To say that New York Mayor Bill de Blasio is unbowed after some difficult moments in his first few months in office is not entirely true. The 6-foot-5 progressive bows regularly so he won’t overwhelm interlocutors who don’t meet NBA specs.
But de Blasio offers no apologies for waging war on economic inequality, for taking his time in making key appointments or for riling advocates of charter schools. He’ll concede errors of presentation, pointing out that he renewed a substantial majority of charter school arrangements even as his opponents grabbed national attention by casting him as an enemy to them all. His biggest mistake, he said, was in underestimating the “extraordinary level of opposition to change.”
“If you’re fighting inequality, if you’re talking about income inequality and other structural inequalities in this society, a lot of people take exception to that,” he said in an interview last week in his City Hall office, whose centerpiece is the desk used by Fiorello La Guardia, the legendary New Deal-era mayor, “and we did not foresee some of it manifesting the way it did.”
This is his way of saying that hedge-fund maestros and other wealthy New Yorkers who don’t like his populism used the charter schools fight to bring him down a peg. They launched a nearly $5 million ad campaign attacking de Blasio on the issue. This combined with some early missteps and needlessly rocky relations with the local media to bring the mayor’s approval rating to about 50 percent.
But this is where the unbowed part comes in. De Blasio can legitimately brag about fulfilling many of his campaign promises in his first 100 days in office. He has reined in the stop-and-frisk policing program and the city’s crime rate has continued to drop. He pushed through a bill expanding paid sick leave to 500,000 workers.
His most important victory was to secure five years of funding from the state legislature to provide pre-kindergarten to every 4-year-old in the city. He didn’t get the small tax increase on the wealthy he sought — it was strongly opposed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo — and got less than he wanted for after-school programs. Still, citywide pre-K is a major initiative, and a successful plan could become a model for the country.
A lot rides on de Blasio, the best-known of a wave of unabashedly progressive mayors who won election last year, including Betsy Hodges in Minneapolis, Marty Walsh in Boston and Eric Garcetti in Los Angeles.
Local progressivism, an old American tradition, went out of style because the assumption in the 1960s and ’70s, as de Blasio said, was that “the federal government was a great agent of progressive social change” — and because it’s not easy.
“Making social change in one local setting, or fighting inequality in one local setting,” he said, “is: one, hard; two, engenders lots of opposition; three, by definition is imperfect because so much of what should be happening should be happening on the state level and more profoundly at the federal level.”
Yet with Washington “close to pure paralysis” and states still staggering from the economic crisis, “cities now must lead the way” and “take matters into our own hands.”
De Blasio hasn’t forgotten that local politics is very local. “I’m very proud of the potholes we’ve filled at an unprecedented level,” he said. “Remember . . . I was a city councilman before I ever got here.” He’s mindful that small decisions can send messages, so he’s moving the July 4 fireworks from the Hudson River (where the show faced New Jersey) back to the East River where they’ll be visible to “lots and lots of people in Brooklyn and Queens, our two most populous boroughs.” It is, he said, “a simple act of fairness.”
To underscore his awareness of how challenging it will be to make his pre-K program work, he walks over to get a photograph of the intricate preparations for the Normandy invasion. He uses it at meetings as a reminder of the imperative for “meticulous planning” and his desire to “do whatever the hell it takes over these next months to get this up and running.”
De Blasio ascribes some of his early trials to a need to go with “a really rigorous no-huddle offense in the first hundred days.” Now, there will be more huddles. De Blasio is running plays that will affect politics far outside his city, and he knows the cost of fumbles.