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Are Progressives Giving Bill de Blasio His Due?

In a new book, one of his supporters compares the New York City mayor with other liberal mayors, and says no.

Bill de Blasio
New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio
As mayor of New York, Bill de Blasio hasn’t eradicated income inequality or solved the city’s housing shortage. But his supporters insist that he has done more of the things he wanted to do, advancing a set of progressive priorities, than he’s generally given credit for.

One of those cheerleaders is Juan González, a veteran journalist who has written a book called Reclaiming Gotham. The book not only examines the entire arc of de Blasio’s career so far, but also compares him with other liberal mayors elected around the country at about the same time. De Blasio, he argues, has done as much in his four years as any politician to advance the progressive cause.

Some of de Blasio’s accomplishments are familiar: increasing the minimum wage for city workers to $15 an hour, requiring employers to provide paid sick leave benefits, and paying for tens of thousands of kids to enroll in both pre-kindergarten and afterschool programs. Less familiar is the mayor’s effort to hold rents in check. Under his predecessors, prices had gone up for more than 1 million private units in the city subject to rent regulation by an average of 3.2 percent per year over 20 years. Those rents increased just 1 percent during de Blasio’s first year in office and then were completely frozen the next two years.

All told, González estimates, residents of New York City have received direct cash payments, increased public services or new benefits cumulatively worth $21 billion. The majority of that sum came from wage and benefit increases for city workers under new contracts. González may exaggerate the value of the rest of the bounty, but it’s clear that both residents and public employees who looked to de Blasio for a change in their financial fortunes have received real assistance.

Comparing de Blasio’s approach to other progressive politicians -- not only his mayoral peers such as Marty Walsh of Boston and Bill Peduto of Pittsburgh, but also liberal city council members elected a decade ago in cities that include Philadelphia, San Francisco and Seattle -- González argues that their political success came in reaction to earlier policies that rewarded land speculators and other businesses at the expense of longtime residents. That’s debatable, but the political lessons he draws are compelling. 

Mainly, González points to the fact that de Blasio and several of the others were elected with the backing of coalitions of activists concerned with climate change, inequality, immigration and police brutality. “The rank-and-file members of these movements,” González writes, “supplied the volunteer workers these novice politicians relied upon to win their first elections.” De Blasio has accomplished more, in González’s view, than most of them. Indeed, some of the mayors discussed in his book have already faded from the scene, notably Betsy Hodges of Minneapolis and Ed Murray of Seattle. 

Perhaps not surprisingly, González devotes more space to de Blasio’s policy wins than his troubled relations with police or complaints about his campaign finance practices. 

De Blasio hasn’t made noticeable progress against income inequality and faces tough challenges in his new term, such as closing the prison at Rikers Island. But there’s no question that big cities are now the nation’s leading incubators for progressive ideas, and de Blasio is working in the biggest incubator of all. After recently winning a landslide reelection, he gets four more years to keep pushing.  

Alan Greenblatt is a senior staff writer for Governing. He can be found on Twitter at @AlanGreenblatt.
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