A Teachable Mayor

Bill de Blasio is no radical, but his election may be a sign that space is opening up for the left in New York City.

Kevin Case / Flickr

The battle lines have been drawn. The quarter of New York City’s eligible voters who bothered to partake in this election have high hopes for Mayor-elect Bill de Blasio, who is largely celebrated as a model for reinvigorated economic liberalism. And on the hard left, the rabble-rousers scoff at anyone naïve enough to even notice that an election was taking place.

To be fair, skepticism is warranted. Despite lofty talk about fighting inequality, de Blasio had the backing of many real estate developers, and has recently attempted to court Goldman Sachs and other top Wall Street firms. The mayor-elect has gone so far as to assure the pro-business Association for a Better New York that he would rule as a “fiscal conservative.”

Whether we like it or not, though, de Blasio is coming to City Hall, and there’s an opportunity for change if what remains of the New York left play its cards right. Contrary to the hollers of the Wall Street Journal editorial board, de Blasio isn’t a representative of any kind of social movement. There’s virtually no overlap between his campaign team and anyone who slept in Zuccotti Park. With the notable exception of the politically savvy 1199/SEIU, the majority of the city’s labor movement during the Democratic primary either stuck to principles and supported the more progressive John Liu or struck cynical deals with the assumed front-runners Bill Thompson or Christine Quinn.

But maybe that’s a good thing. Activists can view his administration with a cold enough eye to demand what they want and rally against him. With so much talk of “hope and change” during Barack Obama’s first national campaign, it became almost verboten among Democrats and liberals to do anything but applaud after he became president — criticism from the left could only benefit the reactionaries, so the thinking went; skepticism of the newly-elected progressive savior could only be found among the hopelessly jaded.

That dynamic is different with de Blasio. A rising tide of progressive sentiment in New York City led to his election, but after a half-decade of disappointments from President Obama and the fresh memory of a major protest movement in OWS, the Left should feel more free to voice criticism.

It’s a fantasy to think that any executive officer can be a radical, or even much of a progressive, regardless of any past affinities for Central American revolutionaries. A mayor is a manager, a boss (quite literally for public sector unions, who empty their treasuries every four years to pick their next adversary at the bargaining table). In that sense, the goal of electing new executives isn’t to choose a surrogate who is going to implement the right policies out of the goodness of their heart, but rather finding someone who is likely to acquiesce to pressure from an organized social movement. Given departing Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s firm “let them eat cronuts,” policy, de Blasio is a welcome change.

Since the primaries, business interests have used every moment to influence de Blasio in their favor, knowing that they could tempt him with future support for whatever he wants to run for next. A lot of people within the labor movement and organized left say they want to hold Blasio’s feet to the fire, but as of yet few realistic suggestions on what that could look like have been floated.

Part of the strategy to hold the new mayor accountable will require looking to the less celebrated changes in the city government. For example, starting next year there will be a new City Council and new Speaker — one who, if pushed, could be more aggressive in passing progressive legislation. Also, this will be the first time New York City will have a public advocate, a sort of ombudsperson for city government, serving with a Democratic mayor (the office was created during the Giuliani administration). Economic justice advocates should reach out early to Public Advocate–elect Letitia James, who will be the first African American women to hold a citywide office and has a long record of fighting for fair housing and workers rights.

Maybe Blasio’s swearing-in ceremony on January 1 should be viewed not as a celebratory coronation but a chance for the New York City left to take its own collective oath to revive activist energy toward a government that might actually heed to pressure.

Such a position might not appeal to all socialists. It’s tempting, of course, to dismiss the importance of local government, a cesspool of opportunism and dashed hopes. But this kind of purity isn’t an option for all. For African Americans, the ability to pressure an administration into reforming police tactics like stop-and-frisk is quite literally a matter of life and death. The fate of union members, too, struggling to get by paycheck to paycheck, rests on the result of upcoming contract battles with the city.

The tasks are daunting, but doable. A de Blasio administration can’t return the city to the 99 percent, but workers in New York have more leverage now than in recent memory. The key is figuring out how to use it.