Seth Barron joins Brian Anderson to discuss New York City politics, Mayor Bill de Blasio’s first term, the relationship between de Blasio and Governor Cuomo, and the controversy surrounding this year’s Puerto Rican Day Parade.
“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,” notes Seth Barron in a recent story for City Journal. Indeed, as his first term in office winds down, de Blasio is an overwhelming favorite to win reelection this November. But for many New Yorkers who lived through Gotham’s worst days two and three decades ago, de Blasio’s election was a troublesome sign of how fragile the city’s success might be. His likely second term in office might expose more of that fragility.
Seth Barron is associate editor of City Journal and project director of the NYC Initiative at the Manhattan Institute. He writes primarily about New York City politics and culture.
Brian Anderson: It has been nearly four years since Bill de Blasio became mayor of New York City, and this November voters are likely, if polls are to be believed, to give him another term in office. At the time of his mayoral campaign, de Blasio cast himself as part of a movement of progressive, leftwing leaders that is growing in the city and across the country, but de Blasio’s successful campaign was a reflection of the tremendous improvements the city had made from the 20 years prior to his election, when crime and disorder ruled the streets and subways, the city’s economy and finances were in chaos, and millions of the city’s residents were either dependent on welfare or fleeing for the suburbs. These days the city is unquestionably safer than ever but signs of trouble persist. The region’s transportation system is in dire need of repair, New York’s political leadership is consumed by controversy, and then there is the prospect of a future recession or financial crisis which could spark yet another disaster in the city’s budget. On today’s 10 Blocks Podcast, we are going to talk with Seth Barron, our new associate editor, about New York City Politics and some of the ongoing issues in the city.
Hello, I am City Journal editor Brian Anderson. Thanks for joining us for the 10 Blocks Podcast, featuring urban policy and cultural commentary with City Journal editors, contributors, and special guests.
Welcome back to 10 Blocks. I am your host, Brian Anderson. Joining us on the show today is Seth Barron. Seth is City Journal’s associate editor and the project director for the Manhattan Institute’s New York City Initiative. He has written about New York City politics for years and you can find him on Twitter, @NYCCouncilWatch. Seth, thanks for joining us.
Seth Barron: Oh, thank you, Brian. I am glad to be here.
Brian Anderson: You recently wrote a piece for City Journal’s website called “de Blasio’s Bubble,” which ties nicely into the discussion we are going to have here today. You have indicated that Mayor de Blasio makes frequent missteps, yet he seems likely, as I mentioned at the outset, to get reelected. Why isn’t he facing a serious primary challenge?
Seth Barron: That’s a great question, Brian. I think you have to look at how New York City politics works. Basically, we have a one-party state dominated by the Democrats. You know, there are Republicans but there’s very few elected Republicans. So the election for, say, city council or any city-wide offices typically is decided by the primary, the Democratic Primary. The Democratic Primary typically turns out, you know, very few voters and it’s heavily, heavily influenced by donations and work by the unions who control, you know, put a lot of money into the elections and who are able to bring voters out, bring their people out in, you know, different local elections and city-wide, so essentially, if you have the unions behind you, which de Blasio does, it makes it very difficult to challenge him.
Brian Anderson: Yet your piece also notes that the mayor is, and I think this is charitable, somewhat tone-deaf politically. How does this manifest itself?
Seth Barron: He is a little tone-deaf. He is somewhat arrogant and has a rather imperial view of his mayoralty. I mean, for example, he has made it a habit of returning to his old neighborhood in Park Slope every day, when he can, to attend the gym there. He likes to go to the local YMCA near his old house and then go grab a coffee and a pastry at his favorite bakery. He does this typically in the late morning when, you know, most people are at work. He has a convoy of city SUVs that transport him from the Upper East Side, where he lives in Gracie Mansion, eleven or twelve miles to Park Slope, where he rides an exercise bike for 45 minutes or so. And - but this is what he likes to do. And he – you know, you could argue the optics of it are a little odd and he has gotten some criticism about it, particularly, like, the timing of it. Like, you know, most people who work aren’t at the gym at 10:00 a.m.
Brian Anderson: Uh-huh.
Seth Barron: And then given his, you know, huge emphasis on green initiatives and fighting climate change and, you know, reducing carbon emissions, it seems somewhat discordant that he is taking SUVs all the way there, but he just sees this as irrelevant, and maybe it is. But it plays – it doesn’t play that well.
Brian Anderson: Right.
Seth Barron: Other things he has done earlier in his administration, he was set on eliminating the carriage horses from Central Park. This was a campaign promise he made because he had several very well-healed donors who are, you know, major horse lovers and they gave him a lot of money and he promised to eliminate the carriages. And even when it became really impossible for this to go forward, he really pushed at it. Soon the entire – the media was against it, the council was against it, the tourist industry was against it, the unions were against it, but he kept fighting. He even came up with a plan to turn over Central Park for free, parts of Central Park to the horse carriage industry, which he supposedly loathes and build stables there. It was just a very odd…
Brian Anderson: Uh-huh.
Seth Barron: …uncharacteristic for a politician who is sort of noted for having a savvy sense of public relations. He has had a few of these things, these episodes.
Brian Anderson: Right.
Seth Barron: And they are sort of hard to square.
Brian Anderson: Before he was dismissed by President Trump, U.S. attorney Preet Bharara was investigating de Blasio and his staff for what some people said was kind of a pay-to-play operation. What is the status of that investigation now that Preet is gone and what’s going to happen going forward, if you have got any insight into that?
Seth Barron: Sure. Well, that was an interesting episode. For the last two years, really, de Blasio has been dogged by these charges, by these pay-to-play charges that have operated, you know, at both the state and federal level, county, district attorneys have been involved, Campaign Finance Board, the state Conflicts of Interest Board. It is a huge – it was a huge scandal that appeared to, you know, have many threads and tied together all these different agencies involving an assortment of payments that were made by donors to consultants in exchange for various real estate favors all throughout the state. Basically it was all thrown out. Preet Bharara was fired and the acting district attorney, Acting U.S. Attorney Joon Kim, in conjunction with the Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance, they both announced that they were not going to be pursuing any charges against him. You know, there’s all kinds of speculation as to what happened here. Some people think that the very highest levels, I mean if you think about it, the very highest levels of Manhattan real estate, Bill de Blasio and Donald Trump have some mutual friends.
Brian Anderson: Uh-huh.
Seth Barron: And it is thought that some influence may have been brought to bear there, but in any case, his legal troubles are over regarding any of those investigations. Now, he still has a substantial legal bill he has to pay, which he is going to do via fundraising, you know, which could raise more questions, but right now he is off the hook. Which is why his reelection seems pretty much a given at this point.
Brian Anderson: With the recent chaos which has made national headlines at the city’s largest commuter, Penn Station, and subway delays in general in New York City which are on the rise, New Yorkers are again reminded of this kind of bizarre, tense relationship between Mayor de Blasio and Governor Andrew Cuomo. Can you talk a little bit about the relationship between these two men and what are some of the other issues dividing the city and the state capital?
Seth Barron: Certainly. Well, the story of de Blasio and Cuomo goes back quite a ways to the Bill Clinton administration when Governor Cuomo was then the secretary of HUD, and Bill de Blasio was a deputy of his working in the tristate region. So, de Blasio used to work for Cuomo, and they both worked for Clinton. Since de Blasio’s succession to the mayoralty, there has been a very, very – it’s been a very fraught relationship. We have seen this since the beginning, when de Blasio proposed to bring universal prekindergarten to all the four-year-olds of New York City and he wanted it paid for with a special tax on the wealthy.
Brian Anderson: This was his millionaire’s tax.
Seth Barron: Millionaire’s tax, that’s right. And then Cuomo stepped in front of him, bigfooted him, you could say, or wrong-footed him, and you know, said no, no. We will handle this at the state level. We will pay for the UPK for everybody and we don’t need to tax anyone. This irked de Blasio. Basically, we have seen time and time again Cuomo has upstaged de Blasio, pushed him aside, done end runs around him on the progressive front, putting himself forward as the real progressive of New York. There does seem to be some kind of personal animosity between the two.
Brian Anderson: Uh-huh.
Seth Barron: And it works out in all kinds of ways. For instance, in the question of control of the schools in New York City, the mayor has direct control of the schools. There is no schoolboard anymore. It has been this way under – Bloomberg is the one who managed to get control of the schools. Bloomberg had, essentially, was given by the state, you know, pretty much unlimited control indefinitely. Mayor de Blasio only gets it on a year-by-year basis, so every year he has to go back to Albany and essentially beg and plead to have control of the schools again, and it is fairly clear that Cuomo is running this game on him. When it comes to things like the MTA, Penn Station, the subways, the LIRR, I mean we are seeing terrible, terrible delays, accidents. I mean New York’s infrastructure – I mean people at Manhattan Institute have been saying this for years, that we are in dire shape…
Brian Anderson: Uh-huh.
Seth Barron: …and now we are really seeing the fruits of it.
Brian Anderson: Starting to see the derailments and the delays, absolutely.
Seth Barron: Yeah. It’s really – could pose a very serious threat to the New York City economy, to the regional economy, and we just see the two of them pointing fingers at one another, de Blasio and Cuomo, saying, you know, it ain’t me. So it would be great if they could – I mean they are both Democrats presumably, so it’s not clear who they – they don’t have any Republicans to blame…
Brian Anderson: Uh-huh.
Seth Barron: …regarding this, so it would be great if they could put their differences aside and come up with a way to solve this problem. I’m not sure that is going to happen.
Brian Anderson: Let’s talk about one of the other major political players in New York City who you have written a lot about, and that’s the City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito. She has been embroiled in controversy in recent weeks over her defense of the Puerto Rican Day Parade after the organizers announced that they would honor Oscar López Rivera as a national freedom hero. Can you talk a little about that controversy for folks outside of New York who might not be following it?
Seth Barron: Sure. Melissa Mark-Viverito is the Speaker of the City Council, which may sound grander than it really is. She is a member of the city council from East Harlem, representing East Harlem, El Barrio, and parts of the South Bronx. She was installed in her position very openly by Mayor de Blasio in conjunction with the boss of the Kings County political machine. She’s not a very popular figure, even in her own neighborhood. She comes from Puerto Rico. She grew up in Puerto Rico and then moved to New York to attend college. Her politics are very radical, even by the standards of, you know, leftist New York City standards, she is kind of off the chart. She has a deep affection for Puerto Rico, you know, which that’s where she is from, I suppose that’s fine. But she really romanticizes the Puerto Rican Independence Movement of the 40s, 50s, and up to the 70s and 80s, when a former – one of the people who had been involved in the attempted assassination of Truman and the assassination attempt of congressmen on the floor of the Congress in the early 50s, when one of the perpetrators died. She said this is our national hero, our icon. And she has been very, very active in the cause of Oscar López Rivera, who is a member of the Armed Forces of National Liberation, the FALN, a terrorist group in the 70s and 80s that perpetrated a series of bombings around the country, particularly in New York City and Chicago. They had over 120 bombings, including an explosion at the legendary Fraunces Tavern in 1975. This is where George Washington made his famous farewell to his officers. Four people were killed and dozens injured. López Rivera and the leadership of FALN were convicted of seditious conspiracy, conspiracy to transport firearms, a series of pretty heinous crimes in the early 80s and were convicted. And he was sentenced to, oh, I believe a total 55 years and then 15 years when he plotted a violent escape. Melissa Mark-Viverito has been very, you know, she was very active. She visited him all the time, talked about him all the time. And Obama commuted his sentence. You know, I guess one could argue that after 35 years maybe it is okay to commute someone’s sentence, but you know, he wasn’t planning on going home to Puerto Rico and relaxing, he was brought to New York City by Melissa Mark-Viverito to have a, you know, basically a hero’s welcome. And she arranged for him to get this award from the Puerto Rican Day Parade Committee, which she essentially controls, as the national freedom hero. They had a whole victory celebration with a dinner dance and, you know, galas. It turned into a major, major problem, because even in Puerto Rico the cause of independence is not very strong. They have had a number of referenda down there that never garner more than two or three percent of the vote for pro-independence. I mean she and other acolytes of López Rivera like to make the claim that he is the Mandela of the Americas, but Nelson Mandela opposed a system, apartheid, that was completely unpopular. Whereas it seems like a large majority of the Puerto Rican people are either happy with how things are now or want to become a state. Very few of them want to establish like a Castro-like…
Brian Anderson: Independent, yeah.
Seth Barron: …communist dictatorship for an independent Puerto Rico, which is exactly what Oscar López Rivera says he wants, that he models himself on Hugo Chávez and Castro. So, anyway, Melissa Mark-Viverito is, well, she’s leaving office in a few months. She is term-limited. This was pretty much her swansong.
Brian Anderson: Last question for you. Today, as a long-term observer of New York City politics, assuming, again, as the polls suggest will happen, that de Blasio wins in November, what is his second term going to look like? Does he have some big, sort of progressive policy ideas that he might want to pursue? How will it differ, in your view, from his first term?
Seth Barron: I suspect we are going to see a lot more of the same in his second term, but maybe dialed up. As far as, you know, where he wants to push things, it is really hard to say. I mean de Blasio is an interesting character because he combines, maybe the worst excesses of 1970s, 1980s, you might want to say miserabilist ideologies, with very pro-development, pro-real estate, you know, practical sensibilities. So, you know, he will probably push for much more affordable housing, you know, which is either good or bad. He will probably push for, you know, more for the unions…
Brian Anderson: Uh-huh.
Seth Barron: …he will certainly push for a tax increase. He claims to want to regularize the property tax system in New York. We will see if anything happens with that. You know, really let your imagination run wild. He could come up with virtually anything.
Brian Anderson: Don’t forget to check out Seth Barron’s work on our website, city-journal.org. You can follow him on Twitter, @NYCCouncilWatch. We would also love to hear your comments about today’s episode on Twitter, @CityJournal with the hashtag #10Blocks. Lastly, if you like our show and do want to hear more, please leave ratings and reviews on iTunes. Thanks for listening and thanks, Seth, for joining us.
You can subscribe to this and other Manhattan Institute podcasts in the iTunes store. The audio edition and transcript is available on our website, www.city-journal.org. This is City Journal editor Brian Anderson. Thanks again for listening to the 10 Blocks Podcast.