The Bloomberg backlash

September 23, 2013

Bill de Blasio's victory in the Democratic mayoral primary brought New York's future into focus--and as Danny Katch writes, it isn't a pretty picture for the current mayor.

MICHAEL BLOOMBERG has entered his final months as New York City mayor, and his anticipated victory lap has turned into a multicar pileup.

A summer that began with a federal judge ruling that the NYPD's "stop and frisk" policing strategy was racially biased has ended with Bill de Blasio, the city's elected Public Advocate, surging to victory in the Democratic mayoral primary on the strength of his anti-Bloomberg slogan that New York has become a "tale of two cities." De Blasio will be the single Democratic candidate in the upcoming general election, where he is expected to trounce Republican Joe Lhota.

Only a few months ago, the consensus media opinion was that Bloomberg's biggest problems were finding a next job that could possibly satisfy such a bold, dynamic thinker and handpicking a successor who could approach the gold standard he created at City Hall.

Since then, Bloomberg has fallen from kingmaker to lame duck--and now down to laughingstock after giving an interview to New York magazine in which he accused de Blasio of racism for featuring his interracial family in a campaign ad, claimed that low-income New Yorkers aren't really poor because the subways have air conditioning, and said he wanted "all the Russian billionaires to move here."

New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg
New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg (Simone D. McCourtie)

The only person who went down harder than Bloomberg was the one-time frontrunner in the race to succeed him: Christine Quinn, the city council speaker who worked closely with the mayor on many issues, including his unpopular but successful effort four years ago to repeal term limits so he could run for a third term. Many expected Bloomberg to endorse Quinn in the belief that she would maintain most of his policies while making history as New York's first female and openly gay mayor.

But Bloomberg didn't like the idea that a mere local politician could be a worthy successor to run his global city. Over the past year, he reportedly reached out to Democrats Hillary Clinton and Chuck Schumer, and even fellow billionaire Mort Zuckerman. For all we know, even these three may have been on Bloomberg's "B list"--and his top choice was to be replaced by a triumvirate of Bill Gates, George Soros and the reanimated remains of King Solomon.

The main problems with Quinn, in Bloomberg's eyes, was that she's a Democrat and, more importantly, a non-billionaire, which means that she's subject to pressures from what Bloomberg views as special interests--and what most of us refer to as the population of New York City.

This spring, for example, Quinn was compelled to disobey the mayor and stop obstructing a bill granting workers the right to a handful of sick days each year, which Bloomberg considered a governmental intrusion on the freedom of business owners to work their employees into the hospital. The fact that Quinn managed to significantly water down the bill wasn't enough to keep Bloomberg from issuing a veto, which the City Council then overturned, "led" by a reluctant Quinn.

The sick leave bill captured the dynamic that ultimately doomed Quinn's chances: she had tied her political fortunes to a very rich and powerful figure who felt no need to return the favor. Quinn ended up a distant third in the Democratic primary.

There is some evidence that Quinn's descent might have been further fueled by the sexism that so often greets women running for high office, including in the more liberal of the two major parties. Apparently, it's too much to expect male candidates like de Blasio and Bill Thompson to urge voters to reject such ugly sentiments--Quinn seemed "too masculine...not enough feminine," one voter told the New York Times--when casting their ballot.

DE BLASIO shot up dramatically in the polls in the final month of the campaign, but his victory was built upon dissatisfaction that has building for years with the reign of Michael Bloomberg.

Bloomberg's political success has rested on his ability to convince most New Yorkers of two things: First, that the philosophy of enriching the already rich so their wealth will "trickle down" is the only realistic path for cities if they want to avoid becoming the next Detroit; and second, that this business model would not only benefit the wealthy, but lead to better performance in city services--especially the public schools and the police department.

For his first two terms, Bloomberg seemed to deliver on this promise. But in recent years, his highly touted achievements of higher tests cores and lower crime rates have come under scrutiny--the former because the tests turned out to be rigged, and the latter because the stop-and-frisk lawsuit made it public knowledge that the mayor's main crime-fighting strategy was both obviously racist and unrelated to fighting actual crime.

In this changing environment, de Blasio put the spotlight on himself as a progressive alternative to Bloomberg with two dramatic acts. In the most effective television ad of the race, de Blasio called himself "the only candidate to end a stop-and-frisk era that targets minorities" and talked about how he and his African American wife have had "the conversation" with their son Dante about the day he'll be stopped by police.

A month earlier, de Blasio got himself arrested in a protest to keep two Brooklyn hospitals open. His arrest--and the later injunction against closures he filed in his position as Public Advocate--helped to publicize the energetic, and so far successful, fight to save the hospitals being waged by members of 1199SEIU Healthcare Workers East and the New York State Nurses Association (NYSNA).

1199 had endorsed de Blasio early in the campaign, and NYSNA signed on in the midst of the hospital struggle. So for a change, a Democratic candidate actually did something to earn a union endorsement. By contrast, Bill Thompson managed to snag the endorsement of the United Federation of Teachers just by saying some nice things against school closures and high-stakes testing, as did the other mayoral candidates--and despite the fact that that his campaign co-chair Merril Tisch was one of the architects of the city's new plan to evaluate teachers based on those same high-stakes tests.

De Blasio's rhetoric around race and policing is also a dramatic improvement from past Democratic mayoral candidates like Mark Green and Fernando Ferrer, who foolishly alienated African Americans in their attempts to win conservative white votes. Given his refreshingly progressive campaign, it's not surprising that de Blasio has won praise and endorsements from a number of liberal celebrities and magazines like The Nation.

Yet despite the seeming media consensus--a recent article by Peter Beinhart in The Daily Beast hailed de Blasio's victory as a sign of "the rise of the new New Left"--the likely next mayor of New York City is, in fact, a veteran politician from the mainstream of the Democratic Party.

De Blasio was an aide in the Bill Clinton White House and campaign manager for Hillary Clinton's 2000 Senate run, neither of which were anybody's idea of left-wing crusades. Since then, de Blasio has been a City Council member for eight years and Public Advocate for the past four. (Note to non-New Yorkers: The Public Advocate is a strange local office with no power, which should be renamed "Publicly Preparing to Run for Mayor.")

During those years, de Blasio helped to pass some progressive legislation defending the rights of tenants, immigrants and transgendered people. He also gained a reputation as a reliable ally of--and recipient of donations from--major Brooklyn real estate developers, for whom he went to bat in the face of opposition from many of his constituents.

According to Morgan Pehme at City and State, in the early stages of his mayoral run, de Blasio planned a more centrist campaign on the premise that he was uniquely qualified to bring business and labor together. Pehme says it was only when that message failed to take hold--and a more left-wing candidate, John Liu, was taken down by campaign finance scandals--that de Blasio made a strategic change:

Once it became clear that Liu would no longer be considered a viable candidate for mayor, however--or could even be on the verge of arrest--de Blasio seized the opportunity to tack left, filling the void vacated by Liu as the most progressive candidate in the race.

Of course, there's no way to prove that de Blasio doesn't genuinely believe in his current progressive rhetoric; debates about a candidate's "true" intentions are typically unproductive. But even if we accept de Blasio's recent left turn at face value, his current platform--while better than the thin broth offered up by his rivals--is not all that substantial.

Take, for example, the central plank of de Blasio's promise to reduce economic inequality: a plan to fund universal pre-Kindergarten programs with a modest tax increase on wealthy residents. This is a welcome idea, but by itself, it's hardly sufficient to undo the upward flow of untold billions of dollars from the poor to the rich that has taken place in the city in recent decades. Furthermore, the tax increase will require a change in state law, which many observers predict will be hard to achieve.

That doesn't mean de Blasio shouldn't push for it, but it's telling that his central promise is around something he can't control. By contrast, de Blasio could promise to fund his pre-kindergarten program on the day he takes office by cutting some of the billions of dollars in tax breaks given to New York City real estate and corporate interests.

He could, but he hasn't.

THE RISING inequality that de Blasio so effectively decried isn't just a product of Bloomberg's wealth or personality, but the new model of urban politics that says industrial jobs and federal funding are never coming back, so the successful cities will be the ones that outcompete their rivals in giving businesses whatever they want so they will grace us with their job-creating presence.

Here's how Bloomberg put in in the New York interview: "The way to help those who are less fortunate is, number one, to attract more very fortunate people. They are the ones that pay the bills."

In other words, the way to help poor people is to help rich people. Nonsensical as this idea is, it is the prevailing logic in New York City--and, thanks to Bloomberg's supposedly successful model, in cities across the country.

Bill de Blasio's campaign isn't about challenging this logic or upending the model. He is merely promising to make it more palatable. And even if that were sufficient--which, of course, it isn't--de Blasio's aims might not even be possible, because when cities are forced into endless competition to attract business, business will always ask for more.

One of the first tasks awaiting New York's next mayor is to negotiate with city unions, every one of which is working without a contract. The city elites are united in calling for municipal workers to make major concessions in their health care and pension funds. Which means that whatever his inner intentions, de Blasio will find himself under immense pressure to carry out the ruling-class offenseive.

Publicly, de Blasio has declined to say how we will handle union negotiations, other than to say that he views the "creativity" and "responsibility" of unions during the fiscal crisis of the 1970s as a model--an ominous sign considering that labor's concessions back then marked the first chapter in the process of rising inequality that has led to today's "tale of two cities."

After two decades of enduring Republican mayors and tepid Democratic opposition, millions of working class and nonwhite New Yorkers are hopeful that local politics is finally heading in a positive direction. For those of us who are skeptical about de Blasio, our role should not be to dash these hopes (as if we could), but to try to channel them into the grassroots movements for change--of fast food workers, nurses and health care workers, teachers, civil rights activists and others--that have helped to create this political moment.

We can try to convince our co-workers and fellow activists not to campaign for de Blasio, but instead demand that he campaign for us--to push him to endorse NYSNA's call for a moratorium on hospital closures and the demand of fast-food workers for $15 an hour living wage.

These won't be easy arguments to win, but after 12 years of being suffocated by Michael Bloomberg's money and power, it will sure feel great to try.

Further Reading

From the archives