There was a brief moment, four years ago, when everyone seemed to love Bill de Blasio. It may have been shortly after he crushed his Republican opponent in the fall but before he took office. The city, freed from the clutches of a billionaire mayor it had once cheered and now was ready to retire, seemed to exhale, prepared to be led, finally, by one of their own: a Park Sloper, a public school parent, a father to biracial children. With his long-legged, shambling gait, easy smile, and progressive street cred, he was bound to be a populist hero in a town like New York City.
It didn’t quite turn out that way. The city largely shrugs as he campaigns for re-election, our attention consumed by all things Trump. In certain quarters, especially where incomes rise and people are whiter, the mayor’s name can be something like an epithet. Even in the leftist circles from which he rose, skepticism abounds. He has found himself, four years in, mired in a sort of liminal place where no pol really wants to be: resented on both sides, beloved by few.
Joseph P. Viteritti, an astute public policy professor at Hunter College, has written an early book about de Blasio’s mayoralty, an academic study that wisely situates the liberal mayor in the context of New York’s volatile past. The chattering class may ask why this book was written at all, let alone after one four-year term, but truth be told we need more studies of what’s happening in our own megacity and less pontificating about the national scene. The Pragmatist: Bill de Blasio’s Quest to Save the Soul of New York is not a book for political junkies hunting for splashy anecdotes or vivid personality studies, à la the latest Hillary memoir. Viteritti is largely concerned about policy.
A sympathetic observer, Viteritti gained access to de Blasio, but the mayor’s interviews don’t yield much (no surprise to longtime observers). The writing, at times, can be dry and plodding. The editor of an illuminating book about John Lindsay’s City Hall, Viteritti is most concerned with how progressive governance works — or fails — in New York City. Dubbing de Blasio “both insider and outsider, a gadfly and seasoned operative,” Viteritti reminds us how remarkable de Blasio’s rise to power actually was.
Though predicated partly on luck — particularly thanks to Anthony Weiner’s slow-motion self-immolation — de Blasio’s election knitted together a coalition that would have once been unsustainable in a racially polarized city. Blacks and whites united under his progressive banner. In the primary, he won every income bracket. For arguably the first time since Lindsay was elected in 1965 and prioritized helping disenfranchised African Americans in an overwhelmingly white city, a proud progressive was running New York.
Before him had come two decades of Republicans, the aforementioned billionaire Michael Bloomberg (who ran on the GOP ticket before he recast himself as an independent) and the plutocratic pugilist Rudolph Giuliani. And since even before either of them took office — from the 1970s until this decade — fiscal constraints and the retreat of the federal government from urban affairs had dampened the hopes of those trying to recapture the New Deal spirit. Budget cuts ended free higher education in New York and threw people off welfare; public housing decayed and rent-stabilized apartments disappeared. Democrats in the mold of Ed Koch, and later Bill Clinton, mocked the old left-wingers and tugged the party to the center.
In a sense, every ambitious progressive in New York City has had to shadowbox with Fiorello LaGuardia, and de Blasio is no exception. “Progressivism could be the suicide pill of American politics in the twenty-first century,” Viteritti asserts. “The chasm that stretches between the declared aspirations of local progressive leaders and the resources they possess to realize them is vast.”
Viteritti warns that locally, at least, progressive aspirations run into a hard reality, one that he repeatedly laments: The federal government, whether under a Democratic or Republican president, has divested from this city. With a blank check from FDR — the last New Yorker to occupy the Oval Office — LaGuardia built the public housing system we have today, along with many roadways and bridges. Such largesse would never be known again.
Even with our transit woes, housing remains New York’s most pressing issue. For all but the very wealthiest — the luxury housing market, so overheated, has now plateaued — rents continue to skyrocket. Lack of affordable housing has fed a ballooning homelessness crisis, one de Blasio has failed to tame. Rather than accuse the mayor of rank incompetence, as some of his critics have done, Viteritti points to the limits of his powers. To increase the supply of housing, de Blasio cannot rely on the federal government; he must enter into partnerships with private developers who, first and foremost, want to turn enormous profits. Housing poor people is not how they stay in business.
This, in part, is where the book draws its title from. De Blasio is a “pragmatist” precisely because he is an outsider-insider — and it’s this positioning that has frustrated many to his left and stoked rancor on the right. In the 1980s he was crusading with the Sandinistas and flirting with Marxism. A decade and a half later, he was managing Hillary Clinton’s New York campaign for the Senate, aligning himself with the first lady of a White House that dismantled much of the New Deal Democratic legacy.
Rather than continue on along a comfortable trajectory as a Democratic gun-for-hire, he ran for a City Council seat in 2001. It was an odd career move for someone who had a bright potential future as a wealthy political consultant. But he had tired of being in the background.
Is de Blasio a phony progressive? It’s not an easy question to answer. Despite bemoaning big money in politics, he set up his own outside spending vehicle, the Campaign for One New York, to accept large donations from people and entities who had business before the city, circumventing strict campaign donation limits. On police reform, he has disappointed activists, blocking legislative fixes and shielding NYPD disciplinary records.
As the author notes, the mayor has catered to the religious right. His friendships with powerful real estate developers and big donors have brought on allegations of favor-trading. Wealthy interests seem, at times, to drive city policy: A waterfront streetcar proposal would enrich a particular friend, the development firm Two Trees.
But Viteritti is here to remind us that de Blasio has serious accomplishments that shouldn’t be overlooked by a jaded public or a press corps — of which I am a member — that’s routinely skeptical of his every move. De Blasio’s City Hall does seem to genuinely care about making New York a more equal place, something that never interested Bloomberg. “Equality,” Viteritti writes, “is not just an abstract principle that guides the general direction of the de Blasio administration; it is an operational objective.”
Under de Blasio, the city has instituted a highly popular universal pre-kindergarten program that saves a lot of working and middle-income people a good deal of money. Within three months of taking office, he guaranteed paid sick leave to 200,000 New Yorkers, mandating businesses with five or more employees to provide sick days. He created a municipal ID card system that enabled undocumented immigrants to open bank accounts and rent apartments. This year, he signed into law legislation that guarantees lawyers for low-income tenants entering housing court.
Viteritti is clear-eyed about these accomplishments and sober about the challenges de Blasio still faces. Not only is any partnership with the federal government under Donald Trump a nonstarter, but help addressing the housing and homelessness crises has been scant from his fellow Democrat governor Andrew Cuomo. The two have been locked in a years-long feud, but Viteritti rightly diagnoses it as more than a clash of personalities — it’s a collision of “deep philosophical differences” between Cuomo’s market-oriented centrism and de Blasio’s liberalism.
Small factual errors can occasionally grate — the mayor young LaGuardia clashed with was John Hylan, not John Harlan; de Blasio was elected president of his NYU dorm in 1979, not 1989 — but Viteritti’s effort to document de Blasio’s first four years is worthwhile. With de Blasio’s re-election victory likely, due in part to the weakness of his challengers, the next four years will do much to determine the direction of the progressive movement in New York City. Future liberal mayors, one way or another, will have to reckon with this mayor’s long shadow.
The Pragmatist: Bill de Blasio’s Quest to Save the Soul of New York
By Joseph P. Viteritti
Oxford University Press