New York (AFP) – The landslide election of Bill de Blasio as the first Democratic mayor of New York in 20 years is a key opportunity to test whether progressive liberalism can deliver in America’s biggest city.
New Yorkers — determined for a change in tone after 12 years under billionaire mayor Michael Bloomberg — elected him by a stunning 73.3 percent to 24.3 percent for Republican rival Joe Lhota.
De Blasio, now the city’s public advocate, promises to stem growing inequality between billionaires and the poverty-stricken but faces an enormous task in translating his lofty ideals into concrete policy.
At a news conference on Wednesday he unveiled key appointments, kicking off an eight-week transition period in which he must organize his administration and prioritize policy.
“The people of this city have spoken. The mandate is clear. It is our obligation to create a city in which prosperity is shared and there is opportunity for all,” de Blasio said. “We will be committed to rectifying the inequality and the shortcomings that exist in our city and making sure our city reaches its fullest potential.”
But he cautioned supporters that change would not come overnight, acknowledging the scale of the task needed to hit the ground running on January 1.
“We know we’re going to need every single hour of the next 55 days to do our work as best as possible,” de Blasio said.
He exploited fears about Republicans among the predominantly Democrat electorate of New York and thrust his black wife and their teenage children to the fore of his campaign.
He presented himself as the polar opposite to Bloomberg, widely respected for transforming the city but whose rule has coincided with a growing gap between the very richest and everyone else.
Experts said de Blasio’s win underpinned a rise of progressive politics within the Democrat party since President Barack Obama’s first election in 2008.
“The Democrats are certainly moving in the direction of a more liberal point of view. Health care is now the law and that did not come with other Democrat presidents,” said Steven Brams, professor of politics at New York University.
But turnout was typically weak for Tuesday’s election, estimated at less than a quarter of the 4.6 million electorate.
Analysts also warn against reading too much into de Blasio’s election at a national level, pointing out that New York, the largest U.S. city and overwhelmingly Democrat, is a unique case.
“This is still New York City, where liberalism has not faded as much as it has in other parts of the country,” said Julian Zelizer, history and public affairs professor at Princeton University.
The power of his progressive politics will also depend on how far he can tackle some of the underlying economic and political dynamics of the city that have fed growing inequality.
There are also persistent questions on whether de Blasio has the experience to lead a staff of 300,000 and a $72 billion budget — a massive step up from his job as public advocate.
“If he is unable to enact significant changes in taxation, for example, or support for public housing initiatives, he’s not really going to be able to tackle these questions,” said Zelizer. “Wealthy New Yorkers still have a lot of power so I think it’s going to be very hard for him to transform that. My guess is he’s going to he pushed pretty aggressively to a more pragmatic approach.”
New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, a former boss of de Blasio and whose support he will need to push through taxation reform, has previously opposed raising taxes.
Others point out that the progressive headlines of his campaign have at times obscured the real pragmatist in de Blasio.
“He’s willing to cut deals. He has in the past so I think there’s going to be some compromise on his part to get some of his policies through,” Brams told AFP.
“I don’t think there’s going to be radical change but I think there’s going to be a different tenor to the politics of the city,” he added.