Leonard Quart | Letter From New York : A tale of two mayors as Election Day looms

NEW YORK — In November New York City is electing a mayor and it seems to be a foregone conclusion that the incumbent, Bill De Blasio, will win. He is far ahead in the polls running against a little known Republican assemblywoman from Staten Island, Nicole Malliotakis. A Quinnipiac poll saw 61 percent of likely voters favoring De Blasio, while 17 percent favored Malliotakis.

Malliotakis is a pro Trump pol who suggested Trump was right to withhold funds from sanctuary cities, would like to bring back stop-and-frisk, and increase speed limits on major arterial roads. One of her prime attacks is on De Blasio's handling of the deterioration of subway service, but much of her agenda is vague or a rhetorical lament that the city is collapsing. Malliotakis also has to deal with an independent candidate, Bo Dietl, a brash campaigner, and a ranting, unpredictable debater whose political positions overlap with hers.

The smart but uncharismatic, sometimes tone deaf and arrogantly self-righteous De Blasio has a hard time arousing enthusiastic support. On July 31 his approval rating had tumbled to an ambivalent 50 percent and only 46 percent of voters said he deserves re-election. Still, he has raised more than $5.25 million for his reelection and has received nearly $3 million in public funds, which his opponents can't match.

Record to run on

De Blasio has a mixed record in office, but can point to a number of solid achievements: 300,000 new jobs added in his first term and unemployment dropping to record lows; settling dozens of labor contracts that Mayor Bloomberg had never signed; reducing the jail population; launching a new NYC Ferry system; the city's public school system having the highest recorded graduation rate in 2016, at 72.6 percent; and in September crime in the city falling at a record-breaking rate with homicides, shootings, and serious offenses dropping to the lowest level in the modern era.

But though two investigations failed to find any indictable offenses connected to his fund-raising operations they left the impression that money bought access to the mayor — no different than most of our past mayors. Homeless shelters are at capacity, and like other New York mayors, De Blasio has little clue how to solve the problem, which confronts most of our major cities.

There is also De Blasio's central promise of building and preserving 200,000 units of affordable housing over 10 years. He has built or preserved 77,651 units so far with 24,293 financed in 2017. Of those 24,293 homes, 40 percent were for families of three with an annual income of less than $43,000, while 4,014 were for the lowest tier families making less than $26,000. De Blasio has also engineered a record-low 1 percent increase in the rents on the city's 1 million rent-stabilized apartments in 2014, followed by two years in which rents weren't increased at all. In addition, he has spent record sums to fund legal services for tenants facing eviction and then agreed to create a right to counsel for low-income people facing eviction in housing court.

Still the housing crisis continues, with half of the city's renter households paying more than 30 percent of their income. So a few days after De Blasio won the primary, housing advocates were in front of City Hall claiming that the progressive mayor's affordable-housing plan is neither progressive nor affordable. And the 200,000-apartment goal that he's set as a goal does not include nearly enough apartments for people with lower incomes.

It's not that De Blasio's isn't genuinely committed to creating affordable housing, but housing policy involves many intricate elements (tax breaks, vouchers, subsidies, city departments) and interest groups (tenants, landlords, preservationists.) However, in the meantime we are left with his good intentions and people ranging from the middle class to the poor struggling to find affordable housing.

De Blasio has been a competent mayor, but it's probably impossible for him to stem the inexorable tide of the rich and near-rich who want to live in New York, resulting in a city where blatant economic inequality reigns.

Writing about De Blasio moved me to think again about Bloomberg's three terms in office that preceded him. I decided to read "Bloomberg: A Billionaire's Ambition" by Chris McNickle (Skyhorse) that deals positively but not uncritically with the Bloomberg years. It's a public, not personal, biography.

During those years I had been antipathetic to some aspects of his autocratic, big money oriented reign, but I thought his legacy a mixed one. The book's positive spin emphasizes the data-driven Bloomberg's ability to keep the city safe, managing the budget (he left a budget surplus) and infrastructure, promoting economic development, running for office without having to do favors for donors; and supporting public projects like the High Line and High Bridge in the Bronx.

Good place to be rich

The book does deal with Bloomberg's failures: jailhouse violence that rose to such levels that the federal government intervened; homeless policies that were ineffective; only modest progress in education (he was too dependent on seeing its success in terms of test scores); and most significantly, he followed policies that "revealed a dispiriting pattern of calculated negligence" towards the poorest New Yorkers.

Bloomberg's New York was a good place to be wealthy, upper middle class, and even middle class. That's if you could forget that the developers and Bloomberg were part of the same cohort and the poor played little or no role in his idea of the golden city.

De Blasio's agenda is ideologically closer to my notion of a just city. However, though he has pursued policies that try to make the city more equitable, it's hard to see him having done much better in this respect than the billionaire Bloomberg.

Leonard Quart can be reached at cinwrit@aol.com


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