New York City mayor Bill de Blasio dragged his presidential ambitions to Washington over the weekend, where he went on Meet the Press and bit the hand that wanted to feed his city billions. The topic was Amazon’s abrupt abandonment of its expansion plans in Queens, which the mayor deemed “an abuse of corporate power. They had an agreement with the people of New York City.”
Amazon, of course, might argue that the people of New York City, as represented in Congress, the state legislature, and the city council, were in the process of abrogating that agreement, and that CEO Jeff Bezos saw no point in being bitten to death by a flock of progressive ducks. Further, the company could contend that once it became clear that the ducks meant to kill the deal or alter it beyond recognition, and not to Amazon’s advantage, the mayor did nothing to help save it. Governor Andrew Cuomo at least threatened, if imprecisely, that there would be political consequences for failure.
Now that the deal is undone, de Blasio is free to adopt his usual stance of a disinterested observer. The mayor’s ability to find extenuating circumstances to blame for his inability to cope with the responsibilities of office is otherworldly. Nonfunctional—and worsening—public schools? Segregated classrooms. Public spaces overrun with vagrants? Income inequality. Opioid overdoses? Big Pharma. Crumbling and unlivable public housing? Ronald Reagan. The continuing subway crisis? Governor Cuomo.
No one expects the mayor to solve those messes by himself, but de Blasio doesn’t even try. The unraveling of the Amazon deal is a textbook example of his aloof, not-my-problem style of governance. As de Blasio said on Meet the Press Sunday, “a majority of New Yorkers believed in it. They wanted the jobs. They wanted the revenue that would help us to create more affordable housing, better mass transit. There was a consensus in New York City.” But there was no unanimity. There never is and there never will be— and thus it falls to political leaders in such circumstance to lead, to make things happen, to forge the agreements that get things done.
Here, de Blasio failed. As narrowly focused ideological opposition, NIMBYism, and self-serving political ambition overwhelmed clear public support for the plan, he went mute. When State Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins put a vocal Amazon opponent in a position to kill the deal, de Blasio didn’t complain. And when Cuomo warned that Bezos & Co. were growing restive, the mayor was nowhere to be found.
Running a major city is no job for someone inclined to phone it in, and it’s especially hard to do from the Park Slope YMCA, an almost-daily mayoral haunt. De Blasio’s failure to engage, while inexcusable, is not surprising. It’s also possible that he wasn’t fully on board with the deal in the first place. His hostility to capitalistic enterprise is no secret; he’ll spend the tax revenues it generates but with his nose in the air.
It’s not fair to put all the blame on de Blasio’s shoulders. Cuomo did little beyond muttering darkly. The city’s business community stood at arm’s length. And it’s quite likely that the more Amazon learned about how government-sponsored economic development gets conducted in the Empire State, the less eager it was to participate.
De Blasio himself, writing in the New York Times after the pullout, tried to explain what he had told the company: “I had counseled a senior Amazon executive about how they could win over some of their critics. Meet with organized labor. Start hiring public housing residents. Invest in infrastructure and other community needs. Show you care about fairness and creating opportunity for working people.” In other words, sign an open-ended pledge to do things the mayor’s own administration has been unable to accomplish, and maybe the city will stoop to doing business with you.
What Bezos and his boardroom thought about that suggestion isn’t in the public record, but the company wasted no time casting off once it became clear that the clean deal that it thought it had negotiated was anything but. Or, as de Blasio put it, Amazon “just took their ball and went home.” It’s hard to blame them.
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