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The Out-of-Tune Mayor

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eye on the news

The Out-of-Tune Mayor

Presiding over a city spiraling into crisis, Bill de Blasio relies on the same old themes about unfairness and inequality. April 28, 2020
Covid-19
Politics and law
New York

On Sunday, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced his plan to roll out the “initial building blocks” to restart New York City’s economy. But he cautioned New Yorkers that he remains committed to a “deeper vision of what a fair economy looks like.” Dismissing a return to the “status quo,” the mayor maintained that “we don’t just need a recovery. We need a transformation. We need to go much farther.”

New York is facing a catastrophic fiscal meltdown. Job losses are soaring and may soon reach Depression-era levels. Revenue from personal-income and sales taxes is expected to drop by almost $10 billion through the end of 2021—and that estimate is certainly too low. For six boom years, de Blasio expanded city spending by tens of billions of dollars in pursuit of his equity agenda. He hired tens of thousands of new municipal employees, including hundreds of highly paid “special assistants” for his office. Having never confronted the task of making hard budget choices as mayor, he now faces an ugly reckoning.

And yet, the mayor’s message post-crisis sounds strikingly similar to his message pre-crisis. In his first inaugural address on the first day of 2014, de Blasio invoked the spirit of “Franklin Roosevelt and Frances Perkins,” along with “Fiorello LaGuardia, who enacted the New Deal here on the city level, battled the excesses of Wall Street, and championed a progressive income tax.” The new mayor pledged his commitment to pursue higher taxes on the highest-earning New Yorkers and condemned those “on the far right” who “preach the virtue of trickle-down economics.”

In his remarks on Sunday, more than six years after his first day on the job, de Blasio again hailed the Spirit of ’33, when progressive leaders stepped up to work for major change. “Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Fiorello LaGuardia, and all the other great leaders in the New Deal, they did not say, we just want to go back to that horribly unequal, volatile, unfair world of 1929,” de Blasio said. “No, they said we’re going to build something transformational and different. That was the New Deal. They re-imagined what government could be.”

De Blasio has spoken of the “transformative” nature of his administration so often that it prompts groans from anyone outside of his closest orbit. As mayor, he has doggedly pursued his promise of a “millionaire’s tax,” while shifting its stated purpose—from funding universal pre-K to building housing for poor seniors to fixing the subways. It became clear that he didn’t favor taxing the rich to pay for particular projects; he came up with projects to justify taxing the rich.

De Blasio has also cast the Covid-19 crisis as a symptom of racism. On an age-adjusted basis, black Covid-19 deaths are approximately twice the white rate. “It goes back to massive disparities in health care predating this crisis,” the mayor explained, “the fact that health care in this country is given out according to income and, you know, is not universal the way it should be. And the fact that . . . all the structural racism and everything we’re all fighting against has left so many people of African descent vulnerable in this crisis.”

As usual with such matters, de Blasio paints with too broad a brush. Co-morbidity factors—including obesity, diabetes, and hypertension—run high among black New Yorkers. But New York State and City spend tens of billions of dollars providing health-care access to poor people, with special attention to blacks and Latinos, such that the state has one of the lowest rates of uninsured people in the nation—and on an income-adjusted basis, surely the lowest. The uninsured rate among black New Yorkers is only slightly higher than the white rate; Latino New Yorkers, including many illegal aliens, have much higher uninsured rates but a slightly lower death rate. Meantime, Asians in New York City, with higher poverty rates than any other group, show the lowest incidence of Covid-19 deaths, by a significant margin.

To develop a roadmap to recovery, de Blasio will appoint advisory councils to address the challenges of various economic sectors. But—first things first—he has already established, as an “immediate piece, and it’ll start with immediate actions,” a City Task Force on Racial Inclusion and Equity, “addressing structural racism.” The Task Force will be co-chaired by his wife, Chirlane McCray.

Asked if McCray, who had a career as a speechwriter and publicist, is the right person to head the Task Force, the mayor answered that she “unquestionably” had the right background and skill set. He cited her experience running ThriveNYC, the city’s mental-wellness program, which has been criticized for poorly defined goals, a lack of attention to the problem of serious mental illness, and accounting deficiencies that squandered close to $1 billion. “Look, I love my wife deeply,” said de Blasio, “but I also admire my wife deeply for what she’s given her whole life over to, which is the work of equity and what she’s built with Thrive, which is an entire reimagining of the mental health system to actually provide access to people across the board.”

Homeless people fill New York’s subways, which now tacitly serve as an overflow annex to the city’s multibillion-dollar homeless and mental-illness social-service industry. Violent crime in the city is on the rise, and hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers are late with April’s rent and have no idea how to pay May’s. Presiding over a city spiraling into crisis, Mayor de Blasio continues to sound the one note he knows how to play—about unfairness and inequality—but his instrument is out of tune.

Photo by Scott Heins/Getty Images

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