A New Progressive Era for NYC? Not So Fast.

AP Photo/Mary Altaffer

"Our mission is to change our city in the name of progress,” Bill de Blasio said to the crowd assembled in a Gowanus, Brooklyn bar after midnight on Tuesday, claiming victory in New York City’s Democratic mayoral primary with just over 40 percent of the vote. New York's Public Advocate and progressive populist appeared to have pulled it off, stunning not just his opponents but also many of the city’s political professionals and financial elites. He had forged an Obama-esque coalition in the Big Apple. Indeed, the atmosphere at the event felt eerily familiar if you followed the 44th president’s 2008 campaign.

“We understand that making big change is never easy,” de Blasio said. “It never has been. And there are those who have said our ambition for this city is too bold, and that we’re asking of the wealthiest New Yorkers too much. That we’re setting our sights for the children of this city too high. That we’re guilty, guilty my friends, of thinking too big. Let me say this: We are New Yorkers.”

One starts to wonder if de Blasio shares not just a TV ad man with the president but also his speechwriter. But I digress. The candidate’s unabashed appeal to progressive values and his bemoaning of the city’s widening income gap has clearly struck a chord with voters still reeling from the Great Recession. But there’s also a geographic component to his ascent. De Blasio was the only major contender not to hold his after-party in Manhattan; he even gave a shout-out to his “home borough of Brooklyn” during remarks to a crowd that did, in fact, look like the city’s most populous borough—which is to say along the lines of former Mayor David Dinkins’ “beautiful mosaic”: replete with Orthodox Jewish men, Muslim women wearing veils, hipsters in thick eyeglasses, and interracial couples.


City voters lurched leftward this election, sure, but key groups were also awakened from political hibernation, rallying behind a candidate unafraid to challenge Manhattan’s place as priority number one (as it has indisputably been under Mike Bloomberg). Suddenly, Brooklyn and the outer boroughs were threatening to overtake that pesky island to the Northwest as the center of gravity for local politics, as Chris Smith at New York Magazine put it.

Of course, it’s worth noting that the city’s substantial Asian-American community went for Comptroller John Liu, apparently yet to be reached (or convinced) by de Blasio’s message of transformational change. Turnout was also weaker than some anticipated, with just over 600,000 voters—or about a fifth of the city’s 3 million registered Democrats—taking part in the mayoral primary, an unremarkable showing given that over a million Democrats voted in the hotly contested 1989 contest pitting upstart Dinkins against incumbent Ed Koch.

Taken as a whole, then, the primary results—which saw City Council Speaker Christine Quinn fall to a distant third place and Republican Joe Lhota romp in a super-low-turnout GOP primary—constituted a stern rebuke of Bloomberg and NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly, whose stop-and-frisk tactics (ruled unconstitutional in court over the summer) might as well have been on the ballot. The common thread between de Blasio—who is on a fast track to becoming New York’s first Democratic mayor since Dinkins—incoming Brooklyn District Attorney Ken Thompson, and public advocate contender Letitia James (who narrowly earned a plurality of votes in the first round but must win a runoff with Chuck Schumer-ally Daniel Squadron on October 1) is their emphasis on making the city a more equal place. Thompson, the former federal prosecutor best known for representing the hotel maid who accused Dominique Strauss-Kahn of rape in 2011, ousted 24-year incumbent Charles “Joe” Hynes in no small part by slamming stop-and-frisk (over which the D.A. arguably does not have a tremendous amount of control). That just so happens to be a favorite target of de Blasio and James, too. All three candidates made an ideological case for social justice rather than leaning on the philanthropic vision honed by Bloomberg and his wealthy allies.

AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews

So in 2013, city voters appear to be less drawn to paternalist strongmen than they once were, reflecting both the remarkable drop in crime under Hynes (whose tenure spans the Dinkins, Giuliani, and Bloomberg mayoralties) as well as a collective sense of outrage at the systematic violation of civil rights and liberties.

"Joe Hynes is 78 years old and is the hero of an era that no one thinks about anymore," explains Hank Sheinkopf, a seasoned New York City Democratic political consultant, referring to the high-crime 1980s that brought the D.A. to power.

But the progressive awakening hinted at by scenes of de Blasio and his beautiful family celebrating their victory is not necessarily all it’s cracked up to be. After all, the city’s real estate industry and its front group, Jobs for New York, which has ties to Governor Andrew Cuomo via his former spokesman Phil Singer, dominated in city council races. To be sure, the industry seemed to be hedging its bets, endorsing liberal candidates supported by the labor-backed Working Families Party that had crushed its picks in the past. And yet the link between New York City politicians in both parties and real estate and Wall Street money surely remains the most significant obstacle to progress on de Blasio’s economic plans. That Working Families, a third-party vehicle for progressive Democrats, had to awkwardly deny it was collaborating with real-estate companies was in itself a troublesome signal.

AP Photo/Mary Altaffer

De Blasio’s campaign team is confident about the transition to the general election, which the candidate abruptly pivoted toward on election night by stoically invoking the anniversary of 9/11. He said the job of those in positions of authority is to “use every tool at our disposal to protect our people.”

Despite the possibility that Kelly may be out there in the press in the next few weeks, making trouble as he tries to preserve his own legacy, de Blasio’s message will not change tremendously.

“New Yorkers, beyond the Democratic primary electorate, are hungry for change,” says Anna Greenberg, de Blasio’s pollster. She told me the campaign had only done one poll since July, apparently content to observe a steady rise in public surveys after their last tracker in mid-August.

“Barack Obama won by talking about raising taxes. The idea that it’s somehow fringe or lefty to talk about a more progressive tax system is belied by election results across the country,” says Greenberg, anticipating what will surely be a series of broadsides from New York’s business community, which has essentially had its way for all 12 years of Bloomberg’s reign.

But even as political observers were cautious in their interpretations of de Blasio’s victory—which, pending a recount, appeared sufficient to avoid a runoff and launch him directly to the November general election and a mano-a-mano contest with Lhota—the vibe at the party was one of total confidence, as well as ecstasy. The city is a very liberal place with lots of very liberal people voting in it. And now the government may be starting to reflect that again.

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