Bill de Blasio is New York City’s new mayor. However, his name outside of the Big Apple is less well-known than those of his predecessors, Michael Bloomberg or Rudy Giuliani.
The 52-year-old mayor-elect surprised many by defeating one-time race front-runners, and Democrat colleagues, Christine Quinn and Anthony Weiner (before his second sexting scandal sent him from first to fourth in the polls). After winning the Democratic primary, de Blasio secured 73 per cent of the vote to trounce Republican candidate Joe Lhota last week and become the first Democrat to hold the mayor’s office in 20 years.
The New York he inherited as the city’s 109th mayor is a different place though to the one Bloomberg found when he took up office two months after the September 11 terrorist attacks on the city.
While Bloomberg has his haters, he has undoubtedly delivered a lasting legacy for the city.
Under the billionaire businessman, New York became the safest big city in the US; crime has fallen to record lows; the city’s greenhouse gas emissions dropped by 13 per cent since 2005 as Bloomberg incorporated environmental sustainability into policy areas such as housing and transportation; the city has double the number of bike lanes than it did in 2006; the introduction of the 311 phone service gave the public access to information and helped resolve city complaints; smoking was banned in public parks; and investment in tech development lifted New York to be in the top three US cities in terms of assisting start-ups.
That’s not to mention New York has been the leading private sector job creator since the 2008 recession and Bloomberg has helped business in the four boroughs outside Manhattan grow four times faster than those on the island, particularly in areas such as tech, tourism and bioscience.
And, for the first time in 60 years, more people are moving into New York City than out of it.
Bloomberg is a complicated creature – an independent who could be described as a libertarian on gender, immigration and social issues; paternalistic about obesity and public health; and progressive on gun regulation and climate change.
A New York Times poll in August found that 48 per cent of New Yorkers approved of Bloomberg’s performance as mayor … and they can be a tough crowd to please.
Yet, de Blasio’s ‘Tale of Two Cities’ narrative struck a chord with voters.
That is because the disparity between rich and poor in the city is growing and New Yorkers are feeling the pinch. The top 1 per cent has a third more of the city’s wealth than when Bloomberg came to power, according to the city’s own data, and almost half of the city’s inhabitants (46 per cent) are considered ‘poor’ or ‘near-poor’.
De Blasio is a progressive whose policy views were shaped at the age of 26 when he went to Nicaragua to help distribute food and medicine in the middle of a war between the left and right.
He became a volunteer coordinator for the 1989 mayoral campaign of David Dinkins and in 2000 was named the campaign manager for Hillary Clinton’s 2000 Senate race.
Since 2009 he has been New York’s public advocate. But the issue that really helped him get elected was education.
New York City spends more per student than anywhere in the world but schools and students are underperforming. In uniform tests across the city this year only 26 per cent of students in years three to eight passed English and only 30 per cent passed maths. (These numbers are particularly low because the city moved to a more rigorous set of standards involving deep analysis and creative problem solving. Last year, under the easier exams, 47 per cent of city students passed English and 60 per cent passed maths.)
On the positive side, schools in New York today are safer, with a recorded drop in assaults, while the drop-out rate has been almost cut in half.
One of de Blasio’s key planks on education reform is universal pre-kindergarten for children and an expanded after-school program. He plans to fund this by taxing New Yorkers who make more than $US500,000 ($537,265) by about half a percentage point.
De Blasio also wants to cap the number of charter schools (independent public schools) which he says have received favourable status under Bloomberg but are only targeting 5 per cent of those students in the public school system.
Another of the other problems de Blasio will have to confront is the city’s 300,000 municipal workers, many of whom have been working on expired contracts for years. They have their hands out for $US8 billion in retroactive pay, arguing that they have not had a pay rise in years and that their salaries have fallen below inflation. De Blasio, who has close union ties, has already ruled out paying the full amount but will almost certainly be forced into striking a compromise deal. That will be particularly difficult given the city’s $US2 billion budget black hole.
De Blasio has also attacked the city’s ‘stop and frisk’ policy, saying it is racially profiling New Yorkers. De Blasio’s wife, Chirlane McCray, is a long-time political speechwriter, and 35 years ago was one of the most high-profile African American lesbians in the country. De Blasio says it is unfair that his daughter Chiara, 18, and son Dante, 16, are stopped by police more often than he is because of their ethnicity.
The good news for de Blasio is that the answer to all of New York’s problems lies within. Forty per cent of those who live in the city were born in other countries, giving New York a distinct advantage in competing in the global economy. More than a million people are taking up higher education and New York has an easier time convincing those students to remain in the city after graduation. The city that never sleeps naturally has a high productivity rate and its brain-based economy attracts the best and brightest not only across America but across the world.
Many say managing New York, the largest local government in America, is the second toughest job in the country. And it is, but it also has many advantages that other cities will never have.
What de Blasio needs to do when he takes office on January 1 is to build on the accomplishments of Bloomberg, target the wealth disparity and strengthen the city’s education system in order to keep New York prosperous.
Mathew Murphy is a Walkey Award winning journalist based in New York.