Leonard Quart: A solid start for NYC’s new mayor
From my vantage point, New York Mayor Bill De Blasio’s first six months in office have been a relative success. He has tried to run this once ungovernable city in accord with progressive social ideals that I am in general agreement with, offering a number of concrete proposals that would make the city a more equitable and just place to live.
But as can be expected of anyone who wields political power, he has at times looked like any pedestrian politico who is engaged in cynically playing the game, fearful of offending some voting bloc or another. More importantly,
de Blasio has also come
up against powerful political forces that have at times outmaneuvered him, and he has made the usual small stumbles, which in New York are always inflated out of all proportion by the media to make him look ineffectual and foolish.
But what are De Blasio’s concrete achievements? There are some that possibly could have occurred under any mayor: A 26 percent decrease in pedestrian fatalities in the first quarter of this year versus last; and slight dips in the number of murders, shootings and robberies, as well a pothole-filling bonanza, which saw nearly 289,000 potholes filled this quarter, versus 115,000 at this time last year. But one thing that probably couldn’t have been achieved under Bloomberg is the success so far of fulfilling de Blasio’s promise to repair relations between the community and the police. A general feeling now exists that the tensions have lessened, and crime still remains relatively low.
More importantly, de Blasio concluded a new 5-year contract with the Transport Work-
ers Union (TWU) dating from January 2012 covering 34,000 workers at the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA). He followed it by negotiating a historic a nine-year contract with the city teachers union that provided two years of retroactive pay, hopefully setting a pattern for pacts with all 300,000 municipal workers.
The unions had been working for years with expired contracts under Bloomberg, and when he completed his term he left de Blasio with a daunting problem. But de Blasio, possibly too optimistically, feels the city has the money within its budget framework to cover the union contracts. His budget proposal as a whole would increase spending by 6 percent compared with last year’s plan, adhering to de Blasio’s commitment to a budget that would help create a more progressive city and improve the lot of city workers.
When it came to de Blasio’s major campaign promise -- the citywide pre-K program -- he failed to get Gov. Cuomo to pass a small tax on the wealthy to fund it. But he made it impossible for the elusive, cynical governor to avoid finding a way to support it, and secured the largest chunk of state funding for pre-K in the history of the city. Cuomo also failed to prevent de Blasio from using state funds to subsidize rent for homeless families. In addition, struggling adults without dependents who are unemployed or underemployed -- often students -- can now receive food stamps.
The issue of charter schools was another matter. De Blasio had to deal with a backlash from charter supporters (promoted by a $3.6 million advertising blitz) for justifiably trying to reverse space-sharing deals under Bloomberg that gave free space to charters in public school buildings. The formidable supporters of charter sch-
ools run the range from philanthropists to wealthy hedge-fund managers who are investing in the charter-school industry, to aggressive, articulate charter school titan Eva Moskowitz, who wanted space for her schools that would be paid by the city, to Cuomo himself, a charter school supporter.
Finally, a deal was ann-
ounced that gave three of Moskowitz’ Success Academy schools space inside defunct Catholic school buildings come September. On the charter school issue de Blasio was outmaneuvered, and was forced to strike a conciliatory tone. He emphasized the common ground he shared with charter school supporters, and quoted the theologian, Paul Tillic saying, "The noise of these shallow waters prevents us from listening to the sounds out of the depth."
If there is a policy that is prime to de Blasio’s success in making the city more livable for the middle class and the poor it is his promise to build affordable housing in a city where both rents and housing prices have skyrocketed. Con-
sequently, he has proposed a plan to save and protect 200,000 units for low and middle-income residents, which he hopes will provide new jobs in the neighborhoods where projects are built. The projected investment to create and maintain affordable units would total more than $41.1 billion over 10 years, and the mayor intends to require, not simply encourage (like Bloom-
berg), developers to include affordable units in residential projects.
Still, before being enacted, many of the details have to be ironed out, and de Blasio needs the cooperation of the real estate industry (he has offered them bigger buildings). So far they are supportive, though the greater building density proposed to pay for the housing raises both aesthetic and environmental questions.
Yes, de Blasio is generally on the side of the angels. But he is also a politician, who has already dropped talking about his promise to raise the wealthy’s income taxes. He listened supinely to a zealous ultra-Orthodox rabbi give a speech relegating Reform and Conservative Jews "to the dustbins of Jewish history," and made nice with the chameleon-like Al Sharpton. And I’m certain there will be innumerable other instances where de Blasio will do the convenient politic thing, and where he will compromise and make deals.
I know he’ll disappoint me, for that’s the way of all politicians. But I remain happy that he -- rather than one of Wall Street or the real estate industry’s allies -- runs the city.
Leonard Quart can be reached at email@example.com.
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