When he wins New York City's mayoral election today, Bill de Blasio will have succeeded in branding himself the next big thing in progressive politics. But it remains to be seen which de Blasio shines through over the next four years: the former Hillary Clinton operative who admires neoliberal Governor Andrew Cuomo and is friendly with the real-estate industry, or the activist lefty who got arrested protesting the closure of a Brooklyn hospital and has promised to take on income inequality and the New York Police Department's sprawling anti-terrorism apparatus.
"The aspiration is to be fundamentally transformative," says Professor John Mollenkopf at The City University of New York's Center for Urban Research. "He really does want to see how New York City can become less unequal and more capable of promoting upward mobility. But assuming things go the way the polls suggest, he still faces an enormous challenge."
In particular, de Blasio will have to muscle through an ambitious reform agenda—higher taxes on the rich to pay for universal pre-K and expanded after-school programs, above all else—that has already drawn the ire of New York’s entrenched financial elite, an uphill battle he seemed to embrace with a felicitous speech to the business consortium Association for a Better New York in early October.
"I’m a fiscal conservative and I’m a progressive activist fiscal conservative, but I’m still a fiscal conservative,” the Democratic nominee cracked, capturing the duality of his—and New York’s—strain of pragmatic (some would say moneyed) liberalism, as well as his pivot to the broader (although still decidedly left-of-center) city electorate.
De Blasio ran an effective primary campaign that tapped into widespread resentment of incumbent Mayor Michael Bloomberg, but he has been playing it safe since then, scaling back his availability to the press corps and even trying on for size some of the incumbent’s trademark irritation with media scrutiny. Though it’s tempting to attribute this shift solely to a massive lead in the polls over Republican nominee Joe Lhota, the caution may also reflect a top-down, transactional management style that has come through in the past on issues like public-housing construction and term limits for city officials. Just as Team Obama (which provided most of the mayoral candidate’s staff) is known for its aggressive micro-management of the press, de Blasio seems unlikely to win any awards for transparency once in office.
He will come to power amid a growing national rift over the course American liberalism, one that centers on whether social change should lean on the goodwill of wealthy individuals or instead rely on the government to systematically redistribute wealth. De Blasio’s fellow Northeastern Democrats have been conflicted, torn between the allure of Wall Street money and the toxicity of the financial sector among liberal primary voters still recovering from the economic crisis. Cory Booker, the Newark mayor who was just easily elected New Jersey’s next U.S. senator, comes down decidedly in the former camp, and his relationship with Bloomberg and other financial titans has been thoroughly documented. It will be interesting to see how well he gets along with the mayor across the river, one whose populist message has not earned him quite as much love among the scions of Big Finance—though it’s worth noting de Blasio has been raking in the cash from mega-donors like pal and real estate mogul Bruce Ratner (a minority owner of the Brooklyn Nets) as of late.
The next mayor of New York will be in a position, with the attendant visibility and megaphone, to help set the ideological tone for national Democrats in 2014 and beyond. De Blasio might seem likely on the surface to play second-fiddle to Cuomo, who was his boss at the Department of Housing and Urban Development in the Clinton administration and whose family still commands respect in Democratic circles, but they could also clash early on over funding for de Blasio’s expansive social-welfare agenda. After all, the legislature needs to sign off on any tax increases, which would break with Cuomo’s meticulously cultivated brand as a fiscal moderate and his habit of cutting state tax rates despite desperate pleas from local officials starved for cash.
“You're going to see a collision that neither man wants,” says former New York state assemblyman and Albany Times-Union columnist Richard Brodsky. “Mayors all over New York are facing structural imbalances that aren't a function of ‘Detroit bad government’ but a breakdown of a fundamental economic model, and Cuomo has not been interested in helping out.” The state’s shrinking Republican minority, which actually commands partial control of the Senate thanks to a power-sharing arrangement with dissident Democrats, will put up a fight as well, though de Blasio’s allies in the Working Families Party and its subsidiary labor unions will no doubt advocate aggressively on behalf of the tax plan.
This potential battle raises the question of how vulnerable the new mayor will be to activist pressure on one hand, and his old friend Andrew’s private admonitions on the other. Though de Blasio loves to use the word “grassroots” when addressing the media and the public about his approach to government, his close ties to the ringleaders of Democratic centrism could spell trouble for New York. Many of those foot soldiers in the labor movement Cuomo has bitterly alienated with his austerity obsession will be essential to helping de Blasio make the city more equal, and keeping both sides happy is shaping up to be his greatest challenge from day one.
“I don't think he's going to have much wiggle room,” says New York City councilwoman Letitia James, who will replace de Blasio as public advocate come January. “I'm going to make sure that he stays focused on a progressive agenda.”
Indeed, the vast majority of the city’s labor officials and liberal activists express confidence that de Blasio will follow through on his promises once in office, leaving only the press corps to doubt him. And perhaps Cuomo’s presidential ambitions mean he’ll find a way to avoid incurring the wrath of the left and play along. On the other hand, if de Blasio does change his tune, disappointing his base and delighting Wall Street, the election will end up being an indictment of the current state of progressive politics, where cookie-cutter campaigns that emphasize cultural change and social justice serve as red meat for the Democratic electorate but fail to move the needle on income inequality, whether because of obstruction at the legislative level or a lack of effective organizing. De Blasio is poised to win over the vast majority of city voters, including many Republicans and moderates who likely do not want to see big changes (given that approval of Bloomberg remains fairly high). But the appetite is out there for a real shift in the direction of city government. It’s left to a seasoned operative with an acute sense for the mechanics of movement politics—but also some potentially compromising loyalties—to put it all together.