NEW YORK CITY, U.S.A. On November 5th, 2013, Bill de Blasio was elected first Democratic mayor of New York City in two decades, beating Republican candidate Joe Lhota by a landslide of 73.3% to 24.3%. Mayor de Blasio, who replaced his three-term predecessor Michael Bloomberg, ran a very progressive campaign by promising a radical shift from the Conservative policies of the Bloomberg administration to a new city government focused on income inequality, raising taxes on the rich, providing affordable housing, and reforming stop-and-frisk. While these policies seem very promising to many, it does not mean that the progressive base that got him elected should stop their work, according to independent journalist Ari Paul.
ROOSTERGNN had the opportunity to talk to Ari Paul about the recent election of Mayor Bill de Blasio and its implications for progressives in New York City.
Bill de Blasio is seen by many as the “Occupy Wall Street” mayor due to his progressive agenda, which is very similar to the issues Occupy Wall Street addressed. Others are hesitant to champion him as a true progressive mayor due to his recent appointments and the backing of many real estate and Wall Street firms he received during the mayoral election. What are your thoughts on the new mayor of New York City and how he came to be elected?
Ari Paul: Bill de Blasio has always been seen as a progressive in the city government, especially during his tenure in City Council, because he opposed many of Michael Bloomberg’s policies and stood with labor and community groups. However, while much of his campaign rhetoric was lifted from the slogans coming out of Occupy Wall Street, there was never any overlap between him and that movement, especially since OWS shunned electoral politics. Nevertheless, the vast majority of progressive voters in the city rallied around him because he seemed to be the most viable candidate against Bloomberg’s successor, Christine Quinn. There was only one candidate running to de Blasio’s left, John Liu, but his reputation was sullied when a member of his campaign team came under legal scrutiny. In the general election, the Republican opposition provided a stale platform that once seemed attractive when the city had high crime, but today seems antiquated. De Blasio was clearly the candidate with a fresher vision.
He will certainly be more willing to work with unions and progressives than the previous Republican administrations, but only if those groups organize effectively and won’t be afraid to fight with City Hall. It is just inaccurate, however, to see him as a product of Occupy Wall Street, but de Blasio effectively tapped into the growing discontent with economic inequality.
Do you see any parallels between Barack Obama’s 2008 election and de Blasio’s recent mayoral election? Are there any lessons to be learned for the Left from 2008?
The main lesson for progressives is that the election of a progressive candidate can’t be the end goal. In 2008, many progressives saw Barack Obama’s election as a victory, but in reality, that should have marked the time for groups to organize and put pressure on his administration. That didn’t happen, and the Left’s inaction and hesitation to criticize the president allowed Obama to move to the right on a lot of issues, including education and national security. The same could happen with de Blasio. Now is the time for progressives to organize and agitate for change because there’s a mayor that is more willing to listen and make deals with the community. If the Left takes a soft approach, it will be easier for real estate and Wall Street interests to manipulate City Hall.
In his recent State of the City speech De Blasio focused on the need to fix the crisis of economic inequality in New York City. Are you confident that he has sufficiently proposed effective ideas to reduce such inequality? Is there more he could do?
His effort to raise taxes to expand education is a good start, not only because education funding is important, but because it frames the debate around funding services with taxes of the 1 percent, whose wealth is extracted from the rest of the city. He has also expanded paid sick days protection for more workers and has indicated he’s willing to work with unions. All of this is positive.
But fixing inequality in the city has a lot to do with the lack of affordable housing. Creating more affordable housing will mean enacting policies that will likely anger real estate developers, who constitute one of the biggest political forces in the city. He will have to address things like rent control, subsidies to development and public housing. This will be one area that activists should focus on with this administration.
Mayor de Blasio has drawn criticism for appointing Bill Bratton as the police commissioner of the New York Police Department due to the fact that Bratton has twice overseen the expansion of stop-and-frisk as police commissioner in New York City and Los Angeles. At the same time, he has criticized the program, calling for reform and recently he dropped an appeal of a federal judge’s directive requiring reforms to the program. What are your thoughts on his conflicted approach towards stop-and-frisk?
Stop-and-frisk is always going to be used in some way by the NYPD. I think the de Blasio administration can mitigate the abuse of this tactic, but neither he nor his commissioner can really undo a lot of the militarized culture that is embedded in the rank-and-file police force. De Blasio can make a legal settlement on stop-and-frisk and Bratton may try to enforce discipline among cops, but its a vast force, and creating real methods of everyday accountability are going to be difficult. There have already been reports of police brutality, including the alleged beating of an elderly man for jaywalking.
More than that, settling the stop-and-frisk case was meant to ease tension between the police force and the Black and Latino communities. However, by appointing Bratton, who was responsible for enacting many of the policies that created these tensions, making peace is going to be harder. A lot of Black and Latino communities already feel betrayed and have protested against his appointment.
In his speech, de Blasio accompanied his progressive agenda with a warning that enacting such policies would be difficult due to the “budgetary challenge that is unprecedented.” What are the implications of his cautious statement? Are you optimistic that his progressive agenda will be enacted?
There are some things that are highly unlikely to happen due to budget constraints. For example, city unions, who have been without collective bargaining agreements for three years, demand not only raises but back pay for those years they didn’t get raises. Even John Liu, who had more labor support in the Democratic primary than de Blasio, admitted that if he got elected full back pay was probably going to be impossible, and could only promise a partial payment. Unions might not like to admit that this is the case, but the demand for full back pay is unlikely to be met.
The public housing system also has a budget shortfall that needs be addressed. It is a problem that de Blasio didn’t cause, but he has to address it nonetheless.
Ari Paul is an independent journalist and lecturer at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs. He has written for The Guardian, Boston Review, Al Jazeera, the Nation, and many other outlets.