Forget Weiner: There's a real progressive for NYC Mayor

Bill de Blasio tells Salon he'll break from Bloomberg, end racial profiling and tax the rich to fund preschool

Published July 26, 2013 3:26PM (EDT)

Bill de Blasio                    (Reuters/Keith Bedford)
Bill de Blasio (Reuters/Keith Bedford)

The day the latest Anthony Weiner scandal surfaced, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg vetoed anti-racial profiling legislation, a young woman was murdered in the East Harlem housing project where mayoral candidates had stayed two nights earlier, and Bill de Blasio held a press conference to talk about his work to block the closing of two New York hospitals – which wound up dominated by questions about Weiner.

That’s mostly been the story of de Blasio’s campaign since Weiner jumped into the mayor’s race in May and immediately became City Council President Christine Quinn’s top rival. While the exhibitionist former congressman still has progressive fans from his days shouting about health care reform on Fox and MSNBC, de Blasio is the genuine progressive in the race, with bold stands on police controversies and economic inequality that set him apart. Still, he’s been stuck in the middle of the pack in the polls, behind Weiner, Quinn and former comptroller Bill Thompson, who lost to Bloomberg in 2009.

New York magazine, in a largely admiring profile of de Blasio, called his campaign “easily the most intellectually coherent and focused when it comes to inequality… but his wonky ideas are also in danger of getting lost in Weinermania” – and that was before the latest revelations of Weiner’s sexting habits after he left Congress.

Yet de Blasio, New York’s Public Advocate, may be the beneficiary of Weiner’s latest troubles: In the Wall Street Journal/Marist College poll released Thursday – the first poll taken after the new sexting news -- Weiner had dropped far behind Quinn, and de Blasio had climbed into a tie with Thompson at 14 percent. He was in second place among voters who said they were likely to vote in the city’s Democratic primary -- significant, because unless a candidate gets more than 40 percent of the primary vote, the top two vote-getters will compete in a run-off -- though polling experts say surveys consistently undercount the African American Thompson's support, which is how he came close to upsetting Bloomberg in 2009.

New York, the laboratory for the New Deal, hasn’t had a Democratic mayor in 24 years, since Rudy Giuliani displaced David Dinkins in a city riven by racial tension and fear of crime. De Blasio got his start working for Dinkins and has been a voice for a renewed New York liberalism ever since, serving on the City Council before becoming Public Advocate. He lives in Brooklyn with his wife Chirlane McCray, who is African American, and their two children Dante and Chiara, who attend public schools. (New York’s tabloids have been less intrigued by their interracial marriage than by the revelation that McCray once identified as a lesbian.)

Munching on a whole wheat croissant and drinking an iced espresso, de Blasio laid out the vision he hopes will again make New York a laboratory for progressive government, a multiracial city that works for everyone: an end to racial profiling, living wage legislation, affordable housing requirements for luxury developers, a tax on the wealthiest to fund universal preschool and after-school programs.

If you’re tired of the media’s obsession with Weiner’s sexting, and longing for a campaign about big issues, meet Bill de Blasio.

When I’ve criticized Weiner, I’ve had people say to me, “Why are you attacking this progressive guy? Leave him alone!” But he has no record of actual progressive accomplishments. You must have faced this, too, even before this week. “Yeah Bill you’re a great guy, but we have this new progressive in the race…”

Well… I want to frame it right. I have heard it, but I did not hear it in communities of color, because he didn’t have any substantial history of supporting the needs of communities of color. Obviously he opposed the [anti] racial profiling bill, has not been involved in communities of color for years, he voted for the deregulation of rent stabilized apartments. No one who’s known Anthony over the years considered him an economic progressive. So I never hear that from communities of color, I do hear it from white progressives, and it’s overwhelmingly about health care. But that was not a productive effort by him to achieve change, that was a media platform…

Right, shouting about single payer on Fox and MSNBC...

It was self-promotion. At a forum a few weeks back he said “I fought for single payer, and I got Obamacare!” And I said, “You didn’t get Obamacare, President Obama got Obamacare!” There is a mischaracterization of his role consistently. I think if we were talking about substance, that would all come out. In the normal comparison that happens in an election cycle – it would be enormously clear that he didn’t have a particularly progressive agenda, he didn’t have a productive agenda. Obviously that Times article showing that he’d only passed one piece of legislation after [12 years in Congress] was all you needed to know. I think it’s fair to say, if there ever is an examination of the record, people will not find a productive progressive there.

You’ve described yourself as the most progressive candidate in the race in terms of dealing with policing issues…

I talk in my campaign about “the tale of two cities;” in some ways it’s the sharpest on policing. In white neighborhoods, a law-abiding white teenager will walk down his street unaccosted, and every family knows it. A law-abiding black teenager has a good chance of being stopped and frisked. I emphasize “law-abiding.” Parents and grandparents have worked hard to raise their children right, and then they’re rewarded by men in uniform and women in uniform treating their children like they’re suspects.

This has to be personal to you – you have a biracial teenage son, Dante, who, in the world of police, is going to be perceived as black. What do you tell him?

We have told him repeatedly, he will be stopped. We haven’t been able to say to him, “It might happen.” We’ve had to get across to him that it will happen, and you must be prepared, and you must do everything right, and there must be no misunderstanding. And it’s a real tragedy in this city that parents are having this conversation every single day, trying to warn young people not only how you stay safe and how to avoid criminals, but also how to deal with police who will treat them as criminals  -- how to not move suddenly, and not reach into your pocket, because there could be a tragic accident. I’ve told him he’s got to freeze, keep his hands visible, follow instructions to the letter.

I think about what that’s saying to the self-esteem of young men of color, that they have to hear this caution, this warning, but also the mixed message: We want everyone to respect the police, but you’re going to be looked at as if there’s something wrong with you. That’s why you have to be even more careful. It’s a horrible message. It’s corrosive. Then what happens is a defensive, frustrated, reaction from parents, grandparents and family members who feel disrespected fundamentally. It makes it much harder for the police to work with the community to make us safe.

So the racial profiling bill is so important. It governs all training, all approaches to how we prepare NYPD officers to do their work every day. It sends a message to families of color that help is on the way, this is not going to be tolerated any more, and that they actually count in the society. I’m the only candidate who believes we need the racial profiling bill and an inspector general and a new police commissioner.

Have you thought about a replacement for Ray Kelly?

Obviously [former commissioner] Bill Bratton is someone who needs to be considered. He has become the leading voice of community policing in this country. What he did in New York, Los Angeles and as a consultant in Oakland…

He’s still tainted by his association with Giuliani, isn’t he? I saw a lot of progressive concern in Oakland…

Except he was fired by Giuliani. He was really elevated by Mayor Dinkins, and that’s a great irony. Both Kelly and Bratton became prominent because of Dinkins. But Bratton is a strong voice for the kind of reforms we need – a strong focus on gang intervention and a strong voice for police working with the community, getting away from overuse of stop and frisk. He will say, like I do, there is a constitutional way to use stop and frisk – the wearing of gang colors in a place where there’s gang activity, that’s fine, but not this broad-brush process which is capturing 90 percent innocent people. He’d be someone to consider, our current chief Philip Banks [ed note: Kelly's job is Commissioner] is someone who should be considered, but it’s premature to have a short list…

Do you think there’s a false dichotomy between the way the Dinkins administration is portrayed when it comes to crime, vs. Giuliani and Bloomberg – as in Mayor Dinkins was soft on crime, and those two cracked down? Wasn’t it Dinkins who got the money to put a lot more cops on the street?

It’s horrible. It’s a horrible miscasting of history. David Dinkins elevated to national attention both Ray Kelly and Bill Bratton, two of the leading policing figures of our time. David Dinkins achieved funding through a tax plan that he was able to bring about in Albany that enabled us to hire new police officers to fight crime. David Dinkins started the movement towards community policing, which then got refined by Bratton and Kelly, that in its good moments really helped safety in the city. Whatever Dinkins’ missteps -- and obviously the Crown Heights riots was a big one, but he’s been candid about the mistakes he made -- but if you look at the larger dynamics of the last quarter century he laid the groundwork for a safer city, but he’s gotten almost zero credit. He played a foundational role and somehow it was erased from the history books.

On the question of housing, you’ve been quoted saying “My job is to help New Yorkers live in New York.” We’re now way beyond gentrification, but what can a mayor be doing to reverse those trends?

Gentrification has been part of our reality for more than 20 years; that’s not gonna change. Bloomberg has effectively bought into the notion that poor people will be forced out, that they’ll go to Paterson New Jersey and Yonkers and other places, and it's OK, even if they’ve been here for generations. It’s OK. That’s against the values of New York City for God’s sake, to begin with… Second, it doesn’t work, and it creates tremendous dislocation in the city. The question is how do we demand commitments from real estate developers to develop affordable housing, and how do we push up wages? The Bloomberg model has been incredibly counterproductive. He’s the anti-FDR. FDR was the guy from the wealthy family who was in touch with what the common person was going through and who was actually willing to use the tools of government to address it. Bloomberg aggressively misunderstood what the common person was going through; he’s a free marketeer, never willing to be interventionist with the power of the most powerful local government on earth. Which is ironic, because he has interventionist tendencies when it came to public health. But never when it came to economic justice.

So he opposed paid sick days, he opposed a living wage, he opposed any way to try to push up wages and benefit levels, he welcomed Walmart. He was entirely insensitive to the bigger economic problems going on with the city. Gentrification might have been liveable if there had been constant efforts to develop low and middle income housing, to push up wage and benefit levels with all the tools we have. But Bloomberg would not agree to policies that would require affordable housing. Everything was based on optional agreements that were then not enforced. A third of the affordable housing promised eight years ago has been built. What we need is a muscular approach that says: If you’re going to do development in this city, you must agree up front to create affordable housing, alongside. It must be built simultaneously. That is the price of admission. We have the highest real estate values in the country, that we’ve had in a long time. We have the bargaining power. It’s got to be non-negotiable. And that was never the Bloomberg approach.

What’s the most important single proposal you’re making?

I think it is the tax on the wealthy for our schools, because one, we have to establish the notion that folks who are doing well can pay a little more, and because two, our school system is so far off the mark right now. So many kids are being left behind. We can’t fix that til we build a foundation in early childhood education, and after school. We have to start adding these pieces in if we’re going to have a chance to have a school system that serves kids across lines of class and race and neighborhoods.

That is the future of the global economy, that’s the future of the country, that’s the future of this city, except just one problem: It’s not being done in this country. The gridlock is disallowing action on this crucially needed piece. But here’s the kicker: We can actually do it here. The consensus may not exist in Washington or Albany but we could do it here. We have a base of wealthy citizens we can fairly ask a little more from. The family that makes $1 million? My tax would mean they pay $2,000 more a year. I’m convinced they’re not leaving town, I’m convinced they can handle that. We have the wealth, we have the need, we know how to create early childhood programs.

Let us be the laboratory, let us be the place that shows it can be done, and what it could mean. If New York shows we can reach every child, and the multiplier effect that has in terms of improving the whole education system, making it easier for teachers to teach – if we could show that, it could start to foster on the national level that this is where we have to go.

People are talking lately about how Democrats have become one big happy family on social issues – gay rights, women’s rights, even to some extent abortion, even guns at least in the blue states -- but we’re divided on economic issues.  Do you see that party split: great on cultural issues, but on economic issues, a lot of Democrats have become more like Republicans?

I couldn’t agree with your analysis more. It is a glorious thing, in New York and to some extent the country, that we have moved so profoundly forward, particularly on gay rights, less so on choice and guns, although here, in the city, we’re fantastic on both. In the city of New York there’s a consensus that was not true not so long ago. On economics, though, we have the farthest thing from it. Sharp, sharp divisions. Twenty years of governments in this city that were explicitly not interested in reaching people in need, dealing with the growing crisis of reduced wages and benefits or lack of affordable housing.

This election, post economic crisis, post-Occupy, post-2012, where Obama wins partly by going after Bain Capital: economic issues matter in a way social and cultural issues don’t here. This is an election about economic fairness. There is not a consensus in this town about that issue. Bloomberg’s presence looms large and negatively. But even among Democrats: It’s clear Quinn wants to continue the Bloomberg legacy. It’s clear Thompson is trying to set himself up as a moderate. I’ve proposed a tax on the wealthy for preschool and after-school programs; Quinn and Thompson opposed that, as did Bloomberg. Quinn and Thompson are both very close to the real estate industry. I think people want a very different approach. They want to see the city respond to their suffering. I think this is the faultline of this election, I think the debate for years to come will be around economic fairness, and so far the lack of city responses to the challenges. And I think that’s gonna change our politics profoundly.

I think what is being missed in the whole discussion in this election -- when we finally get back to discussing issues rather than one couple -- is everywhere I go I find people on the street disgusted. There is a rawness, an anger in the city I have not seen since I started working in New York public life in 1989. There is a sense of dislocation, a sense of options becoming more and more limited, and what people are saying to me is the decline of wages and benefits, the decline of the middle class, the huge increase of housing costs, it’s all happening so quickly, and they see no response. Now, we don’t see a response in Washington...

But we know why…

But we don’t see the response here either, with the tools we have.

Or with the political history of responding, not that it’s easy, but...

But it exists. Look, our most sainted mayor was LaGuardia, he came along in the worst crisis we’d had, and there is a reverence that people who lived through those times feel, and because they knew he was trying every day to find every tool he could to get them some help. It was vivid, people saw it, in practical ways, they knew the city government was on their side. People were trying to get them a little bit of work, a little bit of food, a little bit of help. Today is the opposite reality.

I’m a good government, anti-patronage, anti-corruption person, don’t get me wrong. But in the old city machines, there was more understanding that there should be a connection between voting, and making your life better. This whole Mitt Romney notion that Obama gave people “gifts”: Politics is about helping your constituencies improve their lives! The Republicans do it for the rich! But the building of the middle class in the '40s and '50s and '60s relied a lot on public spending – on new services that lifted people up, education, social work, health care – but that also employed people. Take public schools – they taught our children, but they also employed not only teachers, but construction workers to build the schools, janitors, nurses, crossing guards. We brought people in, and brought them up. We, even Democrats, don't talk that way now.

It’s like the IMF with austerity. There is a powerful parallel in this country. From FDR through Johnson, including Eisenhower, there was exactly the sensibility you describe: Government was going to play an active role. We were going to spur on the economy. We were going to make sure there’s some fairness in distribution. Those were times when CEO salaries were much closer to workers’ salaries. And there was a lot of smart growth that came out of that. People felt included. There was visible evidence of being included. Then began a long series of changes, starting most especially with Reagan, and continuing ever since. But this model doesn’t work. This exclusionary model, the model that pushes down wages and benefits, the austerity model: it doesn’t work in Europe, it doesn’t work in developing countries, it doesn’t work here. What works is a smart government intervention to spur the economy to create inclusion to let everyone have a living sort of wage.

I spent four years [working] in City Hall so this is native to me: We are the size of a country. Bloomberg has tried a modified austerity approach, particularly in recent years. It’s backfiring. It’s not addressing the growing crisis on the ground. So beyond what we need to change in Washington and Albany, this is a city that actually has some power to make a difference. The scale here is astounding. But we have to make a clean break with the Bloomberg approach.

By Joan Walsh