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“A large check is a glorious thing, don’t you think?” Mayor Bill de Blasio asked at a recent press conference, standing near one of those Price Is Right–style gag checks. He was visiting a somnolent street in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, to remind the aggrieved middle-class homeowners here of the good work he’s getting done at City Hall. After all, a $183 credit on water and sewer bills isn’t nothing, right? The dollar amount was highlighted in yellow and circled in red. It was begging to be noticed.
Predictably, it wasn’t. Instead, de Blasio, whose knee-jerk self-righteousness and patrician hauteur often keep him from becoming a truly sympathetic figure, endured another round of skewering from the assembled reporters, taking seven questions on the scandals now swamping his mayoralty. News of the water credit was promptly drowned out. Peeved, or appearing that way, he cut off the April 25 presser as quickly as he could and loped to a waiting SUV.
These are heady times for de Blasio haters, of whom there is no shortage. There are overlapping federal and state investigations (of varying merit) into the fundraising he did for a failed effort to help Democrats retake control of the state senate in 2014, a land deal that resulted in a Lower East Side nursing home being turned into luxury condos, gifts offered to NYPD officers, and his relationship to donors who wanted to see horse-drawn carriages banned from Central Park. No one’s been charged with any wrongdoing, but that doesn’t matter when it comes to how the news is framed, especially in the tabloids. After a first year defined by the back-turning insurrection of the NYPD and a second year consumed by an acid feud with Governor Andrew Cuomo, year three may be the worst yet. Top aides have been subpoenaed. From February to April, de Blasio’s approval rating dropped ten points. Few people will go on the record to defend him.
The glee of the Republicans, centrist Democrats, and others wounded by de Blasio’s unexpected rise to power may be exceeded only by the quieter anxiety of the city’s progressive class, which sees the durability of its hold on power as a direct function of de Blasio’s. These are the people who waited twenty miserable years for Michael Bloomberg and Rudy Giuliani to shove off, endured the tepid liberalism of David Dinkins in the early Nineties, and reviled Ed Koch for antagonizing blacks and gays. It doesn’t help that de Blasio has strained mightily to vault himself into the pantheon of national progressive icons — an Elizabeth Warren for the outer boroughs! — and raised the stakes of his own performance through his highfalutin rhetoric. Even Bloomberg and Giuliani waited until their second terms to try to flirt with the rest of America; de Blasio seemed hungry for more on day one.
Now his success — or not — as one of the country’s most visible progressive leaders has the movement on edge, wondering whether this high-handed, ham-fisted figure might wind up doing more harm to the cause than good.
“There’s this kind of nervousness in some ways where a lot of people and cities are looking to him and New York to see if it can be done,” said Christina Greer, a political science professor at Fordham University, speaking of progressive governance. “Realistically, if it’s a failure, it feels like the movement, all of these people working in progressive causes, will really take a hit.”
If Cuomo, de Blasio’s nemesis and maybe the most shameless triangulator remaining in America, has his way, the mayor will be cut off at his knobby knees — and this chapter of municipal history will be remembered as yet another time a liberal was given the keys to New York and failed. Bloomberg, a Republican-turned-independent, and Giuliani, a Republican who recently endorsed Donald Trump, sneered at most of what the city’s progressives hold dear: more affordable housing, better relations between police and minorities, an expansion of the social safety net. The increasingly chrome-plated cast of the city perfectly reflects that disdain.
De Blasio campaigned on the promise to work to blunt the oligarchic takeover. And it’s worth remembering that he has managed to fulfill a healthy chunk of his campaign promises already. Universal pre-K, paid sick days, and a popular municipal ID card program are all a reality in 2016 and wouldn’t have happened under a Mayor Bill Thompson. The problem for de Blasio is that his stumbles have fueled the worst stereotypes of an ungainly liberal pol. His words alone — everything short of taking a leak is “transcendent” and “extraordinary” to this guy — have set him up to fail.
The curse of de Blasio’s 2013 win was that he did it without much help from outside actors — most elected officials, labor unions, and newspaper editorial boards didn’t endorse him in the Democratic primary. So de Blasio entered office with the idea that the people who missed his boat didn’t matter and deserved to drown; he’s been a shoddy alliance-builder ever since. For de Blasio to prove to the city’s large swath of moderates that he could govern successfully from the left, he needed to play error-free ball. He hasn’t.
Until the Lower East Side housing bungle, which is probably the most egregious element of this suite of scandals, the irony of the de Blasio administration was that it was far better run than people believed. The controversies, like a mind-numbing disregard for punctuality, were usually self-inflicted or outright unfair, including the idea that his push for modest police reforms meant he hated the NYPD. (De Blasio has since hired nearly 1,300 new police officers, allocated money to create a new police precinct, and bottled up additional reforms in the Council. On paper, he may be the most pro-police mayor we’ve ever had, despite the whining from rank-and-file cops.)
Anthony Weiner, the former congressman who ran against de Blasio and knows something about scandal, thinks his erstwhile rival will get re-elected. The question will be how painful a process that could be. “There’s a sense a lot of oxygen is being sucked up with these problems,” Weiner told the Voice. “Whether they’re consequential or not, they’re definitely consuming a lot of their time and energy.
“When you have allies like me writing op-eds defending him from three scandals,” he added, “that’s a problem.”
Beyond those invested in his failure and in the overall death of unapologetic liberalism, de Blasio must worry about tending to his base. Anxiety is mixing with disappointment; for some on the left, de Blasio has sold out. He is chummy with the influential real estate developers and lobbyists who are happy to find a City Hall that once more plays by the rules of conventional politics rather than the fantasy economics of Bloomberg, who brought his own form of distortion but detested the deal-making average schmucks rely on to get things done.
“It’s not like any of us are rushing to step in the line of fire for the mayor, since he hasn’t necessarily listened to our concerns,” said one progressive activist who backed de Blasio in 2013, speaking on the condition of anonymity. “He hasn’t really pushed for things a lot of us would’ve liked to have seen. He’s had a friendly ear to developers and folks like that.”
Some fear that the recent rezoning of East New York, for example, will hasten gentrification there; the move irked putative allies and further frayed the mayor’s connection to the left, which is still bristling from de Blasio’s fight last year to try to save an obscure real estate tax break known as 421-a. Similarly, his pledge to build or preserve 200,000 units of affordable housing across the city has meant an unholy alliance with the Real Estate Board of New York, the industry’s chief lobby and an ardent defender of the status quo. It was REBNY that spent heavily in 2013 to try to make the City Council a lot less liberal, even as de Blasio was out there selling his “tale of two cities” lament on the campaign trail.
Bertha Lewis, a de Blasio supporter who wanted to make it known she thought the investigation into his senate fundraising is “the most bogus thing ever,” said the mayor’s rezoning push nevertheless earned him a new title: “gentrifier in chief.”
“You have developers feeding at the trough,” Lewis, the founder of the Black Institute, said. “You’re accommodating these guys, and they don’t want to build affordable housing.”
De Blasio is trapped in a singular no-man’s-land. Bloomberg had the elites and the upper middle class; Giuliani had his white outer-borough ethnics. To all of these people, de Blasio is a feckless socialist. And to many of his old allies — and the leftists who never trusted him in the first place — he is a Hillary Clinton in Elizabeth Warren’s clothing.
Emblematic of this struggle, and maybe of de Blasio’s entire mayoralty, was his belated decision to back Clinton for president. She announced her campaign in April 2015; he hemmed and hawed until October. No one really believed that de Blasio, the campaign manager for her 2000 Senate bid, would endorse Bernie Sanders, and his delayed choice was widely mocked — even by Clinton, during their excruciating “CP time” skit at the annual Inner Circle dinner. But according to City Hall sources, de Blasio actually did come genuinely close to endorsing Sanders, only to have top aides, including Emma Wolfe, talk him out of it. As the presidential primary descended on New York this April, de Blasio, frozen out of Clintonland for insufficient loyalty and bereft of the adulation progressives showered on Sanders, had nowhere left to go.
Now his potential 2017 rivals salivate. Comptroller Scott Stringer would primary him now if he knew he could win. Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr. and U.S. Representative Hakeem Jeffries have Cuomo cooing in their ears. De Blasio can’t buy support or deference like Bloomberg could, and he’s never been overwhelmingly popular since he took office. Had he embraced his progressive conscience fully and endorsed Sanders, he could at least have tapped into a whole new universe of donors, a wave of millennials thrilled to have their own Bernie acolyte in stodgy City Hall. Imagine if Sanders deigned to email a fundraising appeal on behalf of his besieged Brooklyn buddy?
Instead, de Blasio’s image is in tatters, and he’ll have the burden of trying to save himself and, more importantly, the future of urban liberalism. Charter school operators and their hedge fund backers; Uber; and the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association are just a few of the entities slavering to destroy the Park Slope progressive. (All just happen to employ consultants who worked for Bloomberg.)
“It’s really hard. It’s like a punt return,” explained one Democrat sympathetic to the mayor. “All these guys are coming at you. You’ve got to dodge one guy, then the next. He’s trying to do a punt return from his own end zone.”
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