New York City journalists, poised since early November to chronicle the installation of the first new mayoral administration in Gotham in more than a decade, have witnessed one of the slowest transitions to new leadership in recent memory. Just days before his inauguration, mayor-elect Bill de Blasio had selected only four agency heads out of the nearly 50 he’ll need to appoint. No mayor-elect did so little up to this point since at least 1966.
De Blasio apologists have argued, as one Hunter College political science professor did in Newsday, that the mayor-elect shouldn’t be in a rush to make appointments but should favor “quality over quantity.” Yet there’s a reason why previous mayors—including Rudy Giuliani and Mike Bloomberg, both of whom had made dozens of appointments at this point in their transitions—were far ahead of de Blasio. They knew what they wanted to do, and they had a good idea who they wanted to do it soon after winning election. This has proved the rule in New York politics for good reason. Electoral campaigns aren’t just about politics, except among the most cynical of politicians; they’re about policy, too. After Giuliani lost to David Dinkins in 1989, for instance, the former prosecutor spent four years studying not only New York’s failures, but policy successes elsewhere in the country to prepare for what he hoped would be another shot to govern the city. Elected in 1993, Giuliani knew where to look for most of his major appointments, so that he had enlisted 29 agency heads before taking the oath of office. Similarly, Bloomberg recruited a wide range of policy and political experts to advise him eight years later for his mayoral run. Though the press expected newly elected Bloomberg to rely heavily on former Giuliani staffers, he quickly charted his own course during his transition, naming at least two dozen new agency heads before inauguration.
De Blasio, by contrast, appears to have given little thought to how he would govern New York if he won, and who would help him run the city. That’s startling when you consider that New York progressives have been somewhat out of fashion in City Hall for 20 years. There is a long list of them out there lobbying the mayor-elect for jobs. One result of his lethargic transition is that de Blasio has asked Bloomberg commissioners to stay in place temporarily, even though the mayor-elect spent much of his campaign bashing the Bloomberg administration.
One of de Blasio’s problems is that his brand of progressivism is so far out of the mainstream in crucial areas of municipal government that he’s having trouble finding candidates who would govern as he desires. The de Blasio transition team, for example, discounted a number of potential candidates for schools chancellor because they advocated increasingly common policies—including closing failing schools and increasing school choice—that the mayor-elect had criticized during the campaign. His eventual choice, retired New York City educator Carmen Fariña, appointed just two days before his inauguration, is noteworthy principally because she opposed many of the Bloomberg administration’s education policies, including an emphasis on standardized testing.
The mayor-elect also faces the problem that his key campaign theme—to reduce inequality and narrow the gap between his so-called “two New Yorks”—is a policy goal largely outside the powers of most mayors and municipal bureaucrats to remedy. You can spend a lot of time looking over the resumes of city administrators and local public servants and find few if any with realistic ideas on how to tackle income differences with the limited tools that municipal government has at its disposal.
De Blasio’s own key idea in this respect is rather rudimentary—to tax the rich more and spend the money on unproven remedies, such as universal pre-kindergarten classes, or on programs that the city has already been investing in heavily for years, like building ever-more subsidized housing for everyone not rich or lucky enough to live in a rent-controlled unit. To take on the task of financing yet more subsidized housing, the mayor-elect has already tapped a member of the city’s favored classes—a Goldman Sachs executive—as the head of his department of housing and economic development. That one of his first key appointments was an investment banker has probably been lost on most of the voters who pulled the lever for de Blasio because they were attracted by his message of “two New Yorks.”
Still, the power of that idea—that de Blasio is somehow a warrior against inequality—has managed to overshadow the lackadaisical pace of his transition. The New York Times even dubbed de Blasio a “national liberal leader whose views [on income inequality] are becoming difficult to ignore.” The Times rendered this judgment based on little more than de Blasio’s election and a subsequent meeting he and 15 other mayors had with President Obama on the subject of inequality. Meanwhile, the man who has worked mostly as an activist for nonprofit groups, a paid political operative, and a minor New York City official assumes control of a $70 billion budget tomorrow. So far the distinguishing characteristic of de Blasio’s managerial style has been his penchant for showing up late for meetings and events, which, according to the Daily News, has even prompted observers to create a dedicated Twitter account, @HowLateWasBdB.
It appears the New York Knicks aren’t the only team in town with a transition game that needs serious work.