Chuck Kennedy

Shaun Donovan, seen standing in the middle of the third row, in a 2009 photo of the Obama cabinet.

There’s a rich tradition of politicians dubbing themselves—or being dubbed—”progressive pragmatists”.  Mario Cuomo called himself one. His son has occasionally adopted the inverse form: “pragmatic progressive.” The chattering classes used the same phrases about Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, and John Hickenlooper employed the term in his brief 2020 campaign. In many cases, there was no truth to the slogan, at least the “progressive part.” But alliteration is so hard to resist.

As he raises money and eyes a run for mayor, former city and federal housing official Shaun Donovan is talking in similar terms. “I believe that I bring a track record that says I can get those progressive things done,” he said in a Wednesday interview with WBAI’s Max & Murphy Show about his likely candidacy. “I believe that I will be the candidate who can make the city work for everyone.”

New York could be a market ripe for that brand. The success of progressive candidates in 2018 and so far in 2020 suggest that the city’s leftward movement continues, and unless the concerns about rising crime metastasize, a centrist would face long odds in the 2021 mayoral race. Yet the cascading management failures of the de Blasio administration are going to make management chops a very valuable commodity in that contest.

Donovan says he has both those bona fides, pointing to his time as HUD secretary and Office of Management and Budget director under President Obama. He boasts of the work he and the 44th president did to promote fair housing. He says he earned his stripes as a crisis manager in his work reacting to the 2014 Ebola scare. He points to the reduction of homelessness nationwide under his watch as an example of policy that solved a problem.

What Donovan doesn’t emphasize is the nearly five years during which he ran the city’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development under Mayor Bloomberg. As unpopular as Mayor de Blasio is, Bloomberg—under whom stop-and-frisk soared, homelessness grew and affordability evaporated—is still not remembered fondly by many progressives. Without specifying where he parted company with his former boss, Donovan distanced himself gently from the billionaire. “Mike and I didn’t agree on everything but I will say that Mike is a very strong leader and a great manager. There were some very strong aspects of what Mike did as mayor,” Donovan said, pointing to Bloomberg’s health policies as particularly admirable.

With an eviction crisis looming, housing is likely to be as hot a topic in 2021 as ever, and Donovan’s lengthy resume and deep fluency in housing policy will offer him an advantage. That background could also open up liabilities, however. No part of the city’s housing landscape is more troubled than NYCHA, which has suffered from years of under-investment by all levels of government, particular the feds. Asked what he did to change that relationship when he was at HUD during the Obama era and an earlier stint under President Clinton, Donovan pointed to his work on President Obama’s recovery act, which included an infusion of money for public housing. 

And he put the blame for public housing’s precarious state squarely on City Hall. “NYCHA has to be fixed by the mayor,” he said. “Too many mayors see NYCHA as a federal government problem.”

Hear our conversation below, or listen to the full show, which includes a discussion about the Working Families Party’s successes in this year’s primaries.

Shaun Donovan on his likely run for mayor

Max & Murphy Full Show of August 5, 2020

With reporting by Ben Max