Surging tax revenues and the continued peace dividend from 20 years of vigorous Broken Windows policing have given Bill de Blasio a relatively easy first term in the mayor’s office. With plenty of money to spend on pet projects like free lunch for middle-schoolers, training to help people diagnose if their neighbors are depressed, and massive expansion of the municipal payroll, the mayor has not had to face the pain of real budgeting, which involves triage and painful cuts. Continued low crime keeps New York humming peaceably.
With few major crises afflicting the city, Mayor de Blasio has avoided public scrutiny of his skewed judgement and oddly tone-deaf political decisions. Repeatedly throughout his term, the mayor has made bizarre missteps that betray a kind of myopic hubris, and an impervious density to public sentiment more stubborn than principled.
For example, when council speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito arranged for Puerto Rican separatist and convicted seditionist Oscar López Rivera to be honored as the “National Freedom Hero” of the annual Puerto Rican Day Parade, de Blasio committed himself to supporting the choice after questions were raised about its appropriateness. Asked on May 17 about his plans to march in the parade, the mayor explained, “all things considered, I understand why so many Puerto Ricans—that’s almost 700,000 people in this city—respect that he fought for Puerto Rico in their eyes. I don’t agree with the way he did it. But he did serve his time. He was pardoned appropriately.” López Rivera was not “pardoned,” of course—he stands convicted of his crimes—but the mayor nevertheless sounded content to march in his honor.
On May 25, asked again why he would march to support a terrorist who had attacked New York City, the mayor responded, “I believe he renounced terrorism. He was part of an organization that obviously did employ violence. He was not involved directly in that violence. He has renounced violence. Two presidents of the United States came to the conclusion that he was worthy of commutation of his sentence—that’s fine, that’s all I need to know.” Of course, it is meaningless to say that someone who has not committed violence has renounced violence: renunciation entails prior commitment. And de Blasio doubled the absurdity of his statement by praising López Rivera for being found “worthy of commutation” by two presidents, as though commutation is a prize of merit, rather than an extension of mercy.
On June 1, after all major corporate sponsors, the media, many elected officials, and his own police commissioner had turned against the parade, and Oscar López Rivera agreed to forgo the title of “National Freedom Hero,” the mayor said that “the parade has always been about Puerto Rico and Puerto Ricans, not any one participant. It is a celebration of a culture and community at the center of what makes New York City great.” He retrofit his position on the parade to focus on the “plight of Puerto Rico,” which has been “overshadowed by needless controversy.”
Finally, on June 6, Mayor de Blasio announced that he had opposed honoring López Rivera all along—and that he helped get the honor rescinded. “I’m very happy that Mr. López Rivera has declined the honor. I don’t think it should have been offered to him,” said de Blasio, who explained that he had been “diplomatic” about not expressing his true feelings. “I just made very clear that what was happening was not right, it wasn’t working in any sense. I didn’t think it was a smart idea to begin with.”
In the case of López Rivera, de Blasio was able eventually to register that he was heading in the wrong direction, swallow his pride, and change course. It’s hard to believe that a seasoned professional politician, who surrounds himself with consultants and advisors so completely that he argues that his communications with them should be privileged, would not have understood that association with a convicted terrorist is toxic to political ambition. But de Blasio has shown odd errors of judgement before, as with his 2013 campaign vow to ban horse carriages from Central Park. Once it became clear that the horse carriage industry was supported by the media, the powerful midtown hotel industry, labor unions, and the public at large, it would have been easy for the mayor to step away from the fight and demonstrate that he was not beholden to a few donors who were fixated on the issue. Instead, the mayor forged ahead, even devising a scheme to give the carriage-owners prime Central Park land upon which the city would spend millions to build modern stables. Fortunately, this plan fizzled.
During the 2016 battle for the Democratic presidential nomination, de Blasio tried to position himself as a national kingmaker, refusing to endorse his former boss Hillary Clinton, saying that he needed time to “familiarize” himself with her positions. The mayor tried to organize a bipartisan panel on inequality in Iowa, in which the candidates would line up to present their progressive credentials for his inspection: everyone declined. Not invited to stump for Clinton in the Hawkeye State, de Blasio and his wife campaigned door to door on her behalf. Photos showed the couple walking wintry Des Moines streets clutching Clinton palm cards. As punishment for his tardy endorsement, de Blasio was given the worst speaking slot at the Democratic convention—late afternoon—following the macabre “in memoriam” video of deceased Democrats.
Recently, the mayor has been asked to defend his strange practice of going most mornings to his old neighborhood of Park Slope to ride a stationary bike at the local YMCA, after which he likes to get a pastry and coffee at a favorite café. This morning ritual, which takes place around 10 a.m., requires a caravan of SUVs to accompany the mayor. Asked about the efficiency of this daily trip, when Gracie Mansion has adequate space for gym equipment, de Blasio, who has harped on climate change regularly and pushed aggressive Green initiatives, dismissed these objections as “emotional appeals” and “bait.” He explains that the “issue is not cheap symbolism here,” and also says that he never rides the subway because “in the end people wanna make sure that I’m getting things done for them all the time and so that’s the first imperative here . . . the number one thing I owe the people is good use of my time.”
The accusation of “cheap symbolism” rings hollow from a mayor who staged a recreation of the 1986 Mets World Series victory celebration at City Hall so that “Doc” Gooden could participate, at long last (he had missed the original event because he was high on drugs). Mayor de Blasio lives inside a cozy bubble of his own ego, where his odd idées fixes carry their own justifications. As long as New York City avoids fiscal or social crises, the mayor can float merrily along.
Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images