Eye on the News

Nicole Gelinas
A Tale of Two Speeches
The differences between Mayor de Blasio and his predecessor go beyond style.
10 February 2014

In his inaugural State of the City address today, New York mayor Bill de Blasio stuck to his campaign theme. “The state of our city . . . is a Tale of Two Cities,” he said. De Blasio noted that too many New Yorkers are poor or struggling. His goal is to “give everyone a fair shot.” Who can argue with fairness? There’s still no indication, though, that the new mayor is sufficiently competent and pragmatic to carry out his vision of making “New York City work better for everyone.” A mayor in office only five weeks may be entitled to announce goals unencumbered by details one more time. But a rereading of former mayor Bloomberg’s first State of the City speech 12 years ago is a reminder that details matter, even early on.

Today’s speech highlighted one big difference between de Blasio and Bloomberg. De Blasio isn’t interested in being conciliatory or even polite to his predecessor, as Bloomberg unfailingly was to his. “I know that these speeches have at times been used to attack the motives of our public employees,” de Blasio said today, without saying just who he is criticizing.

If one can presume that de Blasio is referring to Bloomberg, the comment also happens to be untrue. In his first State of the City address in 2002, Bloomberg praised the city’s workforce, noting that “city workers [having] lifted themselves above personal tragedy” after 9/11 four months before had helped make New York a “city of heroes.” In one of his final speeches as mayor, last December, Bloomberg said that “New York City has the best workforce in the world, and for that to continue, our employees must be competitively compensated.” Bloomberg praised New York’s municipal workers, but he was careful to point out that New York has fiscal and economic pressures that prevent it from giving the labor force every taxpayer dollar in sight.

Even in his first speech, so soon after 9/11, when almost nobody wanted to question unsustainable labor costs, Bloomberg addressed the topic, if gingerly. “Even before September 11, our economy was starting to sag,” he said, before explaining why. And he also declared that the city would do more with less. “The budget gaps . . . will not go away without sacrifice,” he said. “In a $42 billion budget that has only $14 billion that it is not already committed by law, court order or contract . . . we must . . . understand that fiscal prudence today will ensure economic prosperity in coming years.” Bloomberg was legitimately criticized for being imprudent in his first two terms, when he gave raises to city workers without demanding pension and health-care fixes. But the mayor acknowledged real-world pressures in refusing, in his final years in office, to sign new labor agreements unless the workforce cooperated in cutting the costs of work rules and of retirement and health benefits.

In de Blasio’s New York, no such pressures seem to exist. The economy is doing wonderfully. “Wall Street”—meaning the stock market, presumably—“has not only rebounded above its pre-recession levels, but at present hovers near historic highs,” he said. “We are in the midst of a budgetary challenge that is unprecedented” only because Bloomberg allowed labor contracts to remain open for so long, de Blasio implied. But Wall Street is still missing tens of thousands of jobs compared with pre-financial crisis 2007. Moreover, the financial industry’s profit boom owes partly to the Federal Reserve’s 0-percent interest rate policy, which has artificially pushed up Wall Street returns by making it cheaper for banks and people to borrow.

De Blasio also showed himself to be unconcerned with subtleties. He wants to build 200,000 units of “affordable” housing. But does he want to build housing for the poor or for the middle class? Bloomberg chose to focus his own housing plans largely on the middle class—including people who earn well into six figures—for a simple reason: middle-class New Yorkers can pay for their own housing maintenance. The chronically poor, though, cannot—they need massive operating subsidies even after their housing is built.

Likewise, de Blasio wants to fix the public hospitals, putting “the health of our people ahead of profits.” But the problem with public hospitals is that they can’t support themselves, let alone turn a “profit.” Who—if anyone—should pay to keep a hospital open, even as it serves fewer and fewer patients?

On education, de Blasio said that “the children of this city deserve billions more in education resources.” It would be lovely to give every child (or his teacher and teacher’s aide) lots more money just because she “deserves” it. But more spending doesn’t guarantee better results—as the Bloomberg administration eventually learned after doubling the education budget to $25 billion.

The biggest problem with de Blasio’s speech, though, was what was missing. Quoting New Deal-era mayor Fiorello LaGuardia, de Blasio said that “a mayor who cannot look fifty or seventy-five years ahead is not worthy of being in City Hall.” True. But let’s go back to Mayor Bloomberg’s first speech again. As a new mayor with no government experience, Bloomberg might have been forgiven for focusing only on 9/11; but even in 2002, he was looking to long-term investments. “We must renew our waterfront” in all five boroughs, he said. “New York has more than 500 miles of shoreline, yet much of our waterfront is inaccessible and neglected.” And when almost no one cared, Bloomberg said that “improving mass transit to the Far West Side” of Manhattan was “a necessity to stimulate new activity in this part of our city.” The mayor also pledged to extend the Number Seven subway line. This summer, the #7 train extension will finally open, bringing tens of thousands of new workers and residents to a once-neglected neighborhood. Tens of thousands of New Yorkers now live along waterfronts from Williamsburg to Long Island City, creating jobs and paying taxes.

In his final State of the City address, Bloomberg praised himself for “completing the second stage of the single largest construction project in the city’s entire history: the third water tunnel.” Voters don’t care about the tunnel; in fact, its construction mostly annoys them. But they would care someday if they didn’t have water.

Twelve years from now, which of de Blasio’s far-sighted actions will be creating new jobs and tax dollars—or a reliable water supply—for a future mayor?

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