La Guardia’s Heir

Bill de Blasio has put forward some progressive policies as New York City mayor. But he's also primed the pump for real estate and finance.

Bill de Blasio on election night, 2013. Stephen Nessen / Flickr

What are we to make of New York City’s 109th mayor, Bill de Blasio? Is he a progressive Democrat? A secret socialist? A neoliberal apologist?

What kind of person lauds Syriza and the Sandinistas, then gives secret speeches to AIPAC and pals around with the Clintons? What kind of politician labels himself a “progressive activist fiscal conservative”? Is there any consistency, or is this just a tale of two mayors?

In the first book published on de Blasio, Inequality and One City: Bill de Blasio and the New York Experiment, Year One, Eric Alterman attempts to provide some answers. Largely sidestepping matters of biography or psychology, Alterman focuses instead on policy — what de Blasio has tried to do, what he has accomplished, and what he hopes for the future. The result is a resounding endorsement, with nary a word of criticism for City Hall.

In Alterman’s view, we should see the de Blasio mayoralty as an “experiment” in local democracy: how much can one well-intentioned mayor do about big, structural problems like economic inequality? It’s a good question, and not just one of federalism, but also of neoliberalism.

Since Richard Nixon, the federal government has persistently slashed direct funding for local urban initiatives, such as public housing or mass transit. Since former New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller, the state government has taken away New York City’s ability to change tax rates, reform its rent laws, raise minimum wages, or even change speed limits. Though New York City is often referred to as a “strong mayor” system in that the mayor has more power than the city council, its mayor is severely constrained by federal and state power.

In spite of these circumstances, Alterman believes that de Blasio’s overwhelming electoral victory and early legislative achievements represent a model that can be repeated elsewhere. In fact, because of New York City’s centrality in the media and the popular imagination as both the capital of capitalism and the heart of social democracy, he argues that what happens in New York will happen elsewhere.

In Alterman’s telling, de Blasio is charting a progressive path forward through the wilderness of Washington austerity and Albany corruption. But is this really what’s happening? Inequality and One City is not quite a fairy tale, but it’s far from the whole truth about Bill de Blasio.

Bill de Blasio was born Warren Wilhem Jr in 1961. His father and mother were forty-four years old, and carried with them the psychic scars of Depression-era scarcity. Wilhem Sr never quite recovered from the trauma of World War II, where he lost a leg in the Battle of Okinawa; he self-medicated with alcohol, and committed suicide when the mayor-to-be was eighteen years old.

When he was a young boy, the family relocated to Cambridge, Massachusetts, but de Blasio moved back to New York City to attend New York University and Columbia. He tried his hands at several forms of political expression. He was an urban fellow at the city’s Department of Juvenile Justice, but he also became active in the disarmament and Latin American solidarity movements. In 1988, he flew to Managua to deliver food and medical supplies in support of the Nicaraguan Revolution.

Though he continued to work in solidarity with the Sandinistas and considered himself a democratic socialist, de Blasio found his way into the liberal wing of New York City’s political machine.

He was an aide to Mayor David Dinkins, who came to power with broad support from the city’s black and immigrant neighborhoods. Specifically, de Blasio worked under then–Deputy Mayor Bill Lynch, a Harlem political insider who would go on to form one of the city’s most powerful Democratic consulting firms. While working for Lynch, De Blasio also met his wife, fellow mayoral aide Chirlane McCray, who had been a founding member of the seminal black feminist Combahee River Collective.

After Dinkins lost reelection, de Blasio would work for two of the most powerful political dynasties in the state and the nation: the Cuomos and the Clintons. He ran the Clinton-Gore campaign in New York during the 1996 presidential election, then joined the US Department of Housing and Urban Development under its new Clinton-appointed commissioner, Andrew Cuomo (son of three-term New York Governor Mario Cuomo). As the Clinton administration drew to a close, de Blasio would serve as Hillary Clinton’s campaign manager in her bid to become New York’s junior senator.

After Clinton’s victory, de Blasio ran for City Council in Brooklyn’s 39th District, a politically complex mix of neighborhoods that includes Park Slope, where the de Blasio family lived. His council office was generally progressive — de Blasio was a staple at labor events and supported several non-discrimination themed bills — but he was also known as a friend to developers. When Forest City Ratner proposed its massive and much-hated Atlantic Yards project just outside of his district, de Blasio was an early and enthusiastic supporter.

In 2009, the Working Families Party — New York City’s labor-backed, liberal third party — flexed its political muscle and backed a slate of candidates who swept into office, tilting the balance of the city council and demonstrating the party’s electoral savvy. De Blasio was one of the party’s most visible candidates, running for public advocate and winning by a landslide.

Once in office, however, there was little for de Blasio to do. He made lists of the city’s worst landlords and showed up at the occasional demonstration, but mostly he got the citywide electorate used to his name and face. Three years later, he ran in a crowded Democratic primary to become the next mayor of America’s largest city.

Inequality and One City argues persuasively that three factors explain de Blasio’s triumph: the Democratic primary electorate’s distrust of the leading candidate, then–City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, for her coziness with billionaire mayor Michael Bloomberg; former Congressman Anthony Weiner’s stunningly stupid downfall; and de Blasio’s persistent focus on inequality. Calling contemporary New York “a tale of two cities,” he built on what every New Yorker knew to be the truth: the city was returning to Gilded Age levels of inequality, and city government was only making matters worse.

Alterman presents de Blasio’s first year in office as a series of conflicts between a bold mayor and his conservative critics, from which de Blasio emerges hopeful, clever, optimistic, and, above all, progressive.

The real accomplishments Alterman recounts should not be minimized or dismissed. First and foremost, the mayor has expanded the city’s public school system to include universal free pre-kindergarten for all New Yorkers. He also managed to double the number of community schools in the city, which provide social services to students and parents on site.

De Blasio shepherded through a city-level paid sick leave law, which languished under the former mayor and council speaker. The municipal ID program, though undoubtedly also an expansion of the security state, provides important benefits to undocumented workers and symbolizes the city’s commitment to cosmopolitanism.

While the city has not been able to raise its own minimum wage (thanks to state restrictions), large city contractors have seen their minimum wages rise by 20 percent. Since October, homeless New Yorkers no longer have to go through demeaning and non-remunerative training programs to access their benefits. They can now more easily receive benefits while enrolled in school.

These are important policies, and their impacts should not be denied by those who demand more. But Alterman focuses on these actions in isolation, without acknowledging just how deeply regressive many of de Blasio’s other policies have been.

According to Alterman, de Blasio models himself after Fiorello La Guardia, New York’s celebrated mayor during much of the Depression and World War II. At the start of his term, de Blasio dug up La Guardia’s desk and had it installed in his office. In Inequality and One City, he is described as leaning on the desk, or laying a hand on it, as if drawing inspiration from the wood itself.

Alterman and de Blasio’s remember La Guardia for expanding welfare, creating jobs, and diversifying the city’s labor force. But this is a selective recounting of the 99th mayor. He was also one of the biggest proponents of slum clearance, street vendor removal, and other initiatives that paved the way for the worst forms of “urban renewal” and “quality of life” planning.

This, then, is the current mayor’s political model: a liberal with socialist tendencies, who reshaped the city in a way that worked for the wealthy.

Take the mayor’s housing plan. Inequality and One City describes it as the mayor does: a historic break from official passivity on gentrification, and a bold move to bring fairness to the housing market. This is a severely distorted image of what the mayor is actually proposing.

De Blasio’s plan would upzone the parts of the city Bloomberg didn’t get to and bring hundreds of thousands of luxury apartments into gentrifying neighborhoods. Already land speculation is altering the economic calculus of life in places like East New York and Jerome Avenue, where the mayor has announced plans to rezone.

In Chinatown, where a coalition of roughly fifty organizations has been working together for seven years on a community-led rezoning effort, organizers were recently told their plan would be rejected by de Blasio’s Department of City Planning on the grounds that it preserved too much affordable housing. The mayor’s housing plan is not only a proposal for large-scale construction, it is a proposal for large-scale displacement.

Or take de Blasio’s dismal record on police reform. Alterman frames de Blasio’s plight as a catch-22: change the police, and end up with more violence, crime, and disinvestment; leave the system alone and acquiesce to a department de Blasio criticized in his campaign. This is not just simplistic. It’s wrong.

Alterman takes at face value the notion that hard-line “broken windows”-style policing is an effective way to reduce urban violence, despite copious evidence to the contrary. He also misrepresents the dynamics of the Democratic primary. De Blasio was not, as Alterman claims several times, the only major candidate to come out against stop-and-frisk. In fact, de Blasio promised to fix it, not ban it, causing major friction between him and his opponents.

In Inequality and One City, the heart of the story becomes the hostility between the mayor and the police union leadership, rather than the abysmal policies that caused so many murders by the police in the first place. De Blasio gets to be the hero for “ending” stop-and-frisk — a position he would have had to take no matter his personal beliefs, as the practice was ruled unconstitutional by a federal judge during Bloomberg’s final days in office — without accounting for his own record of supporting racist police tactics.

Sometimes Alterman seems not to understand the true nature of the conflicts he is covering. Take the case of New York’s horse-drawn carriages. Alterman writes about the controversy as it’s written about in the papers: animal rights activists like de Blasio want to shut the industry down to save the horses; right-wing populists and unions want to preserve it and protect carriage drivers’s jobs.

But is that what the debate is actually about? By relying on the back and forth in the press, we miss the important story: the biggest donor to the anti-horse carriage crusade is connected to Edison Properties, a firm that is known for buying land at low values and then selling them off at inflated prices after zoning changes make them more profitable. Might they be planning the same scheme for the west-side land currently used for horse stables?

This is the story we need to be telling about Bill de Blasio: like his hero, Fiorello La Guardia, the mayor knows how to put forward some progressive policies while priming the pump for real estate and finance.

Like La Guardia before him, he makes motions toward democratizing government, but generally prefers to work in the mode of “consultation” — i.e. telling people what he intends to do and seeing how they respond, rather than actually engaging in meaningful community planning.

Critiquing Bloomberg’s policy of “co-locating” charter schools inside traditional public schools, Alterman quotes de Blasio as saying, “I think it was done without real consultation with parents, real consultation with the schools that were going to be affected, the receiving schools.” Lack of consultation, however, is solved with more consultation; this is not a prescription for genuine democratic participation, but a communications strategy.

Often, the people de Blasio consults with are the go-to leaders of the city’s nonprofit industrial complex. They will tell him what they think he should do, and they will discipline those around them to ensure they don’t demand more.

Yet these are the same people Alterman goes to for comment on de Blasio’s first year in office. It is little surprise, then, that they come out with rousing endorsements or sympathetic justifications. Left critics of de Blasio are mostly ignored, or, in the case of the Bob Gangi of the Police Reform Organizing Project, written off as cranky counterparts to de Blasio’s right-wing enemies.

In Alterman’s telling, there are three sets of actors that are responsible for any deficiencies in the mayor’s record: Rupert Murdoch and his conservative media empire; charter school magnate Eva Moscowitz and her allies in the financial sector; and, most of all, conservatives in state and federal government.

Alterman pits de Blasio’s liberalism against Andrew Cuomo and Hillary Clinton’s conservatism, presenting them as diametrical opposites in a struggle over the Democratic Party’s future. In doing so, he glosses over the mayor’s endorsement of Cuomo and completely ignores that de Blasio spent six years working for the Clintons and the Cuomos. The possibility that perhaps these figures have much in common is not even considered.

This is no way to analyze politics. Praising the mayor for his genuinely progressive accomplishments while discounting or disregarding his conservatism isn’t merely a cop-out. It’s a lie. It dances around the perils of his programs. And it puts the Left in the position of defending a figure it should be fighting.