Who is this guy? That’s the first question most Americans will ask about Bill de Blasio and his just-released, 13-point Progressive Agenda to Combat Income Inequality. Since, in this case, the messenger is at least part of the message, here are some things America should know about New York City’s 109th mayor.
In November 2013, de Blasio beat his Republican opponent for mayor, Joe Lhota, by almost 50 percentage points. His approval ratings have dipped since then, and he hasn’t gotten everything he has sought from Governor Andrew Cuomo and the New York State legislature. But despite the press’s attempts to stir something up between de Blasio and city comptroller Scott Stringer, the mayor faces no major opposition at the city level. De Blasio even personally selected the current speaker of the city council, Melissa Mark-Viverito.
On the policy front, however, all the de Blasio administration has to show so far are what can charitably be called “inputs.” De Blasio established universal pre-K in New York City, but it won’t be possible to evaluate the quality of the program for years. The mayor’s high-profile commitment to “creat[e] and preserv[e] 200,000 units of affordable housing over ten years” is, at this point, little more than a commitment. And that’s to say nothing about the potential long-term consequences of the policies de Blasio will use to enact his housing program, such as dumping more low-income units into neighborhoods already saturated with them.
Like President Obama, de Blasio believes that history has “sides,” and he is confident that he and his policies will gain support over time. Progressive policymaking, as he sees it, is about staying the course. Thus, where others might see a need to make tradeoffs, de Blasio believes he can have it all. He sees no inconsistency in addressing the New York City Housing Authority’s multibillion-dollar maintenance backlog through overpriced union labor. Steven Banks, de Blasio’s Human Resources Administration commissioner, has relaxed workfare requirements on the justification that a more lenient welfare policy will reduce dependency and lead to more employment for poor New Yorkers.
De Blasio’s approach to governance both resembles and contrasts with that of David Dinkins, the last liberal to serve as mayor of New York City (1989-93). Dinkins, too, came into office with big progressive plans, but a wave of violence and rioting engulfed his mayoralty. Perhaps learning from this history, de Blasio is determined not to be a reactive mayor; he wants nothing to deter him from the battle against income inequality, his core concern. To prevent crime and disorder from overtaking his agenda, de Blasio appointed William Bratton as his police commissioner, ceding authority over public safety to a degree that he would never consider doing with welfare or housing.
If rioting breaks out in more American cities, law and order will surely become an issue during the 2016 presidential campaign. Republicans have a natural advantage in public-safety debates. But if de Blasio and Bratton succeed in keeping the lid on things in New York (far from guaranteed), they will offer a model to other Democrats about how to confront disorder.
De Blasio’s ascent illustrates the political resonance of the anti-inequality message. Failed politicians don’t propose national agendas. Progressives cheer when de Blasio denounces inequality, just as conservatives appreciate it when politicians speak honestly about the consequences of family breakdown. And some evidence suggests that the inequality agenda could play outside blue America, at least to a degree. For example, last fall, four red states voted to raise the minimum wage. Paid sick leave, another plank in the de Blasio program, polls well, too. Conservatives who dismiss de Blasio’s rise as just a New York story do so at their peril.