When New York City elected as its new mayor, Bill de Blasio, a tectonic shift occurred in the political landscape of not merely the five boroughs, but the nation. The onetime dark horse candidate had built a successful slow-burn campaign on an audaciously liberal promise to cure social and economic inequalities, to be mayor of not only the elite, but the myriad Gothamists left behind by the city’s success.
When he took the keys to Gracie Mansion, conservative pundits were quick to pronounce de Blasio dead on arrival. The right wing sang eulogies for Pax Bloombergia — an era of prosperity and peace, at least for those who were never subject to a police stop-and-frisk or priced out of their home by rapacious neighborhood “development.” Even New York liberals were left wondering if the unabashed progressive, who was known to sleep late and crack jokes at odd times, could successfully manage the day-to-day administration of America’s largest city.
Eric Alterman’s new book, Inequality and One City: Bill de Blasio and the New York Experiment, Year One, is a fascinating appraisal of de Blasio’s first year in office, beginning with his triumphant race against more established candidates, and covering his early successes with contract negotiations, political maneuvering with Governor Andrew Cuomo, and very public discord with the NYPD. But it is more than just a record of recent history — Alterman’s book is a profile of liberalism in action, a touchstone for progressivism in both principle and practice.
Introduced by former president Bill Clinton to a bundled-up crowd on a freezing New Year’s Day, Bill de Blasio began his mayoralty the same way he campaigned for it: with a focus on economic inequality. “We are called to put an end to economic and social inequalities that threaten to unravel the city we love,” the new mayor announced. “And so today, we commit to a new progressive direction in New York.” The mayor’s inaugural address surprised no one who followed the campaign carefully, and it gave no cause for offense. But other speakers used the occasion to deliver a similar message but with much harsher rhetoric, especially in discussion of the policies of the outgoing Mayor Bloomberg. The Reverend Fred Lucas Jr., a sanitation department chaplain, compared the city to a slave-era “plantation.” Harry Belafonte noted that “New York alarmingly plays a tragic role in the fact that our nation has the largest prison population in the world.” Letitia James, who replaced de Blasio as public advocate, described the Bloomberg legacy as “a gilded age of inequality where decrepit homeless shelters and housing developments stand in the neglected shadow of gleaming multimillion-dollar condos.”
The mayor later said he was “comfortable with everyone’s remarks,” but the reaction from Bloomberg’s many admirers in the media was one of barely controlled rage. In the New York Times, Ross Douthat described the scene as “a concentration of left-wing agitprop unseen since the last time Pete Seeger occupied a stage alone.” In Rupert Murdoch’s Wall Street Journal, Peggy Noonan termed the new mayor a deliberate “divider” and added, “[F]rom our new mayor we got the snotty sound of us vs. them, of zero-sum politics…. I already miss Mike.” Timothy Carney, writing in Murdoch’s New York Post, compared the new de Blasio era to America’s post–Civil War Reconstruction, which he defined as “disenfranchising the losers and subjecting them to military rule.” Such comments presaged the tone of much of the coverage de Blasio would receive from the enormous Murdoch media empire. On Fox News, for instance, de Blasio was consistently referred to as “Comrade Bill” and a “European Socialist” who wanted to “sock it to the rich.” “I wouldn’t be surprised if Wall Street leaves New York,” predicted one decidedly deluded Fox host. Bill O’Reilly summed up matters succinctly when he reportedly told a crowd of Republicans, “I want to beat him up.”
One must take a certain amount of silliness in the mass media—especially the tabloid mass media—as endemic to the human condition. Thus it always has been and thus will it ever be, especially in a city with three major English-language daily newspapers and so many TV, radio, and Internet outlets vying for increasing limited attention spans. That the mayor’s detail sometimes exceeded the speed limit, or that he did not always swipe a subway card on the way to work, or that he dropped a groundhog, or that his daughter had suffered from depression and explained this in a video she posted online, or that his wife did not always think she was a perfect mother, should not necessarily have been off-limits to the media. But the degree to which such stories have come to dominate what was once called “news” makes it more and more difficult to communicate with citizens about policy choices that will make a genuine difference in their lives, and therefore proves a significant barrier to a mayor seeking to make fundamental changes in the way the city does business on behalf of the overwhelming majority of voters in the previous election.
Underlying much of this coverage, however, was a more insidious hostility to de Blasio’s politics based on the common conservative belief that politicians who do not repeatedly demonstrate their commitment to their richest and most politically powerful constituents cannot be depended upon to govern in a fiscally “responsible” fashion. These concerns appear to be far off the mark; as Deputy Mayor for Strategic Policy Initiatives Richard Buery explained, the mayor repeatedly insists to his team that “progressives have a deeper responsibility to be better stewards than anyone else,” because they depend on the government to play a positive role in lives of citizens. De Blasio must therefore navigate a narrow lane between the Scylla of unleashing a conservative fiscal attack on his administration and the Charybdis of selling out his working-class New Yorkers when forced to make difficult budgetary decisions.
Regarding the nuts and bolts of day-to-day governance, Bloomberg did his successor no favors by failing to come to terms with some of the city’s biggest unions in contractual negotiations. In fact, he left every one of over 150 labor contracts unsettled, some for more than four years. This presented, as the Fiscal Policy Institute’s James Parrott observed, “an unprecedented challenge” for a New York City mayor. Particularly conspicuous was the fact that the city’s United Federation of Teachers (UFT)—its largest and in many respects most influential union—had been forced to work without a contract in 2012 and 2013 and had not signed one since before the 2008 financial crash. Its members were expecting to be reimbursed with retroactive raises, while de Blasio’s conservative critics were ready to pounce on him for “giving away the store to the unions,” which was widely considered a slippery slope back to the city’s fiscally irresponsible 1970s. As it happened, de Blasio reached an early deal with the teachers union that surprised almost everyone in its fairness. Still, a previously unknown pundit named Nicole Gelinas, a fellow at the conservative Manhattan Institute, rocketed from near-total obscurity to local media stardom on the basis of her “sky is falling” analysis of the deal. Gelinas, who boasts a BA in English literature, composed an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal (with Fred Siegel) titled “Taking New York Back to the Bad Old Days,” and another in City & State called “De Blasio’s Fiscal Bubble.” She was quoted in the New York Times as calling the deal “troublesome and unprecedented,” and she made similar comments to a reporter for Politico’s Capital New York. She also appeared as a solo guest on WNYC in a lengthy interview with veteran host Brian Lehrer, where she opined about de Blasio: “The bottom line is, these are his deficits that he has created.”
De Blasio’s agreement with the UFT was hardly the horror story that Gelinas and her enablers in the mainstream media sought to present. It included what Parrott termed “modest, below-inflation wage increases over a seven-year period, setting a new pattern, with much of that paid for through employee health care savings.” The contract promised two 4 percent back-pay increases, based on the precedent of Bloomberg’s negotiations with other unions at the time of the 2008 financial catastrophe, plus 2 percent raises in the future. The mayor, moreover, secured a promise from the city’s Municipal Labor Committee to find $3.4 billion in health care savings over the coming four years to help pay for the raises. The agreement is enforceable through binding arbitration, if necessary. A vocal minority within the union denounced the deal as too austere, but it was approved by 77 percent of its membership. According to Parrott, it is “by far the most significant labor deal in city history, potentially affecting the entire 350,000-person unionized city workforce for seven years, and 150,000 of those workers for an additional two years going back to 2009 and 2010.”
Even the city’s business community appeared to be pleasantly surprised by the terms of the agreement. As Capital New York reported, Kathy Wylde, president and CEO of the powerful Partnership for New York City, said after a meeting between her group and the mayor, “The teachers’ contract is a pattern that the city can support if we continue to enjoy robust economic growth.” Carol Kellermann of the Citizens Budget Commission said, “The prospective raises are fair and reasonable.” Capital New York also quoted Marc Shaw, a veteran of the Giuliani and Bloomberg administrations and a self-described “fiscal conservative,” who called the contract “fairly conservative—as in not breaking-the-bank expensive.” The bond agencies apparently agreed with this analysis and gave the city’s paper strong ratings, including an interest rate for long-term loans well below the one that preceded the new contract. One could not help but notice, moreover, that de Blasio, the alleged left-wing radical, achieved this level of fiscal health in a manner that contrasts decidedly with that of his predecessor, who, upon taking office, attempted to raise property taxes in the city by 25 percent and was forced by his city council to settle for a mere 18.5 percent. One can only imagine the reaction were de Blasio to have made a proposal asking for even a fraction of so steep a tax hike.
By early December 2014, after announcing a tentative contract with the Uniformed Superior Officers Coalition, de Blasio had managed to conclude contracts with “71 percent of the City workforce that had previously been working under expired contracts,” according to the city’s calculations. This achievement marked a clear contrast to the Bloomberg administration’s abject failure in this crucial function of competent city management and stable and successful fiscal planning.
This excerpt is adapted from Inequality and One City: Bill de Blasio and the New York Experiment (e-book and paperback original, out now from eBookNation), by Eric Alterman. It appears here with the author’s permission.
Eric Alterman is Distinguished Professor of English and Journalism, Brooklyn College, City University of New York, and Professor of Journalism at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. He is also “The Liberal Media” columnist for The Nation, a fellow of the Nation Institute, and a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress in Washington, DC, and the World Policy Institute in New York. He lives with his family in Manhattan. More information is available at ericalterman.com.