NEW YORK – After two decades under the leadership of Michael Bloomberg and Rudolph Giuliani, New York appears headed for a sharp left turn when voters select a new mayor in November.
“I’m a progressive,” said Bill de Blasio, the city’s public advocate and dominant front-runner in the mayoral campaign. “I believe in an activist role of government. I’ve been exceedingly clear that I borrow from the distant but still very pertinent examples of Franklin Roosevelt and (former mayor) Fiorello LaGuardia. And I think it is time, especially at this moment in history, for activist, progressive government that will address the inequalities we are facing.”
The lanky de Blasio was digging into a bowl of penne pasta at a corner restaurant near his home in Brooklyn. It was a day after his first general election debate against Republican Joe Lhota, and the press reviews noted that the front-runner acted almost like the underdog, pounding his opponent rather than sitting on his lead. “In general I believe in an aggressive strategy,” he told me. “I’m not a rope-a-dope kind of guy.”
Not so many months ago, de Blasio was a distinct underdog in a four-way Democratic primary, overshadowed by City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, the early favorite, and Anthony Weiner, the disgraced former congressman who decided to seek redemption by running for mayor.
In the end his rivals faded, and de Blasio won the primary without a runoff. Today, polls show him with a lead of roughly 40 points. If current trends hold, he would be headed toward one of the biggest victories in an open-seat race in the modern history of the city.
De Blasio’s campaign theme is “a tale of two cities.” He represents a clear departure from many of the policies of the Bloomberg administration, as well as the national Republican Party, to which he has sought to tie Lhota. He wants to sound an alarm about a city in which nearly half the population exists on incomes of 150 percent of the poverty level or less.
“I talk about a crisis of inequality because it’s not just about the cost of living,” he said. “It’s not just about the dumbing down of wages and benefits. It’s not just about the effects of the recession. It is all that plus continuing inequalities in education, continuing inequalities in health care, obviously deeper inequalities in policing that we experienced, say, a decade ago.”
De Blasio wants to raise income tax rates on the wealthy to pay for early childhood and after-school programs. He advocates more generous paid sick leave for families. He has challenged the Bloomberg administration’s charter school policies, particularly the policy of allowing them to use city facilities rent-free. He was sharply critical of the city’s stop-and-frisk policy, a key element of its anti-crime efforts that was later declared unconstitutional by a federal judge.
“He is poised to be the most progressive big city mayor in America,” said Howard Wolfson, deputy mayor under Bloomberg and someone who has known de Blasio for many years.
New York is heavily Democratic. But for the past 20 years, voters have looked to politicians of other stripes to address problems that had become intolerable.
Giuliani tackled the city’s crime problem with relentless focus. Today, crime is not considered a major issue.
Bloomberg applied his management skills to the problems of local government and made the city more efficient, among other successes.
Bloomberg will leave office with net positive ratings, and yet de Blasio has run a successful campaign that has been both explicitly and implicitly critical of the incumbent. He said that the “sharp, sharp stories of people’s economic duress” persuaded him there was a hunger for a change in direction.
De Blasio sees inequality as a national problem but says the federal government has defaulted on the problem. He blames Republicans in Congress for that. “You can’t wait on the cavalry to come from Washington,” he said. “It’s not coming anytime soon.”
If de Blasio becomes mayor, he will face potentially significant obstacles as he seeks to implement his campaign promises.
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat, said last week he opposes the tax increase de Blasio is calling for to pay for his early childhood and after-school program.
Business leaders are wary of his expansive view of government and his tax policies.
Giuliani has called him anti-police.
School reformers dislike his charter schools policy.
“I think we’ve all been to this movie before,” he said of the resistance he faces. But he remains unapologetic about his views. “I think progressives can’t be looking over their shoulder,” he said. “If you look over your shoulder, you might as well declare defeat.”
Still, de Blasio is a politician. Even before the election, he has been spending time with groups wary of his agenda, seeking to explain why his policies are not as threatening to them as they think. “There’s a certain demystification I’m trying to achieve,” he said.
He said he also wants to explain to these audiences why it’s important to them that he address inequality as aggressively as he plans to do. “I think some of them have not given enough thought to what happens to society if more and more inequality grows and fewer and fewer people have opportunities,” he said. “My hope over time is that there will be a recognition that this is in everybody’s interest.”
De Blasio’s politics long have been rooted in the left.
In the 1980s he worked for a social justice organization that delivered food and medicine to Nicaragua during the war there. A profile of him in The New York Times called him “an ardent supporter of the Nicaraguan rebels.”
Later he turned to more conventional politics. He served as campaign manager for Hillary Rodham Clinton’s 2000 U.S. Senate campaign and spent eight years on the city council before he was elected as public advocate.
That background, he said, has prepared him to be mayor.
Others, including his opponent, question whether he has the managerial experience needed to run an enterprise as large and complex as New York City. Lhota, who was a deputy mayor and budget director under Giuliani, asserted in last week’s debate that de Blasio was “untested” and unready to be mayor. “I can be mayor on day one without any training,” he said.
When I asked de Blasio about this, he talked about a lunch he had about two years ago with former Mayor Ed Koch, now deceased. De Blasio said he had sharply disagreed with some of Koch’s policies but admired what he had done on housing. He said he had sought him out for advice. “I tried to draw out of him how he went from junior liberal congressman to in many ways an extraordinarily effective CEO of New York City in very adverse times,” de Blasio said.
What did he learn? “He said it’s really about leadership,” de Blasio said. “It’s really about a vision of where you’re trying to go . . . and rally people around it. . . . To him it was something more human, more intrinsic, because he hadn’t run anything bigger than a congressional office. But he knew he had the human capacity. So in my own humble way, I feel the same way.”
If the polls hold, and there’s little to suggest they won’t, New York will soon be under new management. New Yorkers — and people around the country — will be paying close attention to the next chapter in the city’s history.