For a moment or two at the Village Independent Democrats candidate forum last night, it felt like 2013. There were the smattering of diehards raising hell about their neighborhood gripes, relishing the chance to grill the politicians who were in the room to beg for votes. Pamphlets and campaign pens were passed around. Promises were made. One woman even stormed out, fed up with it all.
But this year can’t be much like then because there is no open race for mayor. Bill de Blasio, who four years ago was a fledgling candidate forced to trek to forums like these just about every night of the week, is now mayor, and he is on a glide path to re-election. Greenwich Village’s councilman, Corey Johnson, happily endorsed him. De Blasio’s opponents, some of whom showed up to address the several dozen club members packed into the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender Community Center, are little-known and underfunded.
This doesn’t mean de Blasio isn’t worth being challenged. One of the Democrats taking him on, police reform advocate Robert Gangi, is the sort of leftist provocateur needed to keep the mayor honest and highlight the ways his rhetoric has not met reality. Gangi has lacerated de Blasio for his obsession with “broken windows” policing — which no liberal outside of City Hall champions — and a ten-year plan to close Rikers Island that passes the buck onto a future mayor who could easily abandon course if political winds shift.
Scheduled for an 8:30 p.m. question and answer period, de Blasio showed up about twenty minutes late, reprising a bad habit he couldn’t kick in the first year of his term. He recapped his accomplishments quickly, situating himself in the city’s political history. “Look, twenty years we had Republicans, Independents, conservatives, whatever you want to call them — twenty years we had something that did not reflect the values of the clubs gathered here,” he said.
“Everyone in this room knows for decades there were assumptions about New York City,” he added. “There was an assumption that tenants were always going to be put at a disadvantage versus landlords and that the government was not gonna be on the tenants’ side. There was an assumption that there were gonna be tensions between police and community and nothing was going to change.… For the last three years, we’ve upended a lot of that status quo.”
De Blasio isn’t wrong. For two decades, Republicans Rudy Giuliani and Michael Bloomberg ran New York, proudly catering to the city’s wealthiest residents and the ever-expanding police state. Giuliani never missed an opportunity to fan the flames of white resentment. And for all the good Bloomberg did, the billionaire had no interest in protecting the working class and poor being driven out of a metropolis rapidly devolving into a luxury product for well-heeled foreigners to enjoy in their downtime.
One of the quirks of the last half century has been the relative paucity of outwardly leftist mayors in a city that has fancied itself at the vanguard of progressive thought. Other than John Lindsay, who tried to be a mayor for African Americans at a time when that was politically inexpedient to do, New York’s mayors since 1965 have been a mix of moderate Democrats and Republicans, all shunning overtly liberal thought. Abe Beame was a machine hack. Ed Koch built a lot of affordable housing while letting New Yorkers die of AIDS and repeatedly antagonizing people of color. David Dinkins, the first and only black mayor, was too timid.
By introducing a universal prekindergarten program and caring more about building affordable housing than Bloomberg ever did, de Blasio can declare himself the progressive New York Democrats always deserved after decades of living in a wilderness of Giuliani wildfires and Bloomberg oligarchy.
The problem is that he’s clearing a rather low bar. The first questions to de Blasio, posed by a member of the Jim Owles Liberal Democratic Club named Scott Caplan, made this clear.
“As someone who was elected on a police reform agenda with considerable help from your son, why did you appoint Rudy Giuliani’s broken windows police commissioner your commissioner?” Caplan asked. “Why do you still support broken windows? Why do you still oppose legalization of marijuana? Why did you change the rules on disclosing police records? Why do you oppose the Right to Know Act? And why do you oppose downsizing the NYPD?”
Offered a fusillade of questions, de Blasio could pick and choose which to respond to, giving Caplan a crowd-tested bromide.
“You look at the last three years where we have neighborhood policing which has changed the relationship between police and community, stop and frisk down 93 percent, retraining the entire police force in de-escalation techniques, beginning implicit bias training for all our police officers, ending arrests for low-level possession of marijuana — there are so many fundamental reforms that are happening in this police force in just three years. I would challenge you to find any other period in which so much reform happened so quickly, and we’re going to continue it and deepen it.”
Going on to defend his first police commissioner, Bill Bratton, de Blasio said that he didn’t “care what happened decades ago” when the broken windows architect served Giuliani. Bratton “ushered in a lot of those reforms,” and James O’Neill, his successor, is “now deepening them.” De Blasio shed the broken windows phraseology, employed often when Bratton was commissioner, for his new favorite term, “quality of life” policing.
The limits of de Blasio’s progressivism were laid bare. How could someone who claims to be on the forefront of the progressive movement resist supporting the legalization of marijuana, something that even most of the gubernatorial candidates in New Jersey want to do? How can a left-wing mayor billing himself as the arch-resister to Donald Trump’s terror also fight to expand the 170 offenses that trigger the city’s cooperation with the Department of Homeland Security to help deport undocumented immigrants? Why can’t this mayor support City Council legislation that only incorporates recommendations made by an Obama White House task force? Why has he broken with decades of precedent and started shielding the disciplinary records of police officers from the public?
Caution around police reform has translated to a hesitancy to push the envelope elsewhere. De Blasio has not challenged developers enough to build housing actually affordable to families with household incomes well below $100,000. He refuses to take the rather simple and moral step of funding discount MetroCards for low-income straphangers. He has allowed Governor Andrew Cuomo, a ruthless centrist, to outflank him again and again, failing to marshal a progressive coalition against his most destructive policies, like repeatedly underfunding the city’s subway system and mismanaging it into chaos.
By the standard of New York’s last half century, de Blasio is every bit the crusading liberal he claims to be. By the standard of progressivism today, with millions of people asking so much more out of their political class, he has a long way to go.