Attacks on De Blasio Reflect Inequality Issue's Rise

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Photo by: Office of the Public Advocate

The daggers have certainly come out for Bill de Blasio. After getting tag-teamed by rivals at last week's debate and seeing Christine Quinn endorsed over the weekend by the three major dailies in editorials that either dismissed or ridiculed him, de Blasio this week has been accused of flip-flopping on term limits, dithering at the helm of Hilary Clinton's 2000 campaign for the U.S. Senate, and perhaps even accepting improper campaign contributions—all of which de Blasio's campaign vehemently denies. (When is someone going to address the 6-foot-5 elephant in the room, namely the public advocate's freakish height?)

It's not surprising that de Blasio has a target on his back; depending on the poll you read, he's either leading the race or nipping at Quinn's heels. The sheer volume of denunciations reflects deBlasio's late break to the front of the pack. The speaker led the race for months, during which timed she sustained a steady barrage of critiques. De Blasio, on the other hand, was at 10 percent and in fourth place as recently as June, so he's getting a concentrated dose of criticism as the primary contest moves into its home stretch.

Some of the shots at de Blasio involve his signature issue—income inequality—and his marquis policy proposal—increasing taxes on the wealthiest New Yorkers and using the revenue to pay for early childhood education and after-school programs. And no matter what your take is on the content of those critiques, they reveal how much more acceptable it has become to talk about haves and have-nots in the city. The New York Post might deride de Blasio's “tiresome class-warfare theme,” but even Crain's yesterday acknowledged the donut hole in the city's economy: “Midwage jobs lost during the recession have not returned, while jobs that pay less than $35,000 have surged, thanks to a boom in tourism and retail.” Indeed, earlier this summer—well before de Blasio's surge—the business-backed Partnership for New York City released a “jobs blueprint” that noted the risk of income polarization, if not by name, when it mentioned that “job growth is primarily in high-wage and low-wage categories.”

No one seems to be denying the existence of a growing and troubling level of income inequality. The reaction, instead, is either to note that there are upsides to a polarized income distribution (e.g., the rich pay a big chunk of local taxes that fund services for everyone) or to suggest the de Blasio's early-ed plan—Bill Thompson scorned it as a
“pretend” plan yesterday—has no chance of passing in Albany.

The latter point is certainly valid, although as Mike Bloomberg learned, every mayor's wish list is going to run through Albany eventually, and you will win some (mayoral control) and lose some, like congestion pricing (although it's also true that the next occupant of City Hall is unlikely to be able to personally grease the Albany wheels the way Bloomberg did with millions of campaign contributions to State Senate Republicans). De Blasio's counter-attack is to accuse his rivals of lacking the necessary ambition to confront the threat that yawning income inequality poses.

Some critics maintain that New York City can do very little on its own to combat polarization, which is shaped by global and national trends. In other words, it's a little like climate change, gun violence and other issues on which Bloomberg has distinguished himself as a national leader, even if he couldn't solve the problems by fiat.

There's an argument that the city could at least try to shape its land development and wage policies so they don't exacerbate the problem. Jobs and housing policy, on which Thompson and Quinn have their own plans, also matter. In 14 days, we'll learn who wins the Democratic primary. Perhaps more importantly for the neighborhoods City Limits covers, over the next six weeks, we'll see whether income inequality fades, or becomes the driving issue in the runoff and general election campaigns.

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