Former New York Gov. Mario Cuomo once famously quipped that "you campaign in poetry; you govern in prose.” Those eight words summed up the liberal icon's personal brand of politics. Poetry might win the hearts of voters, but governing was grunt work, involving compromise and protracted fights with lawmakers in Albany.
Three decades later, New York City Public Advocate Bill de Blasio ran for mayor, and his campaign wasn’t lacking for poetry. New York, he said, had become a “tale of two cities,” a Dickensian landscape where the divide between rich and poor was growing.
After eight years of Republican Mayor Rudy Giuliani followed by 12 years of Republican-turned-Independent Michael Bloomberg, de Blasio entered the ring framed as a dyed-in-the-wool liberal who wasn’t afraid to take on the city’s wealthy class. He campaigned in 2013 as a hometown Brooklynite, a champion of the poor and a fighter for equality -- and won.
De Blasio swept into office promising a laundry list of progressive changes, including making advancements in early childhood education, repairing strained relationships between communities of color and the police, ensuring paid sick leave for all, closing the wage gap and trying to make New York City a more affordable place to live.
Four years later, de Blasio's reputation as a liberal icon is seen as mixed by political observers and advocates in New York. There have been some wins, to be sure: implementing universal pre-K, extending paid sick leave, freezing rents and committing the city to closing the Rikers Island jail.
As he enters his second term -- he cruised to re-election last week with more than 66 percent of the vote -- de Blasio’s liberal vision of New York has been somewhat tempered, according to advocates. He is now known as much for his political calculations as he is for his progressive rhetoric. His campaign poetry has transformed into policy prose.
“De Blasio rode in on a tale of two cities, but unfortunately we got a tale of two mayors,” says Glenn E. Martin, founder of JustLeadershipUSA, which advocates for reducing the incarcerated population.
Critics contend de Blasio has always been a campaigner who lacked the political chops to move policy. His supporters blame Gov. Andrew Cuomo and other lawmakers in Albany for obstructing the mayor's aspirations.
With four years left to govern, de Blasio seemingly has a chance to push his progressive agenda forward. But just how far can he push?
Perhaps the biggest single achievement of de Blasio's first term was the city's pre-K program. The promise of universal pre-K was a central tenet of his 2013 campaign, and it was one of the first programs he focused on when he got into office. As of this past September, roughly 70,000 of the city’s 4-year-olds were enrolled.
“Pre-K is a major accomplishment for this mayor; one that he deserves a lot of credit for getting through,” says Jeremiah Kittredge, CEO of Families for Excellent Schools, a pro-charter school advocacy group.
But it proved to be the first of many clashes between de Blasio and Cuomo.
The promised quick rollout of pre-K ran up against a lack of available space for the new students and the lack of enough money to properly fund the program. In 2014, de Blasio sought a tax increase of wealthy New Yorkers to pay for the pre-K expansion.
The so-called "millionaires tax" would have required Albany to pass a tax increase in an election year. Cuomo squashed the idea, calling it a political “impossibility."
To free up some funds, the city Department of Education shifted money promised for the construction of charter schools to help pay for added capacity for pre-K. That sparked a fight between de Blasio and the charter school sector, which also heightened tensions between the mayor and the governor: Cuomo has been a strong supporter of charter schools.
De Blasio’s predecessor, Bloomberg, had left the mayor’s office after reshaping the political and physical landscape of public schools in New York. Bloomberg consolidated power over public schools under the auspices of the mayor. He closed some schools and held teachers more accountable for student outcomes.
Bloomberg was also a supporter of charter schools, and he led an expansion of them in the city. Often, they were on the same campuses as traditional public schools, in an approach known as co-location.
De Blasio, meanwhile, has openly expressed his preference for traditional public schools, and he has reduced funding for charters. "The administration has started to acknowledge that city schools are failing," says Kittredge. But "the issue is his position on charters, which affects poor, black and brown kids.
“This administration has been hell-bent on denying charters space,” Kittredge adds.
(De Blasio's office did not respond to interview requests.)
Unlike his predecessor, however, de Blasio has allowed some of the local political battles over school locations -- including charters -- to play out independently of his office. In late 2014, for example, de Blasio announced plans to inject more than $150 million into improving 94 struggling schools in the city through his Renewal Schools initiative. Three of those schools in the Bronx were faced with a request to co-locate with a charter school. The battle over space played out in the Panel for Educational Policy (PEP) board, an advisory group made up of 13 political appointees -- eight of whom are picked by the mayor -- and the Department of Education chancellor, who is also picked by the mayor.
Despite being made up by a majority of de Blasio appointees, the board ultimately approved the co-location plan. De Blasio disagreed with the decision, but he let it stand. (Mayor Bloomberg had on at least one occassion replaced PEP board members who disagreed with his education policy.)
Going into his second term, de Blasio is gearing up for another expansion of pre-K. He is looking to expand early childhood education to 3-year-olds through a program known as 3-K. The rollout is slated to being in the fall of 2018 and is targeted at poorer neighborhoods in East Harlem and Queens, and eventually will expand to low-income parts of the Bronx, Staten Island and Brooklyn.
“We have to lay an even stronger foundation for our children,” de Blasio said at his first press conference following his re-election. “We need the school system to look entirely different in the coming years."
Criminal Justice Reform
New York City touts itself as the safest large city in the country. For nearly two decades now, its crime trend lines have pointed downward.
The reduction in crime under Giuliani and Bloomberg accompanied the "broken windows" policing philosophy, a tough-on-crime strategy that often leads to a large number of arrests for low-level infractions. It's closely associated with stop-and-frisk, the controversial practice in which police temporarily detain and question civilians on the street whom they suspect might be carrying weapons or other illegal material.
But federal courts in 2013 and 2014 declared that New York's stop-and-frisk tactics were unconstitutional, saying that police disproportionately targeted black and Latino residents. De Blasio vowed to end the use of the practice during his campaign and has since praised its decline.
Yet the mayor turned to someone closely tied with Giuliani’s tough-on-crime tactics of the 1990s to change the police department.
Once he took office in January 2014, de Blasio re-hired Bill Bratton, who had previously served as commissioner under Giuliani from 1994 to 1996 and led the NYPD during the early implementation of its broken windows strategy.
“We live in a country of 300 million people," says Martin, "and de Blasio went back to the guy who created the mess in the first place."
The former commissioner, though, is seen as a transformative figure in law enforcement. From 2002 to 2009, he served as the Los Angeles Chief of Police, and he is credited with helping to rein in that department's more aggressive tactics.
Bratton stepped down from his post two and a half years later, having overseen the biggest expansion of the New York police department in 20 years. Supporters say he also left the department less combative and antagonistic than he found it, with the NYPD focusing less on summonses and arrests and more on building relationships. For instance, the department now works with community-minded "violence interrupters," many of whom have been involved in street violence themselves, something observers say was unlikely under previous administrations.
Law enforcement reform advocates are generally pleased with the changes during de Blasio's first four years.
“I think de Blasio deserves credit for continuing to drive down crime rates, especially as he tries to transform the police force from a department that once was a warrior-type department to one that is committed to more community collaborations,” says Nicholas Turner, president and director of the Vera Institute, which advocates for criminal justice reform.
Now they are pushing for additional transparency in the department and more public input on policing.
“What the NYPD under de Blasio needs to do is share more data, share its practices and allow itself to be vulnerable for a while and allow New Yorkers to have a voice in how they are policed,” says Martin.
Another second-term criminal justice issue for the mayor will be Rikers Island. For reform advocates, the 413-acre jail embodies everything that’s wrong with New York City’s penal system. It has long been plagued by overcrowding, violence, insufficient resources and even food poisoning for inmates.
Initially, de Blasio planned to spend $1 billion building a new facility on the island. He was open to the idea of reducing the prison's population by one-fourth. But advocates pushed him hard to close the facility altogether. Ultimately, he agreed, laying out a 10-year plan to shutter Rikers for good.
In Albany, Cuomo's office has sharply criticized the mayor's plan, saying the notorious jail should be closed sooner. The governor's general counsel said in a statement that de Blasio's protracted timeline was “tantamount to saying we have no real plan to close it. Ten years may see three different mayors and three different city councils."
Criticism like that, along with the continued drumbeat of bad news from Rikers -- 29 gang members were recently indicted for attacking inmates and corrections officers at the jail -- could prod the mayor to commit to at least beginning the work of decommissioning the island during his second term in office. Doing that would set up potential fights with city councilmembers and residents over spreading smaller jail facilities in neighborhoods across the city.
“What the challenge has been for him now is that the 'close Rikers' campaign is not enough; we want more,” says Turner, who served on the city’s Lippman Commission, which was formed to study incarceration reform. “It is now not enough to say, ‘Hey crime went down and I dropped incarceration.’ He is also going to have to say, 'I have made significant movement on getting Rikers closed.'”
Core to de Blasio’s message in the first campaign was closing New York City’s income and wealth gap. The mayor’s tale of two cities narrative was about inequalities in work, income, education and housing.
And as in other policy areas, the results have been mixed and political realities have stifled some of his priorities.
De Blasio initiated two rent freezes in the city, secured a right to counsel for residents facing eviction, and has added hundreds of thousands of affordable housing units in the city. He implemented a $15 minimum wage for city workers and for employees of companies with city contracts. The mayor also pushed hard on the state hard to raise the minimum wage. That hike will be slowly implemented and won’t kick in for all New York City employers until the end of 2019.
Progressives say all that is merely a good start.
“It’s progress but, no, it’s not enough,” says Nancy Rankin, vice president for policy, research and advocacy at the Community Services Society of New York. “It’s substantial progress, but New York is an expensive place to live. We are looking at both sides of the equation.”
In his second term, de Blasio has already pledged to focus on making public transit more affordable for low-income riders. He is proposing a so-called Fair Fare, a subsidy to trim the cost of Metrocards for poor families who rely on public transportation. He has again proposed paying for that program with a new "millionaires tax," undoubtedly setting up another fight in Albany.
But it's a fight the mayor needs to have, says Rankin, if he truly intends to make good on his campaign promises from 2013.
“If you want to combat the tale of two cities, you have to make it affordable for people to get to work, to school and to doctor appointments.”
Progressive initiatives like that would also move de Blasio somewhat closer to governing in prose that sounds more like the poetry with which he campaigned.