NYC Mayor Final Day

New York Mayor Bill de Blasio hold hands with first lady Chirlane McCray at City Hall following a walkout ceremony to commemorate his final days in office, Thursday, Dec. 30, 2021, in New York. After winning a landslide victory in 2013, de Blasio became the first Democrat in two decades to serve as mayor of New York, delivering on a promise to offer universal pre-K and curbing the police stop-and-frisk tactic. "I want people to remember that we needed to fight inequality and we did. And it can be done," de Blasio said in an interview Tuesday with The Associated Press. (Michael Appleton/NYC Mayoral Photography Office via AP)

Bill de Blasio’s tenure as mayor is over, so it’s an apt moment to analyze his eight years in office. The electorate may no longer like him, though he keeps on masochistically aspiring to win higher office. Still, his legacy as a mayor is a mixed rather than an utterly disastrous one.

De Blasio came to power representing a leftward shift in New York City politics. As the successor to the competent three-term billionaire, corporate-allied Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who was a Republican-turned-independent, de Blasio took over City Hall in 2014 on the promise of ending the so-called “Tale of Two Cities,” the Dickensian metaphor for income inequality.

To that end, he achieved some early policy victories that helped working-class New Yorkers: universal pre-K, his greatest achievement where there are now more than 70,000 seats with a slot available for any student who seeks one: the curbing of stop-and-frisk policies by the police; a fight to raise the minimum wage to $15 for all city workers; the creation of IDNYC — which gave New Yorkers access to many services; and rent freezes for rent-regulated tenants.

A number of these measures arguably had an effect on income inequality. A recent analysis showed that New York City’s income divide narrowed from 2014 to 2019, defying a national trend and reversing four decades of flat or rising income inequality.

Always criticized as a poor manager, he dealt with the pandemic by assembling a team that set up a massive testing structure and rolled out a successful vaccination effort. He was able to get all 350,000 municipal employees vaccinated or risk losing their jobs. He soon was able to extend the mandates to private-sector workers, passing the most sweeping vaccine mandate of any state or big city in the U.S. Obviously, those victories could not take account of what may happen with omicron and the next stage in the seemingly endless war against COVID.

For all that, a number of city problems under de Blasio remain unsolved: the wrecked state of public housing — broken elevators, lead paint, high crime and an absence of heat; city jails have become even more dangerous in his eight years in office; the growth of violent crime, also a nationwide phenomenon; an inability to satisfy the police unions or the groups committed to police reform; buses still crawling along the streets at eight miles an hour; and homelessness growing with 47,916 homeless people, including 14,946 homeless children, sleeping each night in the New York City municipal shelter system as of August 2021. In fact, there are many homeless encampments established on the streets, containing food, filthy bedding and soft drink cans as part of the mess.

There is also a still segregated school system, especially the specialized high schools (Stuyvesant) with very few Black and Latino students enrolled. To address that inequity, de Blasio proposed eliminating the standardized test and admitting top performers from middle schools across the city. But de Blasio failed to enlist the city’s Asian community, whose children go to these schools in large numbers, and who see these special schools as a prime agent of their families’ mobility. The sustained criticism he faced forced de Blasio to withdraw the proposal.

Beyond these continuing problems, he had to deal with the constant bullying and put-downs of his nemesis former Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who chose him as a particular victim. Their feuding and competition was the kind of performance art that did nothing to help the city. Neither did the fact that the tabloid, right-wing New York Post pummeled him daily for what they saw as sins small and large. For them, nothing he did was right.

Of course, it’s hard to say there is a politico extant who could solve these problems, but de Blasio had a particularly sleazy record when dealing with fundraising. For years, he reached out to developers who were doing business with the city. The agency tasked with administering the city’s conflict of interest law wrote in 2018 that de Blasio’s fundraising tactics “created the very appearance of coercion and improper access to you and your staff.” Despite the warning, he has continued to raise money using these same questionable tactics.

All New York mayors, whatever their politics, seem to get in bed with developers. But given de Blasio’s prime push for affordable housing — which has been dependent on also constructing luxury buildings — the developers became an integral part of his campaigns and mayoralty. In addition, de Blasio paid little heed to the protests and objections of the neighborhoods impacted by the building.

De Blasio may not have been untouched by sleaze, but corruption didn’t define his time in office. However, his progressive achievements were often forgotten because of his gaffes and inability to win over the media. What de Blasio needed was greater self-awareness, and to be able to project a less pompous, more spontaneous and humanly connected persona.

That’s no problem for the politically supple, charismatic and quick-witted new Mayor Eric Adams. Still, I am wary that Adams is all smiling performance and little substance, except for being good at serving the city’s real estate interests and grandstanding on crime. Let’s hope that in these apocalyptic times, he can use his political gifts to make an incremental difference.

There is little more that we can we hope for.

Leonard Quart can be reached at Cinwrit@aol.com.