Can this Mayor Save NYC?

Reviewed by Bruce Berg

Over the last half century, every New York City mayor has been the subject of at least one, if not more, published works. There is clearly a consensus that mayors merit this level of attention and scrutiny, and book-length examinations of the city’s mayors have been both journalistic and academic. The current mayor, William (Bill) de Blasio is no exception to this treatment. Two works, one by New York Daily News journalist Juan González (Reclaiming Gotham) and the other by CUNY professor Joseph Viteritti (The Pragmatist), offer the preliminary narrative on the current mayor. What makes these manuscripts interesting is that both were written before the end of Mayor de Blasio’s first term. And while both offer the reader an examination of the political roots of Bill de Blasio and a discussion of his early accomplishments as mayor, five years from now readers will want to know more about the progress made over his two terms as mayor. Is there a reason why these authors should not have waited a little longer to publish their work? Possibly. In a city where Democrats outnumber Republicans by more than five to one, Bill de Blasio is the first Democratic mayor elected in twenty years (five terms). Equally as important, de Blasio is only the second progressive Democratic mayor to be elected in recent years, with the support of minorities, municipal labor unions and progressive white voters; and the first of these mayors to be elected to a second term. And although Bill de Blasio was not a political unknown prior to being elected mayor, he clearly lacked the name recognition and the visibility of his two predecessors. So after twenty years of governance from the center of the political spectrum, the de Blasio mayoralty returned New York City to its liberal/progressive roots. As a result, New Yorkers want to know who this man is, what his origins are — political and otherwise — and how he might lead the city and its governing institutions. Mr. González and Professor Viteritti address these issues.

Given the authors’ backgrounds, the two works are quite different; and for this reason comparisons may be inappropriate, if not unfair. Both authors have a positive orientation toward Bill de Blasio and are supportive of the new mayor’s goal of tackling the city’s growing inequality. But while Professor Viteritti offers the reader a well-documented, academic description and analysis, Mr. González’s openly advocates for the mayor’s success. He wants Mayor de Blasio to be successful, and wants to convince the reader that the current mayor is well on his way. Mr. González’s support for the mayor does not blind him to the mayor’s faults and early problems with his administration, but his work lacks the critical distance that some desire in this type of work. At the same time, however, while Professor Viteritti maintains his neutrality for much of his discussion, he is critical of some of Mayor de Blasio’s policy choices. He chides the mayor for his strident opposition to charter schools when, in fact, they have been effective in raising the educational quality and test scores of many low-income and minority students; populations about which the mayor cares deeply.

Aside from their differences in style, the two works also differ in their approach. Professor Viteritti places Mayor de Blasio within the legacy of progressive politics in New York City going back to Mayor La Guardia. In doing so Viteritti joins the company of New York exceptionalists, suggesting that the phenomena of Bill de Blasio is indigenous to New York. Taking a different approach, Mr. González examines William de Blasio’s rise to power and his early mayoralty within the current urban progressive movement that is growing in many American cities. For Mr. González the rise of Bill de Blasio is not so much an artifact of the city’s progressive history as it is the result of a Democratic left urban backlash to the neoliberal policies of Presidents, governors and mayors over the last several decades. González hypothesizes that what is happening in New York City is similar to the emerging progressive politics in Seattle, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Pittsburgh, Minneapolis and Boston. And González offers the reader thumbnail sketches of many of these movements as evidence of their similarities to New York City.

De Blasio’s progressive roots are well explained by both authors. His family’s history is steeped in left-wing politics from the time that they arrived in this country; and de Blasio’s Democratic left bona fides were well established in his early relationships with ACORN, the Working Families Party, and the municipal labor movement. In examining de Blasio’s political biography, the two authors share a question about the mayor’s career to date. Is he an ultra-progressive outsider pursuing social justice with policy proposals (e.g., a tax on millionaires to fund universal pre-kindergarten) that many mainstream Democrats would oppose? Or is he the pragmatic insider, as Professor Viteritti’s title suggests, having worked in both the Dinkins and Clinton administrations; and prior to his election to the City Council, his involvement in major election campaigns in New York state? Mr. González labels de Blasio “an insurgent with a pedigree.” Both authors imply, if not suggest, that the mayor’s background in the progressive movement combined with his experience in the political mainstream not only makes him an interesting political figure but enables him to be an effective agent of change. One of the puzzling aspects of the early de Blasio mayoralty that neither author addresses is why, given the mayor’s experience with campaigns, his own campaign and fundraising practices as mayor have come under such legal scrutiny. One would think that such a reform-minded politician with this background should have avoided these pitfalls. (Both authors do note that, despite the scrutiny, no one has been indicted.)

A significant component of both works is a discussion of the early years of the de Blasio mayoralty and what it might portend for the future. The theme of the 2013 de Blasio mayoral campaign, “A Tale of Two Cities,” produced policy proposals operationalizing the mayor’s attack on growing urban inequality. These included Universal Pre-Kindergarten and affordable housing, as well as mayor’s 2015 “One New York” speech where he merged Mayor Bloomberg’s PlaNYC-sustainable city goals with his own goal of reducing inequality while achieving sustainability in a socially just manner. The discussion of the mayor’s attempts to achieve greater equality across the city is an area where the two works diverge considerably. In support of his analysis Professor Viteritti offers a table comparing 2014 and 2017 budget data for programs “directed at the needs of vulnerable communities." The two years of data displayed in the table represent the last year of the Bloomberg administration and the latest year of available budget figures for the de Blasio administration. The differences in the two sets of figures — and in some cases they are large — represent the extent to which the de Blasio administration differs from its predecessor in the attempt to reach vulnerable communities with city programs. Some of the significant differences appear in programs dealing with homeless prevention, housing anti-abandonment programs and universal pre-kindergarten.

Despite their optimism, both authors raise appropriate questions about whether Mayor de Blasio can achieve his goals, given an agenda that differs significantly from his predecessors. Professor Viteritti questions whether Mayor de Blasio has the governing coalition and political capital to pursue his agenda successfully. Mr. González asks if New York City can be reclaimed for the poor, working and middle classes. Recognizing that Mayor de Blasio’s two predecessors made little attempt to address the city’s growing gap between rich and poor, González is hopeful that this new brand of liberal mayor, and de Blasio in particular, can make progress in returning the city to its liberal roots. In an attempt to establish a framework for his discussion, Mr. González introduces John Logan’s and Harvey Molotch’s growth machine approach, which argues that local urban elites need to attract outside capital in order to increase the value of their own assets and promote growth. For González, de Blasio needs to combat these pressures, focus less on attracting big capital to the city and more on responding to those who have been ignored by such policies. While the growth machine is a useful tool in explaining the behavior of urban elites, Mr. González, and Professor Viteritti as well, would have been better served by citing political scientist Clarence Stone’s regime theory. This approach examines the organization of public and private interests in a city and the goals around which this organization takes place. Applied to recent New York City politics, regime theory allows, if not forces, one to ask whether de Blasio's election represents real change. Does his administration represent a significant transformation in the relationship between public and private interests in the city’s governing structure; a transformation that can put a dent in the degree of economic inequality the city is experiencing? That is the question that scholars and journalists will need to answer ten years from now and as Mayor de Blasio works his way through his second term.

To begin to answer this question, the authors must address other issues. First, just how different is the de Blasio agenda from that of his predecessors? Both authors make a credible case that his administration includes programmatic pieces that were missing from the Giuliani and Bloomberg years. Professor Viteritti not only offers tangible data in support of this argument but offers regime theorists a way in which to measure regime change by looking at significant shifts in city spending. Missing from both authors’ analyses, however, is any attempt to link de Blasio with the prior administration, of which he was part as Public Advocate, and with which he had many more agreements than disagreements. Those who view him as ultra-progressive too often rush to cite Mayor Bloomberg’s “New York as a luxury brand” speech as the principal evidence that Bloomberg and de Blasio are from different ideological planets. Yet they neglect to mention the Bloomberg administration’s activities in public health, increasing life expectancy for all New Yorkers, PlaNYC and the establishment of the city’s Office of Economic Opportunity. These are all initiatives, which were supported and are being continued by de Blasio. In discussing de Blasio’s affordable housing policies, Viteritti does hint at some of the similarities between the current mayor and his predecessor. Chief among these is the mayor’s use of the zoning code to incentivize the construction of more affordable housing. But while Mayor de Blasio’s introduction of Mandatory Inclusionary Housing (MIH) has advanced the use of luxury housing developments to subsidize affordable housing construction, some would argue that the use of this tool as the primary mechanism for the creation of affordable housing is little more than a variation on a theme, when compared to similar policies of the Bloomberg administration.

The second issue concerns mayoral power and efficacy. Both authors argue that de Blasio wants to transform the goals of urban governance and its economic impact on citizens. Can he do it? At the end of de Blasio’s two terms will there be a difference in the distribution of economic advantage in the city? Will the budgetary changes discussed by Viteritti produce real change in the lives of low-income and working-class New Yorkers? Programs such as Universal Pre-K may take many years to have a measurable impact. So giving the mayor the benefit of the doubt, and assuming that his successor has a similar agenda, will the city see the desired decline in inequality at any point in the future? And will these changes be the result of purposeful governmental programs and policies such as those that Mayor de Blasio is pursuing; or will those goals be thwarted by forces well out of the control of mayors? From the perspective of regime theory, a similar question asks whether and how regime change takes place. Does the intent to change the direction of governance matter if those goals are never achieved? Does the mayor and/or the entire political system, have the tools to bring about regime change, especially in light of current politics at the federal level? After twenty years of a reasonably stable regime under Mayors Giuliani and Bloomberg, those who study and write about New York City, now have the opportunity to assess regime change under de Blasio. Professor Viteritti believes that regime change can take place. Mr. González believes that it already is taking place. Both need to come back after de Blasio leaves office and tell us what really happened.

Bruce Berg is a Professor of Political Science at Fordham University. He is the author of Healing Gotham: New York City's Public Health Policies for the Twenty-First Century (2015) and New York City Politics: Governing Gotham, 2nd ed. (forthcoming).