Bill de Blasio fires back at his critics: "You have to be able to walk and chew gum in this job"

Can New York's mayor help fix Washington while he's still got troubles at home? He has no choice, he tells Salon

Published May 15, 2015 9:59AM (EDT)

Bill de Blasio            (Reuters/Carlo Allegri)
Bill de Blasio (Reuters/Carlo Allegri)

Right around the time New York Mayor Bill de Blasio began his speech at the Roosevelt Institute convening on income inequality Tuesday morning, Republicans began retweeting this from the New York Post:

It framed a lot of the media reaction to de Blasio’s Washington debut later that afternoon, when he unveiled a 13-point “Progressive Agenda to Combat Income Inequality” outside the U.S. Capitol. Flanked by dozens of progressive Congress members, labor leaders and civil rights activists, New York’s mayor promised the plan would galvanize progressives nationwide. “Something is changing in America,” de Blasio said. “It’s time to take that energy and crystallize it into something that can make a difference.”

Of course, many progressives believe the best thing de Blasio can do to make a difference for progressive politics is to be a great mayor of New York City. The Post’s story was typically skewed -- murders are up 10 percent over 2014, a low-crime year, while major crimes are down 7 percent --  but de Blasio is getting criticized more broadly about his national agenda.

An overall laudatory piece in Rolling Stone, touting de Blasio as aspiring to be “the leader of the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party,” got the mayor in hot water when it quoted him saying, "A lot of people outside New York City understand what happened in the first year of New York City better than people in New York City. But I'm convinced something very special happened here."

De Blasio’s new role as a leader of the party’s progressive wing also got him into trouble with some old allies in the Hillary Clinton campaign, when he declined to endorse his former boss (he ran her 2000 Senate campaign) on “Meet the Press” the day she announced. “Like a lot of people in this country, I want to see a vision,” he told Chuck Todd. Former mayoral rival Anthony Weiner blasted de Blasio as disloyal, saying as “mispocheh” – Yiddish for family – he shouldn’t have ducked the question. “You don’t ask a family member to lay out her résumé before you decide to support her,” Weiner told the Wall Street Journal.

Meanwhile, de Blasio’s frenemy, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, recently outflanked the mayor on a local labor issue, demanding emergency measures in response to the New York Times’ exposé on the ugly labor practices of the city’s nail salons. That was just after he penned a New York Times Op-Ed committing to raising the wages of fast-food workers.

In an interview on the day he unveiled his Progressive Agenda, de Blasio answered his critics calmly. He has an affable, slightly goofy equanimity that serves him well in times of trouble. About an hour later, he’d be presiding over a fractious alliance in which some partners were still seething over what the agenda didn’t include: most notably, anything having to do with criminal justice reform, or the issue of expanding Social Security and pushing the notion of debt-free college. De Blasio smoothed the waters, and the tension didn’t disrupt the event.

In our interview, de Blasio promised that the agenda is unfinished and will be updated in collaboration with his partners. He said he was “optimistic” he would endorse Clinton, but he declined to do so during our chat. Meanwhile, he touted his record after 16 months in office: free, full-day, universal pre-K; expanding paid sick leave; curtailing the NYPD's stop-and-frisk policy; and decriminalizing minor marijuana possession.

And he stressed the historic role of New York’s mayor in galvanizing an urban agenda over the years, touting his work lobbying for infrastructure investment -- just hours before a deadly Amtrak derailment highlighted the need to work in Washington as well as New York.

The Roosevelt Institute event underscored that there’s so much activism and smart thinking on the left of the Democratic Party. What do you see this effort of yours providing? I’m almost asking: What’s your theory of change? We have good ideas; it seems what we need is political muscle…

I think there’s a lot of good kindred pieces right now. It’s very positive there are different strands out there. Look at all the localities out there providing different solutions on income inequality. Look what’s happening with referenda. Look what’s happening with the activists and the different gatherings around agendas. What I’m trying to bring is a coalitional dynamic that will magnify the voices of progressives. Progressives always need to work at unity. What I tried to do was take the convening power that comes with being mayor of New York and magnify the importance of the message and the ideas. And to specifically make it about real platform planks we can act on in the near term.

I think things like the carried interest loophole and ending tax credits for companies that ship jobs overseas are the kinds of ideas that could actually gain currency in the here and now in this country. I think there’s a growing understanding of the importance of early childhood education, and not just in places like New York City but Oklahoma –

Yes, you’ve got red states taking the lead on pre-K …

And certainly what you’ve seen on minimum wage, it’s across the spectrum. So I would argue that our task as Progressive Agenda is to bring together a lot of folks who don’t always work together even if they’re kindred – elected officials, labor, activists, faith leaders, cultural figures – and say, here’s a course of actions we can take on income inequality, and magnify the strength of progressives in that debate. I think public discourse discourages perception of just how strong the progressive movement is…

What do you mean by that? Give me an example…

The public discourse under-rates an obvious phenomenon: Given how many cities and states have addressed paid sick leave, or the minimum wage, or living wage, how can it not constitute a national trend? The “Fight for $15” effort is extraordinary. I consider myself a student of social movements; this is a social movement that’s had tremendous ability to break through. Not only are 200 cities having demonstrations, but individual companies are now proactively raising their wages. That suggests an extraordinarily successful movement. And I’d point to the minimum wage referenda even in the red states to say: Something is structurally changing. But we have to have a progressive core to address these issues nationwide.

So what I hope to do is take these powerful voices and get them onto some of the same core planks. I think it’s necessary to evolve our strength in the national discourse. And the response has been great. Given we’ve only done this in the last month or so, the response has been fantastic.

You’re taking pot shots for your national work from the left and right, mostly right. While you were speaking today, Republicans began tweeting, ‘oh there he is in DC while the violent crime rate in New York is going up.’ How do you respond to critics of moving on to your national agenda while there’s still more to do at home?

The major crimes index for New York City is down from a year ago. 2014 was a low year for crime. We’re also gaining an immense amount of policing time and energy freed up by not enforcing the stop-and-frisk policy, by not going after low-level marijuana offenses. A lot is changing that’s freeing up the time of our police officers to go after violent crime. But you have to walk and chew gum in this job, and what’s abundantly clear from the days of [Fiorello] LaGuardia through today, is that the mayors of New York have had to speak up for needs of the city. They’ve often been among the chief spokespeople for urban America.

And I find a contradiction: When I first began to run, and I talked about “a tale of two cities,” a common critique I heard from journalists was, “Well, you can’t achieve enough in one city.” And it’s true: A core piece of the change must come from federal and state policy. So we’re fighting for a higher minimum wage in Albany. We’re fighting for a new transportation bill in Washington. This is necessary to serve the people of New York City. Does anyone think if we just let the status quo be it’s going to serve our interests? No, we have to change the underlying politics. And that does take time and energy and coalition building. And also it will take years. But it’s absolutely necessary for New York.

Our infrastructure issues alone are so intense, with an aging infrastructure and a growing population. If we don’t get a change in the approach in Washington, we will keep falling behind. I can’t achieve all that change sitting at my desk in city hall. It’s ahistorical to say that a mayor of NYC can be effective without trying to move federal and state government in a way that helps our people.

There were lines in the Rolling Stone piece that bugged people, even allies: You seemed to suggest that people outside the city understand what you’ve done better than people inside the city – out of context it could sound like you’re getting a little too big for your britches…

No…as someone who goes to the same YMCA in Brooklyn every morning as I ever have, no, not at all. I think it’s more fundamental than that. What I was saying I think is true any place you go: If you’re living your life,  you see things day to day, from a certain perspective. People outside any place have a different perspective. And what I’ve heard all over the country is a real appreciation of the progress we’re making.

We’ve talked about your interesting relationship with Gov. Cuomo, and I’m struck by his recent moves on fast food industry wages – and on nail salons, he might have upstaged you. That New York Times piece had the feel of a garment industry story from the early 20th century that should be galvanizing progressive action…

It was a window on the economy in our city and how far we still have to go. And I’m thrilled with what the governor did. We want everyone to fight income inequality and address economic unfairness. I’m coalitional by nature. I think if the governor jumped on that issue, that’s fantastic. We agree on some things, we don’t agree on progressive taxation. I think we should have done that to finance our pre-K program, I think we need to go farther on the minimum wage. But I appreciate any time he uses the power of government to address income inequality.

To me it’s a measure of how he also feels pushed on these issues of inequality – he can’t ignore them anymore.

Well that’s what I’m trying to do with this organizing effort. We have to change the basic political rules of debate. Showing that progressive policies can work in New York City is part of it. Not only is [economist Joseph] Stiglitz right – we have a 30 year trend of undermining the middle class and working people – we have a broken political dynamic. There are many more progressives than the public discourse would indicate. The values of the people are more progressive on economics than elections would indicate. But if that kind of pressure building and coalition building – the “Fight for $15” is one example – is what forces government to act, companies to act – then we’ve got to be doing more of it.

So I have to ask you where Hillary Clinton fits in. I know you didn’t plan to go on “Meet the Press” to upstage her announcement…

I didn’t even know she was announcing. We planned to go on to talk about this progressive agenda, which had just started the week before at Gracie Mansion…

And so you get the question, which you have to be prepared for, about whether you’d endorse her. Can you talk about how you see this agenda relating to Hillary Clinton?

It’s a very clear template for anyone aspiring to office to respond to, if they want to do something about income inequality. Here is the anti-trickle-down view. Here are a series of action items that could be achieved in the here and now. And I am optimistic that Hillary and her team will find a lot to agree with. I went on “Meet the Press” on a day that happened to be the day she announced. I just articulated what everyday people feel about candidates: they want to know what they’re going to do, particularly in perilous economic times. And these are perilous economic times. We’re living in a very weak recovery. We used to call it a jobless recovery. Now there are more jobs, but there are too many low paying jobs.

Not that you take political advice from Anthony Weiner, but he said you shouldn’t have declined to endorse her because you’re “mispocheh” – Yiddish for family – so how could you do that? Did you have feelings like that?

No. I think very, very highly of her, and I think she has a very substantial progressive history, particularly in the fight for healthcare reform and the way she took on the insurance industry, it took a lot of guts. But you can respect someone and think they’re a great leader and still want to see a clear vision. Our future depends on it.

Can you imagine a scenario in which you do not endorse her?

One, I don’t do hypotheticals…

C’mon, we all do…

No, I don’t. But I can say honestly, I’m optimistic. Because that day, honestly, she had not said much about issues, she was traveling through Iowa. But then she gave the speech on immigration, which I thought was great, the speech on criminal justice reform I thought was great, I think we’re seeing a lot. I still want to hear the core agenda for fighting income inequality, but this is a very promising start.

I wrote recently about “The end of (Bill) Clinton liberalism,” and wondered whether a Clinton could lead us to where we need to go (I think she can). But we’re hitting the limits of ‘90s liberalism. The Clinton approach to crime didn’t come out of racism. Welfare reform came out of good intentions. But we’ve now seen: over-incarceration has really hurt the communities we care about. Welfare reform helped create a poverty trap, where a quarter of people who work get some form of welfare. Unions need more support…

It’s a different time. The Great Recession reset the entire political dynamic, it redefines the political reality. We’re in a whole new world compared to 10 years ago. There needs to be a new kind of progressivism for this moment. The progressive agenda will show people government responds to their needs. People who came up in the '30s and '40s knew the government had real and lasting solutions to their problems. I think the progressive movement of today is demanding we rewrite the rules. Baltimore is an example of the need for an entirely different approach to communities left behind economically. It’s racism, too, racism has to be addressed…

You and Sen. Warren talked about the importance of popular movements in pushing this agenda this morning, but I noticed nobody mentioned the “Black Lives Matter” movement. I’m wondering where the issues of criminal justice reform and mass incarceration are on this agenda -- I mean, they’re not on this agenda.

I think this agenda, and this coalition, is going to grow. We have to connect the fact that income inequality is deeply connected to mass incarceration, that racism underlies the lack of opportunity for men of color. I think those two issues go naturally together and I’m going to be putting a lot of time into them.

By Joan Walsh