Few doubted he was on his way to a second term as mayor of New York. The big question during his 2017 campaign was what Bill de Blasio would do next. He did not put forward a new big idea, choosing instead to run on his record. And he had done just about everything he said he would when he first ran four years ago. But there is still more to do if he wants to have a lasting impact. The most obvious areas needing more attention locally are housing, homelessness, and education.
As de Blasio moves into a second term, we also can expect to see continuing animosity between him and Gov. Cuomo. But as we get closer to 2020, these seemingly personal disagreements will take on a more substantive tone and serve as a proxy for a soul-searching debate occurring in the national Democratic Party, not to mention the country.
In 2013, de Blasio set his sights on the issue of economic inequality and directed his criticism at the man he wanted to succeed, Michael Bloomberg. No local chief executive can be blamed for the disparities of wealth and income that have overtaken the nation in the past four decades. The billionaire mayor, nevertheless, was an easy target for a populist campaign framed by a “Tale of Two Cities” narrative.
Although the city experienced unprecedented growth during the Bloomberg years, 20 percent of its residents lived in poverty and 47 percent in near poverty. The local legislature had to pass a Living Wage Law over his veto, as it did a law that provided low-wage earners in the private sector with sick leave benefits. Mayor de Blasio strengthened those provisions, and signed a minimum wage law that became a model for other locales. He also negotiated collective bargaining agreements left unsettled with every major municipal union. During de Blasio’s first term, unemployment and poverty declined, earnings went up, and the city is enjoying a strong diverse economy.
De Blasio had also promised to improve the relationship between the police and the city’s Black and Latino communities. He significantly reduced the controversial stop-and-frisk tactics championed by Bloomberg. With that, arrests, citizen complaints, and crime all came down. His new Police Commissioner, James O’Neill, is a champion of community policing, designed to build bridges between officers and residents. It is an unofficial departure from his predecessor’s signature “Broken Windows” approach that focused on the aggressive pursuit of minor offences to prevent major crimes and put too many black and brown men in jail.
De Blasio also delivered on his promise to implement universal pre-school for four-year-olds. The program not only made good sense educationally; it also provided free daycare for working parents who could not afford it on their own. Beyond increased investment in education, the de Blasio administration has spent more money on housing, homeless, health and mental health services than any in city history. Since the mayor has a record to crow about, one obvious answer to the “What Next?” question is “More of the Same.”
The education department already has begun to implement a pre-school program for three-year-olds. De Blasio is ahead of schedule with plans to build or preserve 200,000 units of affordable housing. He recently upped the goal to 300,000 units. Housing advocates complain, however, that the program has not sufficiently reached the poorest of the poor. Concerned with how gentrification is displacing people from their neighborhoods, these advocates will continue to demand “deeper affordability” during the second term. He will need to respond more aggressively.
Despite record spending on homeless services, the incidence of homelessness—now exceeding 60,000—is also at a record high. The mayor has determined, not to everyone’s satisfaction, that this number is the new normal. On the eve of his reelection campaign, de Blasio announced a plan to transfer homeless residents from expensive dilapidated cluster apartments and hotels into neighborhood-based shelters. His promise was cold shouldered by city council members who feared indigent populations returning to their neighborhoods. But the plan makes sense from a policy perspective because it would be less disruptive to homeless people who have family, churches, and other supports in their former communities.
The new homeless initiative would be especially helpful to parents with children in local schools. A recent estimate revealed that 10 percent of all students attending public schools are homeless. To his credit, de Blasio chose to deal with the homeless as a legitimate service clientele rather than a public nuisance. In a similar vein, he also agreed to close the Rikers Island jail complex with plans to locate inmates in facilities closer to their homes. Both programs will be a heavy political lift during the second term.
Another area where the mayor is likely to face new pressure is education. While test scores continue to inch upward, the results of his Renewal Program to rescue underperforming schools have been underwhelming. As in the rest of the country, race and class remain the most reliable predictors of academic achievement in New York. With more than 60 percent of the students in grades three through eight unable to score proficiently on reading and math tests, Chancellor Farina needs to come up with a more effective approach to chronic failure.
Each time de Blasio stumbles on the policy front he can count on fierce criticism from the Governor’s Mansion in Albany. We have heard it before. And for every time Cuomo attacks his leadership, the mayor can be expected to respond with appeals to his trademark economic populism. We have heard that before too, in the form of “tax the rich” schemes to redistribute resources to the small guy, whether it be a mansion tax on real estate, or a millionaires tax to pay for pre-kindergarten or transportation. The personal hostility that has marked the relationship between these two major political actors masks a more fundamental philosophical discord that will demand more careful attention as the national Democratic Party contemplates its future agenda.
Right now, the party is in serious disarray after losing a significant part of its historic middle and working class base to a Republican candidate whose priorities are anathema to the economic interests of people who are vulnerable, most visibly illustrated by the new Republican tax plan. The Democrats are deeply divided. On one side, are economic progressives, identified with Bernie Sanders, who are determined to deal with the overarching inequality that defines American prospects in the years ahead through fair taxation and meaningful regulation. On the other side, are philosophical moderates, identified with the Clintons, who handed over the White House to the least qualified man ever elected president. Although de Blasio eventually supported Hillary Clinton last year, he is clearly more attuned to the progressive wing of the party. Cuomo always was and will continue to be at home in the centrist Clinton camp.
With the partisan dialogue continuing among the Democrats in anticipation of the 2020 election, the drama that has played out in New York over the past four years could prove to be instructive. It illustrates clear choices. Despite some shortcomings, the mayor has a record to burnish. As Cuomo tries to determine how to present himself on a national stage, the mayor will be reading aloud from a now familiar script. That script has served de Blasio well from the very beginning though his reelection in 2017. When favored Democratic candidates William Thompson and Christine Quinn tiptoed around the disparate effects of the Bloomberg legacy in 2013, de Blasio explained what was wrong. To the surprise of party regulars, his message resonated with the voters.
The 2013 election in New York should have been a warning call to mainstream Democrats who did not foresee how strongly Bernie Sanders would run against the powerful Clinton apparatus. As mayor, de Blasio also pushed the more moderate governor to do things that he was not inclined to do on his own, such as spending money on prekindergarten, or investing more state resources in housing and homeless services, or supporting a fifteen dollar minimum wage. The mayor has moved the city and, in some respects, the state in a new direction.
Looking ahead, whenever Bill de Blasio demands that those few at the top of the economic pyramid should contribute more tax dollars to fund crucial projects, Andrew Cuomo will need to explain “why not” to the rest.
The mayor has a second act that will look very much like his first. He now will be playing before a larger audience.
Joseph P. Viteritti is the Thomas Hunter Professor of Public Policy at Hunter College, and recently the author of The Pragmatist: Bill de Blasio’s Quest to Save the Soul of New York (Oxford).