Who’s Afraid of Bill de Blasio?


Who is trying to make Bill de Blasio a one-term mayor? There’s the police reform activist who’s never run for office before, the former city councilman who ran twice before and won less than 1 percent of the vote in 2013, the thuggish private investigator with no ballot line, and a presumptive Republican nominee who is also a 36-year-old backbencher in the state assembly.

This constellation of challengers arrayed to the left and right of de Blasio, a Democrat seeking re-election this year, has almost no chance of winning. They will take issue with pieces like this one, pointing to the wrongness of past pundits, how everything in politics is indeed possible. But New York is not America. A quick study of our politics will show that a black swan victory like Donald Trump’s is probably not in the offing.

New York City, an overwhelmingly Democratic place, only elects Republicans who are really rich, pretty liberal, or arrive at a time of true or perceived crisis. Before a twenty-year run of Republican mayors, the party was so moribund in New York that Ed Koch, a Democrat, took its ballot line to win re-election in 1981. No Republican revival is imminent.

The Democratic primary, for a moment, showed signs of competitiveness, with several high-profile challengers taking aim at de Blasio as federal and state investigations of various merit threatened to unravel his mayoralty. They didn’t. The most talked-about challengers — Comptroller Scott Stringer, Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr., and Congressman Hakeem Jeffries of Brooklyn — passed on taking the risk of challenging a fairly popular incumbent.

At the most basic level, this is why the Democratic primary has boiled down to de Blasio, Sal Albanese, the former city councilman, and Robert Gangi, the activist. These challengers have nothing to lose, while bigger-name Democrats have much more to lose, like their elected positions or the support of the large labor unions that have, with a few exceptions, remained staunchly aligned with de Blasio. As a self-identified progressive who quickly settled the union contracts Michael Bloomberg refused to renew, de Blasio won himself loyalty he won’t quickly lose. If one Democrat in a primary has most of the labor support, that candidate is very difficult to defeat.

Both Gangi and Albanese have articulated legitimate criticisms of de Blasio’s limited, if sporadically audacious, liberalism.

Gangi, who leads the Police Reform Organizing Project, has tried to expose two areas where de Blasio’s liberalism has fallen short, at least by the more radical national standards the mayor seeks to hold himself to: police reform and affordable housing. While de Blasio has reduced the number of stop-and-frisks as promised and implemented retraining for the NYPD, he has hired more than a thousand police officers during a time of historically low crime, hoping to channel them into a community policing program that was all but recycled from past administrations. De Blasio, through disingenuous logic, has shielded the disciplinary records of cops, bottled up the rather innocuous Right to Know Act, and allowed his commitment to “broken windows” policing to put undocumented immigrants at risk in the Trump era.

De Blasio’s mandatory inclusionary zoning program — mandating that a small percentage of housing units in a rezoning remain “affordable” — sets him apart from his predecessors, especially Bloomberg, who never saw rapid gentrification as a problem. But de Blasio’s policies are unlikely to stem the tide of rising rents or make it easier for the working class or poor to live here, at least in the short term. As the writer Norman Oder points out, “affordable” usually translates to “below market,” which means little when a market-rate apartment costs so much more than the typical white-collar professional can afford. His sweeping rezoning of East New York, Brooklyn, is already spurring a frenzy of speculation and threatens to drive out longtime residents.

If Albanese is off base when he cherry-picks crime stats to feed the mistaken perception that New York is not a safer place than it once was or is teetering back to the bad old 1970s, he’s at least making a case that de Blasio isn’t a transportation mayor. Albanese supports increasing the city’s contribution to the MTA’s capital fund and the Move NY congestion pricing plan, which would toll the East River crossings and charge people to drive south of 60th Street.

Progressive, no-brainer solutions for our transportation woes don’t interest de Blasio. In his almost four years as mayor, de Blasio’s transportation vision has remained unrealized, disappointing to activists who have rightfully expected more from someone who bills himself as a national progressive leader. Until recently, de Blasio said little about the catastrophic failures of the city’s subway system, maintaining he has little control over the state agency that runs it, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority. This is true, but he does own a bully pulpit he’s refused to use.

An outer borough car owner, de Blasio has not supported measures to seriously ease congestion in Manhattan — tolling the East River bridges would be a start — and once considered ripping up the Times Square pedestrian plaza, despite his pledge to cut pedestrian deaths to zero. His solutions to the city’s transit woes are small-bore — a heavily subsidized five-borough ferry program that may not transport as many people in one year as the subway system carries in a day — and a Brooklyn-to-Queens streetcar with a dubious pricing scheme, no obvious integration with the subway system, and a lack of safeguards against future flooding.

On other issues, de Blasio finds himself lagging behind the movement he claims to lead. For reasons still unclear, he won’t back the legalization of marijuana, which can now be leisurely smoked without breaking the law in his home state of Massachusetts. The Democratic nominee for governor in New Jersey, former Goldman Sachs banker Phil Murphy, even backs pot legalization. On Friday morning, de Blasio told WNYC’s Brian Lehrer that “as a human being, bluntly,” he wished panhandling were illegal.

De Blasio has his accomplishments too, and they’re enough to tamp down a true revolt on his left flank. His universal prekindergarten program has proved popular and mostly scandal-free. Since he can now destroy the records the city keeps for its municipal ID program, the popular cards aren’t (for now) providing a road map for the Trump administration to deport undocumented immigrants. Without de Blasio’s election, most New Yorkers wouldn’t be getting at least five paid sick days. City employees wouldn’t be benefiting from six weeks of paid family leave.

Most importantly, unlike Governor Andrew Cuomo, de Blasio doesn’t have a disdain for the progressive movement and operates, generally, from a place of good intentions: He doesn’t wake up every morning thinking of ways to screw people, allies and enemies alike.

There will be no Zephyr Teachout for de Blasio, too, because he is the most liberal mayor New York has had since John Lindsay left office in 1973. Despite New York’s reputation as a city on the vanguard of the progressive movement, it hasn’t been, always electing white men (with one exception) who are not unabashedly liberal. In this environment, de Blasio glows brightly. Since times have changed, he can proudly identify with the left without being dogged (by powerful white critics) for being too soft on crime or too conciliatory to people of color.

If history continues to move in this direction, the next Democratic mayor may have to at least posture as someone more liberal than de Blasio. Arguments will emerge for a vision unfulfilled. But the candidates will not be able to so easily repudiate the de Blasio legacy. If he’s remembered, in part, for what he wasn’t able to do, he’ll also go down in history as a trendsetter: the first Democratic mayor — of, perhaps, many to come — unafraid of his party’s liberal roots. No Democratic mayor will so happily run on the Republican line ever again.