The Improbable Expectations of Bill de Blasio

New Yorkers want a new brand of leadership and a new direction from City Hall. Can de Blasio possibly deliver?

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Reuters

Last weekend, Bill de Blasio corrected a reporter who said he only had 36 hours to go before taking the oath of office as the next mayor of New York City. From the New York Times:

[On Sunday,] when Mr. de Blasio was reminded that he had a mere 36 hours to fill positions ahead of Wednesday’s inauguration, the mayor-elect disagreed.

“Don’t take away my hours!” he interjected, adding, pointedly, that he still had three days until his swearing-in.

You could hardly blame de Blasio for savoring every moment of being mayor-elect rather than mayor-in-fact. All fall, his surprising come-from-behind campaign went from one feel-good moment to the next, culminating in a crushing landslide over the Republican candidate, Joe Lhota. (After the primary, the Daily Show’s Jon Stewart declared that he wanted to be adopted by the charismatic de Blasio family.) New Yorkers sick of Michael Bloomberg’s billionaire-centric policies and worried about the future of the city’s middle and working classes embraced de Blasio’s progressive agenda and his talk of “a tale of two cities,” separate and unequal.

It wasn’t just New Yorkers who were fired up by the election. Left-of-center Democrats around the nation looked to New York and saw a fresh opening for their kind of politics. To some, the de Blasio win looked like the beginning of a new era — one of hope and change (sound familiar?).

But on January 1, hope will have to start translating into action. New Yorkers are not well-known for their patience, but neither is de Blasio famous for his speed. He is often late to press conferences and other events. On a more substantive note, he has moved slowly (although he would probably prefer to say deliberately) to fill key jobs within the administration. According to the Times’s count, de Blasio had only filled eight senior-level positions by December 30, in contrast with 30 for Bloomberg, 32 for Rudy Giuliani, and 20 for David Dinkins. (On December 31, at nearly the eleventh hour, he appointed four more.)

But the new mayor has promised he is going to be forceful in implementing his campaign promises. Soon after the election, de Blasio told the crowd at a meeting of Al Sharpton’s National Action Network that “It’s one thing to win an election, it’s another thing to achieve an agenda. We are going to get on with a very — not only progressive — but aggressive agenda.”

Some of the key elements of that agenda as he laid them out before taking office:

Creating affordable housing: The skyrocketing price of housing in the city is one of the things that strikes fear into the heart of the average New Yorker. De Blasio has proposed creating a whopping 200,000 units of affordable housing through a variety of strategies. Among them is mandatory inclusionary zoning, which would require developers to construct a certain percentage of affordable units in exchange for the permission to build profitable new residential developments. It’s an approach that his predecessor shied away from on the grounds that it would stifle economic growth. De Blasio has also proposed using $1 billion from the city’s pension fund to invest in building and preserving affordable housing and has said he’s committed to reforming New York’s shelter system, whose population has soared to a record high 55,000 under Bloomberg’s watch. WIll he really be able to play tough with politically influential real estate interests?

Changing NYPD’s stop-and-frisk policy and improving police-community relations: Aggressive policing tactics were among the most controversial legacies of the Bloomberg era. Outgoing NYPD chief Ray Kelly stuck by the department’s “stop and frisk” model even as a federal judge ruled that it was unconstitutional as implemented, amounting to "indirect racial profiling." De Blasio has said that his administration will drop the city’s challenge to that ruling. Donna Lieberman, executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, expressed optimism about initial signals from de Blasio and his incoming police commissioner, Bill Bratton: “Changing the culture of the department is an enormous challenge, but I think it starts from the top,” she says. “The devil is in the details, but I’m hopeful and confident, given the campaign, that [de Blasio] gets it, and that his commitment will be reflected.”

Instituting universal pre-Kindergarten: De Blasio has repeatedly called for an increase in the income tax on wealthy New Yorkers — those who make $500,000 or more — to fund “truly universal” pre-K programs for the city’s public school students, as well as after-school programs for all middle-school students. This plan will have to make its way through the infamously sticky legislative process in Albany in order to become reality, a process that will test de Blasio’s political chops.

Creating better jobs and economic opportunities for New Yorkers: Here again, de Blasio says he’ll put the emphasis on education. He’s called for a strengthening on the City University of New York system and bolstering job-training programs. Perhaps most significant, from a political point of view, is that de Blasio thinks that government can and should play a significant role in job creation. “Without a dramatic change of direction — an economic policy that combats inequality and rebuilds our middle class — New York will become little more than a playground for the rich, where millions upon millions of New Yorkers struggle each and every day to keep their heads above water.”

All this high-minded rhetoric triggered a surprising outpouring of idealism in the September primary and in the general election. Now, advocates on a variety of issues — from street safety to school reform — are expecting a new brand of leadership and a new direction from City Hall. Can de Blasio possibly deliver on all of them?

“People are aspirational,” says Noel Hidalgo, cofounder of Beta NYC, which has produced a “People’s Roadmap to a Digital New York City,” calling for more inclusive and participatory government. That’s another thing Hidalgo says many activist New Yorkers are hoping for from de Blasio. “Some progressives that I know are really happy to not have Bloomberg 2.0, but instead someone who’s young and progressive and wants to change the vision of New York,” says Hidalgo. “But a lot of people are also concerned, will he be stymied by the machine — the internal operations of government, the legislative process?”

And the clock, as the mayor-elect well knows, is already ticking.

About the Author

  • Sarah Goodyear has written about cities for a variety of publications, including Grist and Streetsblog. She lives in Brooklyn.