New York City’s New Mayor Walks a Fine Line

Bill de Blasio is New York's first populist mayor in several generations. But can he empower the city's residents while avoiding interest-group politics?
by | November 7, 2013

Newly elected New York City mayor Bill de Blasio chose to hold his election party on Tuesday night at the Fourteenth Regiment Armory, a block-long, castle-like structure, which is just a few blocks from his home in Park Slope, Brooklyn.  There was a certain irony in this tall man, said to be the city’s first populist mayor-elect in several generations, holding his victory party in a city armory, which were constructed in the late 19th and early 20th century for a very unpopulist mission: quelling civil unrest, or crowd control.

On the stage, with his African-American wife and children by his side and a phalanx of appropriately diverse New Yorkers placed on bleachers as a backdrop behind him, he did not flinch from his campaign theme of “a tale of two cities.”

“Inequality is the defining challenge of our time,” de Blasio said. A person’s fate should be determined by their talents, “not their zip code.”

It was a change in rhetoric from the billionaire mayor Michael Bloomberg, who was unapologetically pro-rich, even while he also arguably improved the city for everyone with programs like bike sharing, more affordable housing, cleaner streets and new libraries and schools. The murder and overall crime rate continued to decline, particularly in the poorest neighborhoods, while resentment against Bloomberg’s “stop and frisk”policies grew.

De Blasio is talking about turning around a city that he says principally serves the rich, into one that serves everyone. He says he does not want to suppress the masses, but empower them.

With his populist rhetoric, de Blasio is walking a fine line. Joe Llota, de Blasio’s Republican opponent, hinted that the Democratic candidate, the first elected in 20 years, would return the city to its unruly past, when squeegee men ruled the traffic lights, and cars routinely had signs saying “no radio inside,” to alert thieves to other targets. The city’s history, as the story of the city's armories show, has seesawed between empowering the masses and controlling them.

De Blasio marks the return of New York city to the messy world of democracy, where candidates vie for contributions, interest groups for favors and allies for jobs. Bloomberg, a self-made billionaire, could ignore all that. He financed his own campaigns, and didn’t have to give a job to anyone.  Can de Blasio satisfy some of these demands, even while keeping a Bloombergian eye on policies and principles? Certainly the common analysis of New York’s troubles in the 1970s was that it gave in too easily to interest-group politics.

Overall, the city is prospering and changing. The rise of wealthy Brooklyn, yet with overtones of bohemia as seen in HBO shows like Girls, shows the strange city de Blasio is leading. Many of the city’s traditionally poorer neighborhoods have cleaner streets, and rising property values and populations. Yet a substantial portion of the city’s 8.5 million people make less than $10,000 a year, according to official statistics. They are left out in ways probably hard for most of us to imagine.

How deep the feelings run on these issues is hard to guess. At the armory Tuesday night, the crowd was more polite than passionate. The cheers were measured.  Perhaps campaigns have become so virtual, that physical gatherings are an afterthought.

One man who stood calmly watching goings on said he took satisfaction in being an early supporter.

“It’s always good to come from last place to first place,” said William Rivera, an aide to a state senator who endorsed the come-from-behind de Blasio early on. “The people who were first supporting de Blasio would have fit in an elevator.”

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