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March 23, 2014 1:20 PM Bill de Blasio: how’s he doin’? Progressives weigh in

By Kathleen Geier

Ed Koch, the late long-time mayor of New York City, used to delight in buttonholing New Yorkers and barking at them, “How am I doin’?” (He was a man of no small ego). Two articles published in the past week look at the question of how New York’s new mayor, Bill de Blasio, is doing in his new job.

They’re particularly interesting for progressives for two reasons. One is that they examine de Blasio’s record from a progressive point of view. The second is that, given our intensely polarized Congress, it’s highly unlikely that progressives will be able to enact much of a policy agenda at the national level anytime soon. Our best hope these days is at the state and local level. That’s why it’s well worth keeping an eye on what progressive mayors like Bill de Blasio are able to accomplish.

In general, I tend to be skeptical about how much the left can achieve at any level in this country, absent a mobilized mass movement. Given that assumption, I’m pleasantly surprised at the successes Bill de Blasio has won so far. A New York Times article lists some of the victories:

Mr. de Blasio used a compliant City Council to enact a bill expanding the ability of workers to take paid days off when they or a family member falls ill. He signed the bill into law on Thursday with the flick of a commemorative pen — no approval from Albany required.
Keenly aware of his leverage over the city’s real estate industry, Mr. de Blasio has extracted concessions on affordable housing and workers’ wages from major developers accustomed to V.I.P. treatment from his predecessor, Michael R. Bloomberg, who preferred hand-holding, not arm-twisting.
And the mayor has moved aggressively to settle longstanding lawsuits over racial inequities in the Fire and Police Departments that Mr. Bloomberg had vigorously fought.

De Blasio is also taking steps toward implementing living wage and prevailing wage laws in development projects where the city is a tenant or provides subsidies. The Bloomberg administration had long resisted such policies.

A second piece appearing in Jacobin and written by Ari Paul notes that de Blasio has “made the right enemies.” For example:

He has tussled with charter school profiteers by insisting that private companies who use taxpayer property actually compensate the public.
[Snip]
And when the New York Times asked if he was filling his cabinet with liberal activists rather than technocratic administrators, as if this were a bad thing, it solidified the image among his supporters that activists would have a willing ear inside City Hall. In comparison to the Republican administrations of the past two decades, that is unquestionably true.

So, that’s the good news — and those are impressive accomplishments indeed for a mayor who’s only been in office since the beginning of this year. Yet there have been failures along with the successes. The Times piece mentions the mayor’s mediocre approval numbers and an embarrassing story about de Blasio calling police when they arrested one of his political supporters. And his pick of former Guiliani appointee Bill Bratton as police commissioner also set off alarm bells.

Perhaps even more worrying is the still-undetermined fate of the mayor’s signature policy proposal, universal pre-K. Governor Andrew Cuomo has been less than supportive of the program, and in particular of de Blasio’s plan to pay for it by imposing a new tax on the wealthy. Andrew Cuomo is terrible, of course. But his recalcitrance is a useful reminder that even within the Democratic party, even in solid blue states, there are many elected officials who will stand in the way of the kind of the economic populist agenda that de Blasio wants to enact. And some of them are, like Cuomo, very powerful.

Ari Paul’s article (which by the way, is excellent) argues that real estate interests could pose an even more significant threat to de Blasio. Writes Paul, “As one housing activist likes to note, real estate is to New York City as oil is to Texas. No matter how big of a liberal sits in City Hall, it seems, those titans are going to call the economic shots.”

In a recent housing deal, the de Blasio administration gained concessions for “affordable housing.” But the developer also won the right for a zoning change that will lead to higher density, which ultimately, says Paul, will lead to more luxury developments that will end up pushing “the vast majority of wage earners” to “the outskirts of New York.” De Blasio’s close ties to the real estate developers have always been, writes Paul, “a weak point in de Blasio’s liberal credentials.”

However, Paul believes there’s an opportunity for activists to push the de Blasio administration to adopt better housing policies:

De Blasio has undoubtably brought some positive changes in a short time, and there is an opportunity to pressure the administration for demands like a more equitable divide of market-rate to “affordable” housing than the normal 80/20 percent standard in new residential units that receive subsidies, or mandates that street-level retail include things other than high-end outlets …
[Snip]
De Blasio isn’t the only part of this new era in New York City politics; there are City Council members and a public advocate to his left. There are also, in some districts, experiments in participatory budgeting. [Snip]
Some space has been pried open for new demands for affordable housing in New York. Activists should unite on a plan that puts a government watch on any new affordable development, rather than simply funneling subsidies to developers in hopes they’ll take on a few cheaper units. And since de Blasio has committed to some redistributive measures like universal pre-K, New Yorkers can insist that he bring the same attitude to housing.

In the end, Paul writes, New Yorkers’ fight for affordable housing is “a difficult battle to win, but one that will be made easier with de Blasio in office.” I agree.

Kathleen Geier is a writer and public policy researcher who lives in Chicago. She blogs at Inequality Matters. Find her on Twitter: @Kathy_Gee

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