What to do with Bill de Blasio? After eight years, plenty of New Yorkers can be found who believe the 109th mayor of the largest city in America thoroughly cheapened and demeaned the office. Rudy Giuliani was the demagogue who briefly became, in the ashes of 9/11, a false American icon. Michael Bloomberg was the imperial mayor, the oligarch sprung from a Tom Wolfe novel to wrench the city into the 21st century. Before them was the late David Dinkins, who grew, in his final years, into a genteel statesman, remembered for inspiring millions as the first Black mayor.
De Blasio’s legacy, for now, does not comfortably fit in anywhere. He was, in many ways, the first unabashed liberal to govern New York City since John Lindsay, a half-century ago, but he lacked Lindsay’s glamour and initial savoir faire. He never possessed Ed Koch’s charisma or hungered for the job itself. He was not going to lustily greet New Yorkers at subway stations, readily pop in to talk shows, or joust with outer-borough residents at sweaty town halls stretching late into the night.
De Blasio was easy to revile, graceless and ambitious without reason. He ran for president and no one cared. He faced down corruption investigations. He was notoriously tardy, starting press conferences late, botching visits to memorials, and keeping staffers waiting while he napped in his City Hall office. He rushed to his Park Slope, Brooklyn, gym as the worst pandemic in a hundred years ravaged his city, spending much of the early days foolishly downplaying the virus’s threat.
The homeless still wander the streets and Rikers remains a hellhole. Cars are killing pedestrians at growing rates, despite an eight-year push to cut such deaths to zero. The pandemic has sapped the strength of midtown and downtown. It is fitting, in a way, that no major local sports team won a title during the de Blasio years.
For much of his mayoralty, de Blasio united the left and the right—each found their own reasons for wanting to kick him to the curb. Progressives saw him, after a while, as a sellout, too cozy with real estate developers and too deferential to police. The right believed he was a cop-hating socialist, the man who ruined a once great city. When Republicans ran for office in the suburbs, they tarred their Democratic opponents with de Blasio’s name.
But out of this morass, those deeply frustrating eight years, there came genuine success. The greatest victory, universal prekindergarten, arrived so quickly in his tenure it was easy to overlook, one enormous part of a greater checklist gone unfulfilled. Universal pre-K, among the smart set, provokes a certain reaction—yeah, but what else? There was more, some tangible and worthy accomplishments, but it is here that de Blasio was able to overcome his greatest detractors.
He was the first mayor, in the neoliberal age at least, to significantly expand New York City’s social safety net. Rents were frozen on rent-stabilized apartments, and low-income tenants won the right to an attorney when landlords tried to evict them. Municipal ID cards were created for undocumented immigrants. Employers were required to offer paid sick days to employees, a policy goal long blocked by Bloomberg that de Blasio immediately made law.
Like Medicare and Medicaid, universal pre-K cannot be undone. In 20, 30, 40 years, New York politicians will be debating how the program can be boosted or reformed. No one will be able to wipe it from existence.
There is no discussion of de Blasio’s eight years without that bare, and likely irrefutable, fact.
Is New York better or worse off than it was in 2014, the year the former city councilman from Park Slope took the oath of office on a bitterly cold day and promised a dramatic break from the Bloomberg era? Had the clock stopped in 2019, the answer would probably be better. The local economy hummed along and crime plunged. When de Blasio first ran for mayor, he made two major promises: a tax hike on the rich to fund universal pre-K and systemic reform of the NYPD, curtailing the practice of stop-and-frisk.
Bloomberg and Ray Kelly, the longest-serving police commissioner, howled. “No question about it—violent crime will go up,” Kelly warned in 2013. The city’s two tabloid newspapers, the Daily News and the Post, largely agreed, assailing police-reform activists and anyone who questioned what the mass harassment of Black men had to do with keeping overall crime in check. Stop-and-frisks had skyrocketed under Bloomberg and Kelly. Both men were convinced that randomly stopping men in working-class Black and Latino neighborhoods was the only way to maintain reductions in crime that had been underway since the late 1990s.
De Blasio gambled that all of them were wrong. It is easy to forget, in the haze of eight seemingly shambolic years, how invigorating and refreshing his first campaign for mayor felt. He was a cosmopolitan candidate for a new era, the father of biracial children, one of them an Afro-haired student at Brooklyn Tech. Unlike Bloomberg, he proudly resided in an outer borough and disdained the glitz of Manhattan. By the early 2010s, the city had morphed into a playground for the elites of the professional class and the ultrawealthy. Formerly working-class neighborhoods had been transmogrified with glittering, market-rate condominiums, rents surging all around them. For much of the 20th century, New Yorkers could count the number of extremely expensive enclaves on one hand—as Bloomberg’s 12 years wound down, the inverse was true, with the poor chased to the end of subway lines or beyond.
De Blasio’s campaign was a rebellion against all of that. He promised to end the “tale of two cities” and rein in Bloomberg’s hyper militarized police department, which not only brutalized Black men but relentlessly spied on Muslims in the years following the 9/11 attacks. To many in the middle-class and above, Bloomberg was a hero, safeguarding New York’s status as a luxury product. Property values were soaring. Smoking was banned in restaurants. The High Line opened. Times Square was pedestrianized. If New Yorkers were going to complain at all, they could call the brand-new hotline, 311.
But de Blasio wasn’t really speaking to the higher-income brackets. Enough affluent liberals had tired of Bloomberg too—he could be imperious and obstinate, and had a habit of ducking out for Bermuda on too many weekends —but it was the city’s vast working class, particularly its Black population, that had grown alienated from City Hall. De Blasio campaigned in their neighborhoods and promised a government that would listen to them. In a fraught, formidable primary field that included Anthony Weiner and Bloomberg’s preferred successor, Christine Quinn, de Blasio dominated, winning enough votes to avoid the runoff entirely. His victory was stunning in its breadth: He won all five boroughs and almost all demographic groups and assembly districts. In the general election, he easily swatted away Giuliani’s former deputy mayor, Joe Lhota.
De Blasio became the first Democrat to win the mayoralty since his old boss, Dinkins, triumphed with his own multiracial coalition, in 1989. He was the first mayor in decades to send his children to the city’s public schools. In the 1980s, when he was 26, he went to Nicaragua to work alongside the Sandinistas. He managed Hillary Clinton’s Senate campaign. Moderate or liberal, Black or white, Mayor-elect de Blasio had much to offer everyone.
He would never be so well-liked again.
Politicians rarely accomplish all they set out to do. It’s not because they’re all liars and frauds; some are, and we should judge them harshly. It’s more the case that wielding power, whether in the legislature or from the executive branch, is hard. Bureaucracies are not easily tamed. Entrenched lobbies fight back. The public is fickle. Unforeseen disasters—economic calamities, terrorist attacks, pandemics—arise to sap momentum.
Socioeconomics are not easily defied. One mayor in eight years could not arrest the “tale of two cities,” no matter how hard he or she tried. The free market allows developers, in many cases, to build and charge what they want. The sort of jobs that once paid comfortable wages to high school graduates—heavy manufacturing, in particular—are fast vanishing in most cities, including New York. Globalization has taken the factories elsewhere. Capitalism will ensure, no matter who governs, that the profit motive comes before all else.
De Blasio could not end income inequality, even if he summoned La Guardia’s vision and Koch’s grit. The federal government wasn’t going to be dumping tens of billions of dollars on New York City, as it did during the Great Depression and the years following World War II. The city’s crumbling public housing authority, needing many billions for capital repairs, was no better off in the Bush, Obama, or Trump administrations.
But throughout his 2013 campaign, de Blasio did make one tangible promise he was intent on following through on: a universal pre-K program for New York City. A tax on the wealthy was going to pay for it.
“I believe that an absolute necessary step forward for this city is to achieve the tax on the wealthiest New Yorkers so we can have full day pre-K for every child and after school for every middle school child,” de Blasio said at the end of 2013. “And we will proceed vigorously to get that done in Albany.”
Albany would be, through much of de Blasio’s early years, a great obstacle. To this day, the state legislature and the governor determine much of what happens in New York City, overseeing the public transit system, the tenant laws, the minimum wage, and the tax code. The governor was Andrew Cuomo, and the Republicans, mostly based in the suburbs and upstate, controlled the State Senate. They were more conservative than the new liberal mayor and did not take him seriously, seeking to scuttle his agenda.
Cuomo, from the very beginning, had a pathological hatred of de Blasio, who once worked under him at the Department of Housing and Urban Development. In public, he was reflexively dismissive of whatever it was de Blasio might want to do, such as raise the city’s minimum wage. In private, he was deeply vindictive, working to undercut, at every turn, the mayor’s policy aims. Raising taxes, for the triangulating Cuomo, was a nonstarter. Reared in Clintonworld, Cuomo despised the progressive wing of his party. He also disliked de Blasio’s criticisms of the charter school industry. The millionaires and billionaires who backed New York charter schools were among Cuomo’s most prolific donors.
In the early months of his tenure, de Blasio did not give up on the idea of a tax hike. He believed, understandably, that a dedicated revenue stream for a new education program beat out begging the state for more money, particularly when Cuomo and the Senate Republicans called the shots. The tax hike was also the centerpiece of his mayoral campaign—he had dominated the field talking about it everywhere, so why surrender it so quickly?
Cuomo eventually, in early 2014, provided funding through the state budget for universal pre-K. De Blasio couldn’t have his tax hike, but he’d get the program. But there was a catch—during the budget negotiations, Cuomo, as retribution, created a new law that would make New York City one of the only localities in America that had to pay the rent of charters or find them free space. The law would eat up de Blasio’s education budget for years to come, and effectively end his rhetorical war on charters, as he was slammed on the airwaves, routed by Cuomo, and lost the will to fight.
Universal pre-K, though, stood up. And that was part of de Blasio’s problem, ironically—he got much done quickly, and his early accomplishments were lost in controversies that inevitably piled up. The UPK program rapidly enrolled more than 70,000 4-year-olds, offering another year of free education for families who would normally have to pay thousands of dollars. Two thousand teachers were recruited for the effort and more than 3,000 new classrooms were created in school buildings. The swiftness and scale of the program had no national precedent. It was a testament to de Blasio’s various political foibles that universal pre-K didn’t cement his legacy immediately and make him wildly popular. Flush with stimulus money, the de Blasio administration, in its waning days, is attempting to create free preschool for 3-year-olds.
On policing and housing, de Blasio wasn’t so transformative.
Maintaining an inordinately high number of stop-and-frisks was not needed to keep crime low in New York—de Blasio was right. Police under de Blasio continued to disproportionately target people of color, but the sheer number of stops fell drastically. The murder rate remained historically low in the following years. It was no exaggeration to say that New York was the safest big city in America.
De Blasio did not unwind the Bloomberg counterterrorism machine. The de Blasio police commissioners were a collection of conservative Irishmen. First there was Bill Bratton, Giuliani’s old commissioner, who punched his ticket out of that City Hall when the egomaniacal Rudy couldn’t stomach his top cop on the cover of Time. Bratton was data-driven but fundamentally reactionary, the sort of commissioner who could call rappers “thugs” and champion aggressive policing of low-level, nonviolent crimes. The low-key James O’Neill, Bratton’s successor, was essentially a continuity commissioner. Dermot Shea, who replaced O’Neill in 2019, exists in the Bratton mold, repeatedly fearmongering about bail reform and defending his force’s violent crackdown on protesters during the Black Lives Matter marches last year.
De Blasio did implement a few minor reforms, such as having officers wear body cameras and ordering new de-escalation training. Over the protests of police brass, he decriminalized pot possession and other quality-of-life offenses. But any chance of a lasting overhaul of the NYPD ended once a police officer killed Eric Garner and de Blasio stated that he told his biracial son to take “special care in any encounters he has with the police officers who are there to protect him.” Police union leaders revolted, turning their backs on de Blasio when he attended a pair of funerals for slain cops. The mayor, still in his first year, was rattled enough to pay deference to the NYPD for much of the rest of his time in power.
The George Floyd protests demonstrated how little de Blasio’s NYPD varied from Bloomberg’s. Police battered and pepper-sprayed unarmed protesters, forcing them together to make mass arrests. Letitia James, the state attorney general, sued the police department in an effort to install a federal monitor. Her investigation documented 155 incidents of excessive or unreasonable force. “They used grossly excessive force, including unjustifiably deploying pepper spray, batons, bicycles and even using their fists against protesters,” James said.
De Blasio inherited twin crises from Bloomberg that he failed, over eight years, to meaningfully resolve. The first was homelessness. The billionaire mayor had not been terribly concerned with the rising rents in his city. His attempt to tackle homelessness with a new housing subsidy program, known as Advantage, was initially successful, but both Bloomberg and Cuomo starved it of funding, mostly taking away money from families who wanted to leave the shelter system and rent apartments. De Blasio’s appointment of Steven Banks, a former political antagonist (they were opponents in the 2001 city council race) and Legal Aid attorney, as commissioner of the Human Resources Administration, and, later, Department of Homeless Services, was heralded as a serious step forward—if anyone was going to solve homelessness in New York, it was Banks.
But the population in city shelters only ballooned after de Blasio took office, peaking beyond 60,000 in 2019 before falling back to a little more than 45,000 in the fall of 2021. De Blasio spent his first year in power downplaying the problem altogether, before admitting that the rise in street homeless was real. Shelters were substandard, even dangerous. Fundamentally, too many people earned too little money to cover the costs of housing, transportation, and food in America’s most expensive city.
De Blasio’s ambitious affordable housing program, which did finance the construction of more than 50,000 homes and preserve many more, failed to build enough units for the city’s poorest. His City Hall favored for-profit developers over the nonprofits and took little interest in innovative solutions to the housing and homelessness crisis, such as buying up distressed buildings or creating more land trusts. Projects designated “affordable” were still reachable only to those with high-five-figure or six-figure incomes.
Rikers Island, the second crisis, was inherited from a Bloomberg administration that allowed conditions to tragically deteriorate. By 2015, de Blasio’s second year in office, U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara was excoriating the “deep-seated culture of violence” at the jail complex. Activists and elected officials begged de Blasio to reform Rikers or close it altogether; he resisted until finally embracing a plan championed by the City Council to eventually shutter the notorious complex and build smaller facilities in the outer boroughs. Leftists would come to hate that plan, too, demanding no new jails and a drastic reduction in the pre-trial population.
This year, Rikers has descended into chaos and lawlessness. The pandemic and the subsequent staffing emergency have taken a horrific toll on the incarcerated and corrections officers alike. Detainees have seized almost total control over some units. Meanwhile, the jailers who remain have taken part in beatings or failed to intervene in hangings. Food, water, and medical care are scarce. Eleven people who were held in custody have died so far this year.
For weeks, de Blasio refused to visit Rikers. Finally, after a great amount of pressure and press coverage, he trudged to the island in September. “The whole thing upsets me,” he said.
The de Blasio assessments, in the short term, will not be valedictory. He warred with too many reporters. He alienated too many allies. At seemingly every parade, ballgame, or musical festival, he was showered with boos.
It might take years to properly make sense of it all. Some historical figures loom larger as time hurries on; others shrink in the glare of retrospection. De Blasio could easily be the latter, quickly forgotten, as Eric Adams, his almost-certain successor, begins to make his own news. It is not impossible, though, to imagine another reality—the years and decades lending enough distance to see what exactly flowered under de Blasio’s watch. Today, because of the pandemic and the more than 30,000 who perished, New York is worse off than when de Blasio took office all those years ago. We are coming back, but 2020 haunts us. As it recedes—the present controversies, the indignities, the pain—we might be able to look back at what had been allowed to grow. A city with free childcare is better than a city without it. For that alone, de Blasio deserves more than merely your scorn. ❖
From the Voice October 2021 print edition.