NEW YORK — To say that 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, I think, 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, it’s a major initiative, and a successful citywide pre-K 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 says, was “that the federal government was a great agent of progressive social change” — and because it’s not easy.