At a time when the U.S. Congress has become totally dysfunctional and paralyzed, some cities and metropolitan areas have stepped up to do the hard work of growing jobs to make their economies more prosperous. In a new book, "The Metropolitan Revolution," by Bruce Katz and Jennifer Bradley, the authors write that cities are no longer merely focusing on consumption, and stealing businesses from other cities. They are now "investing in infrastructure. They’re making manufacturing a priority again. They’re equipping workers with the skills they need to compete in the global economy."
Some of these goals have been pursued in New York, Boston, Denver, and other cities, but it would be sheer fantasy for anyone to believe that the future creation of a high tech campus on Roosevelt Island, one of the authors’ examples of innovation, will by itself transform New York City’s schools, its housing market, and the rate of poverty.
Still, if no city government can, by being technologically "cutting edge," or rebuilding its highways and bridges, immediately change the quality of life of large portions of its population, it’s clear that municipal power and politics have an increasing impact on those of us who live in New York. And those people who detach themselves from any interest in local politics should think again about its significance.
For example, since Mayor Bloomberg came to power in 2001 he has affected, for better or worse, our daily existence in countless ways: from successfully promoting the high tech sector, to relying too much on standardized testing while often unilaterally running the school system; and from passing many health-related initiatives like banning smoking at the city’s bars and restaurants, to being totally committed to real estate developers’ building luxury condominiums for the moneyed. In fact, he has had much more of an influence on our everyday lives than either Presidents Bush or Obama.
During Bloomberg’s three terms in office, I have gradually grown antipathetic to many aspects of his autocratic, contemptuous, big money-oriented reign. But I still think his political legacy has been a mixed one. He has been, among other things, an effective manager of the budget, the delivery of services, and the city’s economy during a time of recession and global crisis; and on the side of virtue on issues like gun control, gay rights, and immigration. I know supporting these policies doesn’t demand great courage from a New York politician, but he has stood out as an aggressive and articulate advocate.
However, I am looking to vote for a successor who has a more egalitarian, less corporate perspective on the future of the city. Someone who has sympathy for, not condescension toward, the majority of New Yorkers who are unable to partake in the glittering New York of new condos, hotels, restaurants, galleries, and boutiques in a city where gentrification rules.
In the Tuesday, Sept. 10 Democratic primary there is only one among the six mayoral candidates who I feel truly represents that vision -- the informed, intelligent, uncharismatic, too predictable Bill de Blasio. De Blasio, the city’s current public advocate (a powerless position), has stated, "New York City is also an idea. It’s a culture and a history. We are the keepers of the flame of inclusion and tolerance and diversity. I see people suffering and feeling like they are losing their grip on the place, and my job is to help people live in New York." Ringing rhetoric and unarguable sentiments, but in De Blasio’s case he’s at least backed them up by proposing a cogent agenda structured to battle inequality.
One key element in De Blasio’s platform is an expanded education budget and the implementation of true universal pre-kindergarten paid for through a tax on households making more than $500,000 a year. He also proposes to cut down on stop-and-frisk (whose legality is now in doubt), require real estate developers to build more below market-rate apartments, direct pension funds to investments in housing and infrastructure, and beef up city bus service, which has suffered from severe cuts. He has also been a major force behind passing living wage and paid-sick-leave legislation in the City Council.
Not one of the other Democratic candidates can be called conservative. And none of them is as linked to the city’s rich and powerful like Bloomberg. But the two people De Blasio must beat -- Comptroller Bill Thompson and Speaker of the City Council Christine Quinn -- despite their criticizing and breaking from some of Bloomberg’s policies, did not spend their years in office mounting strong challenges to the mayor and his Wall Street/developer/corporate strategy. In fact, Quinn has often operated as Bloomberg’s clone, and her campaign has gotten a fair amount of money from Related Companies (the developer of the massive Hudson Yards complex under Bloomberg), and other real estate companies.
Consequently, it’s De Blasio who offers, in his own words, "a major reset" if he becomes mayor. He’s the candidate who Wall Street fears the most and who offers the most concise critique of the Bloomberg years: "On health and the environment, Bloomberg is Franklin Roosevelt. On economic justice, he’s Adam Smith. He turns into a free marketeer."
At the same time, De Blasio is no demagogic populist; he spent years working for such political pros as Hillary Clinton and Andrew Cuomo, and understands there are limits to what he can do in creating a more equitable city. But hopefully he has the will to work at redressing the economic balance in this bifurcated New York -- a city that with the dubious designation of having the highest rate of income inequality in the nation.
Leonard Quart can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org