A True Liberal Mayor At Last?

New York City is on the verge of electing its first progressive mayor in a generation.

In most polls, Public Advocate Bill de Blasio is well over the 40 percent threshold required to avoid a runoff in the Democratic Primary. And in the Big Apple, the Democratic nomination is tantamount to a win. Even if he is pushed into a runoff, DeBlasio is strongly favored to come out on top.

The early front runner, Christine Quinn, stumbled badly, partly because of her close association with Mayor Michael Bloomberg. As city council chair, Quinn was the key enabler of Bloomberg’s overriding of the city’s term limits law. All of Bloomberg’s latent unpopularity among the non-affluent began culminating during his final months in office, and it cascaded onto the unfortunate Quinn. Even among women, she has only 19 percent support in the polls.

Quinn had been poised to become not only New York’s first female mayor but its first lesbian mayor. But that historic breakthrough is on the verge of being sidelined by another breakthrough. De Blasio, who is married to a black woman (and former lesbian) has successfully campaigned as representative of New York’s mosaic, campaigning with his biracial kids, and criticizing the city’s hated stop-and-frisk law.

It has been a generation since New York elected a flat-out progressive. Which raises the question of why a town of well known liberal views, stunning ethnic diversity, and a strong labor movement, keeps electing conservatives and quasi-conservatives like Rudy Giuliani, Ed Koch, and most recently Michael Bloomberg. Another question is how much difference a mayor can make, given the city’s limited fiscal powers and dependence on national economic trends.

Los Angeles, also with strong unions and ethic diversity, has been able to translate those fundamentals into a durable and effective governing coalition. See Harold Meyerson’s definitive piece on the subject. Is New York on the verge of becoming the next L.A.?

In part, New York kept electing conservatives because the progressive community was fragmented and didn’t have an effective leader. Mark Green, whom Bloomberg beat in 2001, and before him Ruth Messenger, who lost to Giuliani in 1997, were good people, but faltered in the heat of a general election. It reflects de Blasio’s formidable skills as a politician that he managed to vault to the head of a large pack.

Also, there is the matter of money. Bloomberg, with a net worth of around $27 billion, has all he needs. Other conservative candidates can draw on the contributions of New York’s two mega industries—real estate and Wall Street.

But organization can fight money to a draw. New York’s Working Families Party, which cross-endorses progressive candidates for office and works on issue-organizing, has been an important force in grass roots activism. Likewise the city’s strong unions and community groups. De Blasio has been able to knit together a formidable organization of this long-latent electoral base.

As former campaign manager for Hillary Clinton’s successful senate run, he is not so far left as to be without establishment contacts. Yet his program is that of an economic populist. A centerpiece is public pre-kindergarten financed by higher taxes on New York’s wealthiest.

New York has had progressive mayors before. The most recent was David Dinkins, the city’s first and only black mayor, who served a single term from 1989 through 1993. Dinkins had a solid record. The crime wave peaked and began to decline under his tenure, as did New York’s homeless population. He began the clean-up and revitalization of Times Square. But Dinkins did not maximize the potential of the city’s progressive base, and he was defeated for re-election by Rudy Giuliani, the rare Republican to win a general mayoral election.

Bloomberg was initially popular, especially among the city’s economic elite, and his greening of the city served not just Manhattan. New York, with its heavy dependence on Wall Street, rebounded from the financial collapse on Bloomberg’s watch. But his education policies were a disaster, and he was not as popular as his press coverage suggested. Running for a third term in 2009, he barely defeated former City Controller Bill Thompson, a figure who had trouble getting his campaign into high gear because the conventional wisdom was that Bloomberg was unbeatable.

If a leader can pull together minorities, economically stressed working-class whites in the city’s outer boroughs, its labor movement, and affluent progressives, that is an unbeatable coalition. De Blasio, who was discounted because he had no clear natural base, seems on the verge of doing just that.

How much could de Blasio, if elected, actually accomplish? His pre-k initiative and the necessary taxes would require approval from Albany. His populist ideas on affordable housing will meet the opposition of the city’s powerful real estate industry.

But New York has a relatively powerful mayoralty, and there is a potential rendezvous between the de Blasio coalition and the living wage movement. The City could use its regulatory leverage to compel fast food joints and other low-wage employers to pay its workers decently.

It isn’t over yet, of course. But if trends hold, New York could get a mayor who could activate its long-latent progressive citizenry.

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