Can a Progressive Make It to Gracie Mansion?

AP Photo/Mary Altaffer

Bill de Blasio is under attack in New York City’s mayoral race, and not just because his broad, towering frame makes for an easy target, that gray, conservatively-manicured block of hair rising above voters and the press at every campaign stop. A self-styled movement progressive with a biracial family from Park Slope, Brooklyn, de Blasio has seized the mantle of change in a city where many residents appear to crave it after a decade under billionaire incumbent Michael Bloomberg’s cold vision of financial capitalist technocracy. With just a few days left before the September 10 Democratic primary, de Blasio is way out in front of his rivals; in the latest Quinnipiac poll, he crossed the 40 percent threshold needed to avoid a run-off and advance directly to the November general election.

Now de Blasio finds himself on the cusp of tremendous power over a city at a crossroads, facing existential questions over everything from expired municipal employees' union contracts and how heavily to tax financial elites to whether to continue expanding NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly’s global anti-terrorism apparatus, which includes systematic spying on Muslim residents. His signature campaign pledge is to raise taxes on those earning more than $500,000 annually to fund universal pre-K and expanded after-school programs for middle schoolers, which the latest research suggests is one of the best ways to reduce income stratification. When it comes to Kelly’s loathed stop and frisk program that disproportionately hits blacks and Latinos, de Blasio has benefited from being the only candidate who has called for a new police commissioner and who supported both of the police-reform bills that recently overrode the Mayor’s veto—one creating an inspector general’s office to monitor the NYPD, and the other formally banning racial profiling at the local level. He has been less specific in detailing how he might rein in spying on Muslims, promising a “full review” of the department’s intelligence program and not ruling out the possibility that David Cohen, the 35-year CIA veteran who oversaw its construction, might go on the chopping block (though in an interview with the Daily News editorial board, de Blasio suggested he would seek Cohen’s advice once in office).

Although not quite as upset as Manhattan’s financial elites at de Blasio’s rise, his Democratic rivals are nearly as alarmed at the prospect that tribalism no longer dictates outcomes in city elections. Former representative Anthony Weiner jumped in the race this spring, dominating the coverage and skyrocketing in the polls on the back of his outer-borough populist routine only to flame out when we learned his flaws go beyond sexting and include basic problems with the truth—not to mention a lack of serious policy chops. John Liu has a fervent base of support in the Asian American community and among blacks and Latinos thanks to his promise to formally abolish stop and frisk. Indeed, the city’s incumbent comptroller offers up the purest distillation of anti-Bloomberg rage, but hasn’t been treated like a serious contender by the press corps thanks to two campaign staffers’ illegal fundraising convictions. Bill Thompson, the two-term former comptroller who nearly unseated Bloomberg four years ago, has struggled to overcome his notorious lack of passion on the stump and a campaign that seems more about demographic cynicism—blacks will come home in the end because he’s black and that’s that!—than anything else. And City Council Speaker Christine Quinn chose to render herself completely unacceptable to primary voters by helping Bloomberg change the law to secure an extra term four years ago. Her calculation was apparently that the opportunity to elect the first woman and first gay mayor would be exciting enough to compensate for a mixed record on economic issues.

What Quinn—and, in fairness, she wasn’t the only one—failed to see coming was the sharp populist turn in the local progressive movement that erupted on September 17, 2011 in Zuccotti Park in Lower Manhattan. Occupy Wall Street is now most accurately described in the past tense, but it has had an unmistakable influence on the tenor of the debate in this year’s mayoral race by making Bloomberg and those who cooperated with him punching bags for liberals in the city.

“One of the dirty little secrets of Occupy was that the folks who were with unions or community organizations, the rank and file organizers who really do most of the political work—all were strongly opposed to [Christine] Quinn,” says Max Berger, an Occupy organizer who points out de Blasio is tremendously popular in the city’s activist circles. The candidate was arrested for occupying the entrance to SUNY offices in protest of a hospital closure around the same time his campaign began to pick up steam this summer. Before Occupy came Bloombergville, where teachers and other progressive activists camped out to protest the Mayor’s cuts to schools and other pillars of the welfare state. Back then, they found themselves on the political fringe with much of the middle class apparently content to seek out the spoils of Bloomberg’s “Luxury City.” A few years later, Democratic primary voters have grown nearly as restless as those who unleashed direct democracy in Manhattan’s parks.

So unlike a certain Chicago Democrat from whom he has inherited key campaign staff, de Blasio is less interested in finding common ground with the right than taking on the income inequality that has grown as stark in New York as any large city in America.

“I think the bottom line is people are looking for fundamental change,” de Blasio tells me in an interview. “We need to address economic unfairness and we need an activist approach to local government to do that. That has been much more important to the voters than any traditional concept of identity politics.”

Unlike President Obama, however, de Blasio—a former professional political operative—is blessed with few rhetorical gifts. His standard stump speech laments the “tale of two cities” in New York, one for the haves and the other for the have-nots, a transparent recycling of the “Two Americas” mantra his former client John Edwards honed over the course of multiple presidential campaigns (though perhaps de Blasio is simply reclaiming it for himself). The candidate seems more comfortable as a behind-the-scenes tactician than a barnstorming retail pol, and is frequently awkward when interacting with voters. But he has benefited enormously from being able to point to his own family as a sort of archetypal progressive fairly tale, which voters were introduced to by a TV ad starring his afroed 15-year-old son Dante. In the spot, he promises dad will end the era of stop-and-frisk policing and break with the Bloomberg years.

Of course, de Blasio has a transactional side of his own and plenty of qualifying biographical details that might give pause to lefty idealists. No question, he has mastered the art of progressive politics and knows as well as anyone how to win liberal hearts and minds, but his approach to the office is tough to divine. He got his start in 1989 as an aide to David Dinkins, the last New York Democrat to forge a broad progressive coalition and win the mayor’s office. Since then, de Blasio has spent much of his career on the sidelines, whether as the oft-ignored campaign manager for Hillary Clinton in 2000 or an adviser to Edwards in 2004. He was a liberal gadfly in the city council for a few years, challenging Quinn for the speakership and losing. And his current gig as New York City public advocate is the butt of jokes for its lack of real clout except as the city's "chief kvetch.”

If de Blasio does get elected, he will have to prove his vision of progressive politics can bring about transformational change, or else all the heartwarming imagery and ironic appeals to hipsters in Crown Heights will start to reek of Obama shtick.

“He can't actually deliver what he's talking about without a realignment of politics in the city,” explains Todd Gitlin, the Columbia professor and social movement historian. “That would entail doing what Obama didn't do, namely calling out the folks—doing extra-normal politics, politics that mobilizes people in neighborhoods rather than simply pulling strings in the city council.” It also means activating the city’s largest minority community, Latinos, who have yet to coalesce around any one candidate in the polls.

De Blasio would enjoy the benefits of a strong mayor’s office that has a decent track-record of getting its way with local legislators. However, he needs the approval of neoliberal Governor Andrew Cuomo to raise taxes, and will surely face obstacles from the city’s entrenched financial interests that are already upset by his plans. Faced with a choice between accomplishing piecemeal reforms and exchanging furious Rooseveltian blows with his enemies, we should expect Hizzoner de Blasio to cut deals early and often.

“He's far more interested in actually accomplishing the vision he set out than in being seen as a liberal champion or a strategic master,” explains John del Cecato, the Democratic consultant behind de Blasio’s TV ads who along with his former business partner, David Axelrod, sold Obama to America.

For his part, de Blasio can look forward to nothing more—or less—than pushing the envelope of Democratic reform politics as Congress remains stuck in neutral down in Washington, D.C.

“The history of this city is filled with examples of profoundly progressive leaders who set the pace for major changes across the country,” he gushes, citing Franklin Roosevelt and Fiorello LaGuardia.

De Blasio certainly sounds like one of those leaders. What remains to be seen is whether he shares more than just a campaign team with Obama but also the president’s tendency to see the progressive movement as an occasionally useful pressure group rather than a real partner in governance. Lest we forget: Obama refused to lift a finger on behalf of Thompson four years ago, unwilling to provide what might have been the decisive blow to dethrone Bloomberg, an ally of his administration. Many of the failings of the Bloomberg era are local manifestations of national problems—like growing income inequality and boundless political muscle for financial titans—that have been allowed to fester under the Obama White House. De Blasio, then, represents the inevitable turn leftward in a city where Democrats outnumber Republicans six to one—and where the new candidate of hope and change is charged with the task of making up for the shortcomings of the old one. 

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