Ignore Anthony Weiner. Here’s what matters in the NYC mayor’s race

August 14, 2013

New NYC mayoral frontrunner Bill de Blasio (D). (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Public Advocate Bill de Blasio is now in the lead in the Democratic primary race for New York mayor, garnering the support of 30 percent of likely voters, compared to 24 percent who favor City Council Speaker Christine Quinn and 22 percent who favor former comptroller Bill Thompson. Meanwhile the GOP primary is heating up, with former MTA chair Joe Lhota beating millionaire grocery magnate John Catsimatidis by six points, after leading by 14 only a few weeks ago.

Of course, if you don't live in New York — and quite possibly even if you do — you probably haven't heard of any of these people, or know what a public advocate or comptroller does. And normally you shouldn't have to. But New York has 8.3 million people and what happens there matters across the country, and this election is the first since at least 2001 where a wide array of candidates with vastly different policy platforms all have plausible paths to victory. So let's break down what rides on this year's race and see how the candidates differ.

Here, I'm focusing on de Blasio, Quinn, Thompson, Lhota and Catsimatidis. There are other candidates on the race, of course, including current Comptroller John Liu, former congressman Anthony Weiner, and former White House adviser Adolfo Carrion. But polling suggests that these five have the best odds, so a focus on them seems fair. This doesn't cover every issue, of course, just the most salient ones to people outside New York. I do touch on transportation issues a bit in the tax section when discussing congestion pricing and commuter taxes, but that's also an area where there's surprisingly little daylight between the candidates.

Crime


(Jeremy Sparig)

Among the biggest cleavages between the candidates has to do with the crime policy Michael Bloomberg has pursued as mayor, in particular the "stop, question and frisk" policy the New York Policy Department engaged in more and more under his and NYPD chief Ray Kelly's tenures.

Bill de Blasio has said he'd replace Kelly and put an end to stop and frisk. He also wants to appoint an inspector general for the department and give the Civilian Complaint Review Board more prosecutorial power. He wants to reduce the department's focus on low-level marijuana offenses, to increase the use of incarceration alternatives, and to make it easier for ex-offenders to integrate into society. But he also wants to increase the use of cameras in public areas to detect crime, and to expand efforts to identify gunshots that would otherwise go unreported

Christine Quinn has said she'd keep Kelly, but will insist he wind down stop and frisk. While de Blasio wants to maintain force levels, she wants to put more cops on the street. She agrees with de Blasio on increasing camera and shot-detection usage. She also calls for a 50 percent reduction in pedestrian, cyclist and driver fatalities,  emphasis the other candidates often don't make (though de Blasio came out with a comprehensive plan today). Like de Blasio, she wants an inspector general.

Bill Thompson has compared stop and frisk to the death of Trayvon Martin, but has opposed two bills meant to rein it in, and suggested that he thinks stops are appropriate as a general policy, just not if used in a racially-biased manner. His opposition to those bills lead de Blasio to accuse him of hypocrisy. Like Quinn, he wants to increase the size of the police force. He also wants to stop trying 16- and 17-year-olds as adults.

Joe Lhota called the recent ruling limiting stop and frisk a "step closer" to turning New York into Detroit. He laid into Quinn for supporting an inspector general, calling her position "reckless and dangerous."

John Catsimatidis is supportive of stop and frisk, saying, "Stop-and-frisk is an example of proactive police work that stops crime and keeps guns off the streets; dropping crime rates have proven that."

Education

Former NYC schools head Joel Klein. (The Washington Post)

Joel Klein, the chancellor of New York Public Schools for much of Bloomberg's tenure, has left a controversial legacy due to his support for charters, higher teacher quality, value-added testing, and merit pay, and condemnation from those who say "we'll never fix education in America until we fix poverty" as "apologists for the status quo." De Blasio and Thompson suggest they'll break from that record, while Quinn and Lhota are more sympathetic and Catsimatidis is somewhere in the middle.

De Blasio's signature education proposal is a hike in the income tax rate for incomes above $500,000 from 3.876 percent to 4.3 percent, with the proceeds used to fund universal pre-K for 4-year-olds and universal after-school programming for middle schoolers. On K-12 education, he's critical of Bloomberg's approach, criticizing the administration's school closures (which are meant to help charters), eliminate the use of letter grades to evaluate school quality, and reduce magnet schools' reliance on testing for admissions.

He supports an array of proposals that would increase spending, including reducing class size, expanding school breakfasts, more training for teachers dealing with students with disabilities, expanded reading programs, more arts education, and better student transportation. He does express support for the Harlem Children's Zone model of pairing highly effective schools with expanded services for parents. It's worth noting that HCZ schools are no more effective than high-quality charters like KIPP that don't add services, according to a Brookings report. De Blasio also wants to use cuts in tax breaks for businesses to boost funding for CUNY, the city's university system, by 50 percent.

Quinn has, through the city council, had more involvement in education  policy than most of the other candidates. She boasts that she expanded full day pre-K, made kindergarten mandatory, and prevented teacher layoffs. But she's generally associated with the Bloomberg/Klein approach, and was the only candidate to tell the UFT — New York's teachers union — that she'd consider appointing a non-educator to lead the school system.

That approach is reflected somewhat in her campaign proposals. She expresses support for expanding best-practices from schools with proven records of improving student achievement, and calls for increasing the school day, a common element in successful charters. She also endorses the Harlem Children's Zone approach. Her pre-K plan involves subsidized loans, which is a kind of weird way to go about it.

But other proposals of hers are less typically reformist. She wants to raise the minimum dropout age to 18 and expand literacy programs. She wants to expand breakfast in schools for low-income students, as well as a pilot school dinner program. Most strikingly, she wants to reduce the focus on standardized tests in favor of alternative assessment strategies like portfolios of student work, and would cut back on school closures (though she takes a softer line there than other candidates).

Thompson has a more traditional liberal education platform, closer to de Blasio than to Quinn or Bloomberg, a position solidified by UFT's endorsement of his campaign and by his call last election for Klein's firing. As comptroller, he called for universal pre-K, more state and federal funding, and expressed concern over test score manipulation and overcrowding in schools. He touts his support for successful charters, but like de Blasio called for a moratorium on school closures that help charters.

He and de Blasio both ditched a forum by a pro-charter group. He suggests he wants to reduce reliance on traditional testing metrics, with a campaign statement saying, "Instead of simply threatening teachers, Thompson will lead with them." He has suggested that merit pay might be worth a try, but expressed skepticism over its prospects. But Thompson isn't all bad news for ed reformers. He supports longer school years and school days, and backs the Common Core. He also wants to keep mayoral control over the schools and backs some Bloomberg initiatives, like expanded vocational schools.

Lhota is probably the biggest ed reformer (in the sense that term has taken on in recent years) in the race. He opposes retroactive pay increases for teachers as well as a moratorium on school closures. He wants to lift the cap on charter schools and enable them to co-locate with traditional schools. He strongly supports merit pay. He is a big fan of quantitative metrics for school and teacher evaluation. "We measure everything in this country," he stated in an education policy speech. "And centuries-old efficient and effective leadership tells us that if you can measure it, you can improve it."

He expressed support for collective bargaining but is very critical of the UFT. He hasn't said much on pre-K, but does suggest that he wants any programs to have real educational content and not be "glorified babysitting services." Overall, he'd be the closest to Bloomberg on this issue of anyone in the field. "I'm a big believer of what the mayor has started in education," he said in a GOP candidates' debate.

Catsimatidis focuses heavily on vocational and technical education, which he wants to greatly expand as a way of reducing the dropout rate. "Funding these programs can be achieved through partnerships with the private sector that can 'adopt' a school or sponsor programs," he writes. "A clear example of the private-public partnership working in a mutually beneficial way is The Automotive High School, located in Brooklyn. Toyota, Mercedes, Chrysler, Pontiac and others have donated both equipment and money, as well as hired its highly trained students."

He opposes a ban on school closures, calling it "immoral" to keep failing schools open. Beyond that, he has a considerably more union-friendly outlook than Lhota, or perhaps even than Quinn. He is a mild supporter of charters, but also wants expanded arts and music programming. Most notably, he's critical of the current focus on standardized testing. The Liberal Party of New York endorsed him citing his desire for "comprehensive reform of the city’s public school system with a concentration on teaching children, not testing them."

Housing


The cast of Girls, perhaps the least deserving group needing affordable housing. (HBO)

New York, especially Manhattan, has among the most expensive housing of anywhere in the country. Part of that is because it's not as dense as it should be (really!). Part of it is the city's byzantine rent control rules, which help incumbent renters and jack up rents for everybody else.

De Blasio was limited to stuff like shaming bad landlords in his capacity as public advocate, but he has a quite detailed housing plan for his mayoral campaign, which is broadly similar to a plan his public advocate's office released. He is a supporter of rent control. "As mayor, he will fight to retake control of rent rules from Albany, so we can make our own decisions again," he writes in the plan. "Bill de Blasio will also support tenants fighting to maintain the affordability of their homes through organizing efforts in complexes like Stuyvesant Town-Peter Cooper Village, Independence Plaza, and Riverton." He wants to freeze rents at all rent stabilized apartments

Besides that, his strategy relies heavily on "inclusive zoning," a practice wherein developers are obliged to set aside a portion of housing to low-income families, to be sold at below-market rates; it basically functions as a tax on housing development with proceeds directed to low-income households. De Blasio wants to rely on that and his other proposals to create or preserve 200,000 affordable units. Inclusionary zoning is a good way to help families stay put in the face of gentrification, if that's a priority the city wants to have, but the policy has many of the downsides that price ceilings usually have. Plus inclusionary zoning only works if low-income residents can get mortgages. As Lydia has explained, that often isn't the case, at least for condos.

De Blasio also wants to apply the same tax to big vacant lots as to commercial properties, which reflects a pretty longstanding preference economists have for land taxes rather than property taxes. He has a long record of supporting increased density, including backing the Atlantic Yards development in Brooklyn, supporting "granny flats", and easier transference of development rights within neighborhoods. He supports making Section 8 vouchers available to homeless families, a move Bloomberg has opposed as unfeasible.

Quinn is, if anything, even fonder of inclusionary zoning than de Blasio. She wants to create 40,000 middle-class housing units over 10 years, create or preserve 80,000 units, freeze rents at all rent-stabilized apartments, convert many more market-rate apartments to below-market rate, and make units "permanently affordable." "Currently the affordability requirements for most subsidized apartments expire after 20 or 30 years, which means residents may be priced out of their homes and the middle class gets priced out of entire neighborhoods," her Web site explains. "Chris will work with her colleagues in Albany to pass a Permanent Affordability Act giving us a new financing tool that will allow us to keep units affordable indefinitely."

Again, that's a really good policy for those who can get the apartments in question, and is an effective way to fight gentrification, but it drives up other costs and prevents new people from moving to New York. "That's great for people who win affordable housing lotteries and get below-market rate rents," as Josh Barro says. "But the set-asides also reduce the returns to developers, which reduces the amount of housing stock that gets built, which drives up market rents for everybody else." That's what seems to have happened under Boston's inclusionary zoning law.

Thompson sees Quinn's 80,000 affordable housing units created or preserved and raises her another 40,000, which still puts him under de Blasio's 200,000-unit pledge. He wants to use available federal and state subsidies to fund 50,000, get another 50,000 by organizing new loan agreements with existing landlords, and get the final 20,000 by using vacant properties controlled by the government. Like de Blasio, he wants to return control of rent restrictions to the city. He wants to "preserve rent-stabilized, rent-controlled, and Mitchell-Lama housing," the latter being a kind of housing subsidy in New York State. When he was the Democratic nominee in 2009, he bashed Bloomberg for not taking rent control seriously enough, saying, "Mike Bloomberg’s rent-stabilization board, his guidelines board, that continues to increase rents, isn’t there for tenants — they’re there for the landlords."

Lhota has endorsed a plan by the group Housing First that cost $8 billion total, including $356 million in additional annual spending by the city to create or preserve 150,000 affordable housing units; 60,000 of those would be new units and 136,250 of the 150,000 would be for low-income families. That plan would involve expanded inclusionary zoning — as called for by the other candidates — along with Section 8 funding for the homeless, reduced parking requirements, and a bonus for denser building. It's a bit different in the latter two respects than the Democratic candidates' proposal, but it's broadly similar. Lhota has also mused about using post office buildings as affordable housing as demand for snail mail services flags.

Catsimatidis has, like Lhota, endorsed the Housing First plan.

Taxes and budgets


De Blasio wants to tax empty lots (though the ones in NY don't look a lot like this). (Kenneth Ware)

New York currently finances itself through a 4.5 percent sales tax, property tax rates from 10.288 percent to 18.569 percent, income tax rates from 2.907% to 3.876 percent, a cigarette tax, and a few other things. Here's what the mayoral candidates want to do about that.

De Blasio wants to raise taxes on high earners to pay for his pre-K and after-school plans (see the education section above). But he also wants to cut tax breaks for "economic development" to the tune of $250 million, and use some of the proceeds to increase funding for CUNY by 50 percent. His housing plan also involves taxing vacant lots, which would raise additional revenue. He was a strong opponent of congestion pricing, in keeping with a more general skepticism about non-car transit, expressed by supporting delays on bus rapid transit and bike lanes. But he's come around to biking and rapid transit in recent years.

Quinn has said she prefers to keep tax increases as a last resort, even though in 2009 she called a de Blasio-style increase in taxes on the rich. She in particular wants to hold the line on property taxes. She has backed off of previous support for congestion pricing to control traffic. She now backs a commuter tax.

Thompson has pledged to not raise taxes, a curious suggestion given all the new education and housing spending he supports. Thompson, like Quinn, wanted to raise taxes on high earners in 2009, but has since reversed himself. He has expressed concern that property taxes are being assessed incorrectly. He wanted to amend Bloomberg's congestion pricing plan but supported the concept, and backs a commuter tax as well as an increased registration fee for heavy cars.

Lhota pledged not to raise taxes at a recent debate, saying, "The next step to becoming Detroit would be raising our taxes in new York city. They are as high as can be." He has said he wants to repeal the city's tax on unincorporated businesses and review the property tax assessment system. But he's expressed more openness to raising taxes in the past. When he ran the MTA, he called for more dedicated tax revenue for the system, and has expressed sympathy for the idea of a commuter tax. He has suggested that he'd back congestion pricing if other means of controlling traffic fail.

Catsimatidis has pledged to not raise taxes, saying, "Our taxes are way out of control. (Taxes) on small businesses are just out of control. I'm going to use my size 13 shoe to put my foot down." He has suggested that if revenue increases are to happen they need to be even in effect, and not just target high earners, an approach he once likened to Nazism (really). He opposes congestion pricing, saying, "I think we should build more efficient cars. But we should not restrict the American people who are having dreams."

Summary


American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten, who butted heads with New  York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, and has endorsed Bill Thompson in this year's mayoral race. (AP)

The biggest differences between the candidates appear to be on crime and education, whereas housing and taxes see big points of convergence. And even on crime, there's a large degree of unity among Democrats; it's Republicans that are willing to defend stop and frisk. But on education, there's a real divide between those of a Broader, Bolder temperament like de Blasio and Thompson, who play well with teachers' unions and emphasize increased services rather than increased accountability, and those of a reformist bent like Quinn or Lhota who want to continue Bloomberg's approach.

The NYC mayor's race could determine whether the nation's largest school district keeps moving in the direction Klein set it on or whether it changes gears entirely. That could be the biggest repercussion of this year's race, and what happens there matters no matter where you live. Every urban school district in America is going to be watching what New York does.

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Ezra Klein · August 14, 2013