“They’re tired of politics as usual,” Sal Albanese, the best chance the Never de Blasio movement has of electing a new mayor, said last night during the first televised debate of the Democratic primary. “It’s always tough to run as a reformer, but I think this time is different.”
This time is probably not different. Albanese, a former five-term city councilmember from Brooklyn who is challenging Mayor Bill de Blasio, jabbed and scraped and lashed out at his bête noire during the debate, drawing his share of applause from a sympathetic Upper West Side audience. For watchers of the political scene, there wasn’t much to learn: De Blasio, in Albanese’s eyes, is corrupt; he’s in the pocket of big developers; he’s allowed the city to degenerate into some kind of carnival of woe, but for rich people.
De Blasio, who despite his height advantage over Albanese often struggles to be the bigger man, rebutted plenty. His testy side was showing.
A progressive Democrat, the first to govern this city in two decades, de Blasio has real accomplishments. A universal prekindergarten program that functions. Guaranteed lawyers to low-income tenants in housing court. A two-year rent freeze on rent-stabilized apartments. Guaranteed paid sick days for most workers.
He also has his share of vulnerabilities, all of which could have been on display if Albanese, an admirable lawmaker who is also a retread pol on his third mayoral bid, were a different kind of candidate. De Blasio has introduced reforms to the police department — retraining, new body cameras, stop-and-frisk reductions — that are still rather small-bore, and has eschewed legislative fixes that could lead to far greater change. His well-meaning affordable housing plan is still too developer-friendly, relying on rezonings that could further chase the working class and poor out of this city. Like most big city mayors, he hasn’t contained the homeless crisis, and has little leverage with a state legislature and governor that could alter retrograde policies but won’t.
In steps Albanese, a squat son of the outer boroughs, a veteran of mayoral runs in 1997 and 2013. He’s finished behind an already-disgraced Anthony Weiner, Al Sharpton, and a less-famous comedian named Randy Credico. He last held elected office twenty years ago.
In contrast to de Blasio, a patrician from Cambridge, Massachusetts, a blue-blooded Red Sox fan masquerading as an authentic Italian American from Park Slope, Albanese comes off as the real deal. He loves the Yankees. He sounds like he’s from this city. De Blasio doesn’t.
“I don’t know what planet Bill is living on,” Albanese fumed as de Blasio tried to explain how his plan to create and preserve two hundred thousand units of affordable housing over a decade was actually working. “He put a Band-Aid over a hemorrhage.”
Albanese has ideas of his own, some of which deserve serious consideration. A voucher program for voters to give cash to candidates so our pay-to-play culture, of which de Blasio is a full participant, is phased out for good. A tax on the homes of wealthy people who don’t live here to pay for affordable housing. Reforms to our sclerotic pension fund system.
But Albanese hasn’t risen beyond the realm of protest candidate in part because he has failed to articulate a full-fledged vision for this city. He can tell you exactly why de Blasio is such a terrible mayor, the worst this city has ever seen, in his furious estimation. (There have been far worse.)
What he repeatedly struggled to do last night was to tell New Yorkers much about why they should choose a city of Sal. A question on racial disparities in the child welfare system provoked stammers. Deriding de Blasio’s plan to close Rikers Island, our hellish prison complex, within a decade, Albanese could offer no solutions for reducing the jail population other than to bemoan the violence inflicted against guards, a talking point that may endear him to de Blasio–hating correction officers.
Where de Blasio is perhaps weakest in a Democratic primary of liberal voters is on the issue of police reform, and of expectations never met. Robert Gangi, another underfunded Democratic candidate who was barred from the debate stage because he fell short of the Campaign Finance Board’s $175,000 spending requirement, could have made a contribution here as a lifelong member of the criminal justice reform movement.
Instead, Albanese — who is taking cash from the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association — attacked de Blasio for “politicizing policing” after the mayor offered a mild rebuke of the sergeant who killed a mentally ill woman in the Bronx last year. No one bothered to applaud.
What Albanese has going for him is that de Blasio is not that likable. Condescending, and unable to hide his disdain for the things he disdains, de Blasio never seems to enjoy himself in his powerful job. There might be 30 percent of the primary electorate, or even more, that will go against him and throw spite votes to Albanese.
De Blasio is like former mayor John Lindsay without the charisma or early mystique; he also presides over a much healthier and safer city, and will go down in the record books as a more competent executive, if less courageous. He will likely get four more years to leave his mark on the city. And Albanese will get another four to think about another run at City Hall.