations than the Occupy Wall Street protest movement, and that became more obvious after his election.

As his head of economic development, de Blasio selected a Goldman Sachs executive who is enthusiastic about "public-private partnerships"--code words for giveaways to corporations and real estate developers. He told the American Israel Public Affairs Committee in a private meeting that "standing with [AIPAC] in Washington or anywhere" is part of his job as mayor.

Most jarringly, for his police commissioner, de Blasio brought back Bill Bratton, Giuliani's first police chief and the man who did much to transform the NYPD into the militarized, unaccountable force it is today.

STILL--AND this is a clear contrast to many other Democrats, especially in recent years--Mayor de Blasio hasn't abandoned the promises he made as Candidate de Blasio.

In his inaugural address, he pledged a return to what he called the city's progressive past: "We are called to put an end to economic and social inequalities that threaten to unravel the city we love. And so today, we commit to a new progressive direction in New York. And that same progressive impulse has written our city's history. It's in our DNA."

Once in office, he demanded state authorization to raise the minimum wage, in his "State of the City" address on February 10. He kept his promise to stop the city government's appeal of a federal court decision that the NYPD's policies and practices around "stop-and-frisk" violates the constitutional rights of victims.

De Blasio has kept up his call for state authorization of a tax on very high incomes to finance early childhood education, despite opposition from Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo and state legislators of both parties. De Blasio has framed the issue as one of "home rule"--the right of the state's largest city to regulate its own affairs--and he reacted angrily when the state Senate majority leader, a suburban Republican, declared he wouldn't allow a home rule measure on to even come to a vote.

When Cuomo tried to head off the issue by claiming the state could fund its own statewide early childhood education initiative, thanks to a budget surplus, de Blasio refused to give up his call for the tax increase on the rich, correctly noting the instability of a scheme based on a temporary surplus in state revenue.

In the realm of education, de Blasio appointed a professional educator as chancellor of public schools. This is actually required by state law, but the law was waived for the last four chancellors, and the appointment of lawyers, corporate executives and political operatives--seemingly anyone who wasn't an educator--became the norm.

De Blasio also defied the well-heeled charter school lobby by restricting charter operators' access to capital funds for school construction, and by moving to end the practice of offering charter schools free space in public schools.

He has continued to criticize the Bloomberg administration for allowing the homeless shelter population to hit record highs without responding with a housing policy, and he pledged to create a city ID card available to all city residents, regardless of immigration status.

BUT THE biggest test of all is still to come: What will de Blasio do about the approximately 150 municipal labor contracts that the city needs to negotiate?

Virtually all city workers have been working without contracts or raises for years. Under administrations before Bloomberg, it was standard practice to set aside funds to cover retroactive raises for the years city workers were without a contract--but Mayor Billionaire budgeted nothing for retroactive payments. He also attempted to dictate concessions and "productivity enhancements" in order to pay for any future raises.

With City Hall refusing to negotiate and the unions falling into a wait-for-Bloomberg-to-go attitude, city workers fell further and further behind once inflation was taken into account.

De Blasio is under enormous pressure from the business elite and media to take a hard line against the city workforce. The misnamed Citizens Budget Commission (CBC), a non-profit that has functioned as the self-appointed fiscal watchdog for New York City's financial elite for more than 80 years, has warned of dire consequences if the claims of city workers aren't rejected.

The city's main newspapers have taken a similar line, with the New York Daily News urging the mayor to follow the example of Gov. Cuomo, who reportedly said his action in forcing state employees to accept contracts with no pay increases set a "pattern" for the city's negotiations.

In his budget message, de Blasio disputed Bloomberg's claim that he had left his successor a surplus, noting a range of issues Bloomberg had deferred, including the municipal labor contracts. The new mayor also talked about "structural deficits" that will present problems balancing the budget in future years. This was accurate, given the current tax structure, but may also have been a signal to unions that de Blasio will say the city can't afford full retroactive payments.

But there are signs that de Blasio may recognize more of city workers' claims than the CBC, the governor or newspaper editorial boards would wish. In the first contract negotiated under his tenure, a small bargaining unit of some 200 environmental officers, who have worked without a contract for almost a decade, agreed to a package that includes retroactive pay averaging about $50,000 per worker.

ANY ASSESSMENT less than two months into de Blasio's term of office is preliminary, but it seems fair to say two things: the expectation that de Blasio would abandon his populist rhetoric entirely and resume business as usual was mistaken; but so was the hope among some supporters that he would carry out an all-out assault on the economic elites who have ruled without official challenge for decades.

To understand de Blasio's performance so far, it's worth looking at how he himself describes the kind of mayor he wants to be. In his State of the City message, de Blasio repeatedly invoked the memory of Fiorello La Guardia, New York's mayor from 1934 to 1946.

La Guardia was no radical. But he did carry out progressive reforms to force the business elite to accommodate a greater level of government intervention to improve the lives of the city's working class. La Guardia portrayed himself as a friend of labor, but worked to ensure that municipal labor organizing remained under the control of his administration, as the price of improvements in wages and terms. He never challenged the basic interests of business and real estate, but he did insist that a government role in housing, welfare and employment rights was necessary to stabilize the city.

With his references to La Guardia, de Blasio seems to be sending a message that he intends to restore at least some of that legacy of the municipal welfare state that was shredded under Giuliani and Bloomberg. If he maintains course, this will present opportunities for the labor movement and the left to push far beyond de Blasio's comfort zone.

If de Blasio wants to emulate La Guardia, then we should remember that during his time in office, the left in New York City did some of its most effective organizing ever, demanding far more radical action than La Guardia himself proposed.

Because of both grassroots struggles against inequality and repression--symbolized most of all by the Occupy Wall Street movement--and the broader sentiment of discontent with the status quo since the onset of the Great Recession, de Blasio has defined himself in more progressive terms than almost any mayor since La Guardia.

When de Blasio retreats, he should be held accountable for the promises he made. If he does take action along the lines of the themes that got him elected, he should feel constant pressure to go further and faster.

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