Seth Barron and Nicole Gelinas join Brian Anderson to discuss the upcoming New York City mayoral election and some of the challenges facing the city today.
Bill de Blasio won the New York mayor’s office in 2013, pledging to take the city in a different direction from his successful predecessors, Rudy Giuliani and Michael Bloomberg. From policing and taxes to housing and welfare, the mayor has pursued policies in opposition to those that helped turn the city around after decades of decline and made New York a symbol of urban recovery.
So far, however, most of the Giuliani/Bloomberg achievements remain intact; the city is flourishing, and de Blasio is expected to win reelection. But problems are mounting up: the region’s transportation infrastructure is in dire need of repair, street homelessness is on the rise, and New York’s political culture remains terribly corrupt.
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.
Nicole Gelinas is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, a contributing editor of City Journal, and a columnist at the New York Post.
Brian Anderson: When Bill de Blasio took office in 2014, described by many as the most progressive major in New York’s history, critics feared the worst. After twenty years of effective leadership from Rudy Giuliani and Michael Bloomberg, de Blasio’s candidacy was supposed to be a repudiation of the two reform mayors. He certainly cast himself in that light. From policing, taxes, housing, and welfare, candidate de Blasio tried setting himself apart from his predecessors whom he accused of favoring the wealthy, allowing, if not encouraging, excessive inequality, and policing too aggressively. Here we are, four years later, with Mayor de Blasio up for reelection. I think it is fair to say that he has not been the disaster that some of his critics feared and the achievements of the Giuliani Bloomberg years remain standing. Crime is still at an all-time low and the NYPD continues to be the best police force in America. The economy is growing. But serious problems are beginning to manifest themselves. The city’s transportation network is in dire need of repair, street homelessness is getting worse, and New York City’s political culture is horribly corrupt. These are just a few of the issues that we will be discussing today. In this episode of 10 Blocks, we are going to talk with two City Journal editors who write frequently about New York, Nicole Gelinas and Seth Barron, about some of these issues and what it will take to fix some of New York City’s most pressing challenges.
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 the show. I am Brian Anderson. Joining us now is Seth Barron and Nicole Gelinas. Seth is City Journal‘s associate editor and you can follow him on Twitter, @NYCCouncilWatch. Nicole Gelinas, senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, is also a contributing editor of City Journal and a columnist at the New York Post. You can follow her on Twitter as well, @NicoleGelinas. Thanks, both of you, for joining us.
Nicole Gelinas: Thank you, Brian.
Seth Barron: Thanks, Brian.
Brian Anderson: Though Democrats outnumber Republican voters by, I think, it is six-to-one in New York, the city still has a mayoral election coming up this November. Mayor de Blasio is expected to win reelection, perhaps handily. Who are the other candidates in the race, especially for our non-New York listeners, but also, maybe, for some New York City listeners? What type of issues are they campaigning on and what is resonating with New York voters?
Seth Barron: Well, the Republican candidate for mayor is Nicole Malliotakis, who is a Staten Island Assembly member. She was a Trump supporter and is running, you know, a pretty vigorous campaign, I would say, against Mayor de Blasio. In particular, you know, taking him on on some of his, you know, the impression that people have that the mayor is somewhat lackadaisical, that he naps during the day, that he is preoccupied with his morning jaunts to Park Slope to go to his old gym, the Y, where he will, you know, work on the exercise machines and then go to his favorite pastry shop and have a cappuccino before starting his day around 10:30 in the morning. But she has substantive issues that she is addressing, too, namely, you know, cost overruns, which Nicole could probably talk more about, I would think.
Brian Anderson: We will get to that, but what’s your view of the field of candidates?
Nicole Gelinas: Well, it has been a quiet, if not somnolent race so far this year, precisely because of what you talked about, that crime remains at record lows, the economy is doing well, and so there is no sense of an immediate crisis to spur people to get out to the polls for a change like we saw when Rudy Giuliani was elected back in 1993 and then again when Bloomberg was the surprise victor to many people back in 2001 after 9/11. And this time, because things are far from perfect, as we can talk about, but going along as well as they have been, people don’t feel a need for…
Brian Anderson: There’s no perception of urgency or crisis.
Nicole Gelinas: …a change. And we saw that in the primary, where Sal Albanese, who was a Brooklyn city councilman for eight years and worked as a schoolteacher, has worked in the finance industry in the private sector, he is a solid candidate, certainly no less qualified than de Blasio was four years ago. He ran a good, fair, issues-based campaign against de Blasio but he didn’t get very far in the primary. De Blasio certainly won that by a landslide two weeks ago.
Brian Anderson: De Blasio’s poll numbers have been up and down. At one point, he dipped considerably below 50%, I think, and some of his supporters were dissatisfied with his governance style, perhaps. Were there other issues that people were troubled by? Seth, you talked about this perception that maybe he is a bit lackadaisical about his mayoral responsibilities, but were there other concerns?
Seth Barron: Sure. I mean, at one point his housing plan – he has received a lot of pushback from his base. De Blasio wants to, you know, expand housing throughout the city and has upzoned a lot of the city towards this end, but he’s getting a lot of pushback at the neighborhood level. You know, in neighborhoods where you would expect everyone would be in favor or more affordable housing, well, low and behold they see it as a landgrab for moneyed interests. You know, on a certain level maybe they are right. De Blasio has been surprisingly sensible on the question of gentrification as a scare word which, you know, many of his supporters, they would like to see him take a more aggressive heavy hand against what they call luxury development, which often just means like workforce, you know, housing for, you know, the middle class. And they would like to see him push back and really fight for more, you know, what they call deep affordability. Like for people making $25,000 a year, building new houses for them. De Blasio recognizes that this is not politically or economically feasible so, you know, that’s one area where he has gotten resistance.
Brian Anderson: There certainly does, and the administration has acknowledged it, appear to be a significant increase in homelessness on the city streets. I am wondering how much that issue, Nicole, has surfaced in the campaign so far.
Nicole Gelinas: I think it contributes to the idea that we do have maybe not crisis-level management problems, but background management problems that do contribute to the feeling that no one is really in charge of the city, that we’ve got this vacant real estate in many parts of Manhattan, and in the outer boroughs, as well, and these are empty storefronts where a vagrant can put down a mattress and some pillows and a bunch of newspapers and really take up a permanent space. And, so, we have these sort of one-person homeless encampments, and it is hard to measure them because unfortunately no one did a baseline before de Blasio took office. It might be a good idea to start now, but it does contribute to this idea of disorder. And I think another thing – and it’s also not very humane for these people who are lying out there, as our colleague, Stephen Eide, has written, many of these people suffer from severe mental illnesses…
Brian Anderson: Mental illness, sure.
Nicole Gelinas: …and many of them are also suffering from the heroin epidemic, particularly the younger ones. And I think other things that contribute to this atmosphere of disorder are management of the city streets, where this is U.N. week, so they are particularly ill-managed right now and there’s just complete gridlock in the streets. It seems that no one is in charge. The traffic agents try to do a good job but they are not very well-trained and a lot of times the drivers don’t even pay attention to them. And, so, we’ve got people running through red lights, blocking the intersection, and contributing to more gridlock, honking for no reason, it’s just if you walk around or you drive around it just seems like, again, no one is in charge of these things. Now these are – in some ways you could say homeless and traffic are perennial problems, but definitely with traffic, we can measure that. That traffic speeds are at their lowest they have been in modern times, where you can’t – if you are taking a taxi through midtown and they measure this through GPS, you are going less than six miles an hour during the daytime hours.
Brian Anderson: It has become increasingly a quicker trip to walk uptown, say, than to take a cab…
Nicole Gelinas: Right.
Brian Anderson: …at certain parts of the day.
Nicole Gelinas: Yeah.
Brian Anderson: It is true. I have never seen traffic this bad in midtown since I have been here, going on twenty years now. Nicole, to follow up the next question with you, you have written a lot about New York’s economy over the years, and it is certainly doing well in terms of a lot of different metrics right now. The city has more jobs than it has ever had, tax revenues are at a record high, nearly every neighborhood in Manhattan is drawing some sort of business investment nowadays. On the other hand, you have just written a terrific lengthy piece for us on the city’s very troubling finances. This was in the Summer issue of City Journal. It was called “Bill de Blasio’s Budget Blowout.” In this essay, you note that the mayor is spending so much that not even this record economic boom is going to be able to cover it or keep up with it. So what are some of the numbers we are looking at with the city budget and why should we be worried about this?
Nicole Gelinas: Sure. Well, under de Blasio’s first term as mayor, city spending has gone up from $76 billion to more than $87 billion a year. And, so, this is an $11 billion increase in spending compared to the last year of the Bloomberg administration to the final year of the first term of the de Blasio administration. That works out to about a 15% real increase in spending after inflation. Now, de Blasio didn’t invent the overspending problem in New York City. Bloomberg did not do enough to rein in spending during his terms in office and we also saw spending increase as well above inflation during the Bloomberg terms. But, one essential difference here is that, for the most part, Bloomberg didn’t actively seek to increase spending, particularly during his final two terms. It was pensions and healthcare that really pushed these costs up. And pensions and healthcare went from $5 billion a year in the beginning of the Bloomberg era to more than $17 billion a year at the end of the Bloomberg era. Why is that? The stock market crashed. We had to make up for that crash by putting more money into the city’s five pension funds every year, annual contributions for that went from less than $2 billion to $8 billion a year, and the general costs of healthcare kept going up. The then mayor didn’t do very much to try to push back and really get concessions from the labor unions in asking them to pay for some part of their own healthcare premium, for example, which most people in the private sector and even in the public sector outside of New York State pay something for their own healthcare premium. But, de Blasio took what was already an unaffordable long-term situation and made it much worse by awarding the workforce retroactive raises from the Bloomberg era. And Bloomberg had said during his last term, remember this was after the financial crisis of 2008, we can’t afford to give the workforce raises because of the fact that their pension and healthcare benefits are going up so much. In other words, they can make a deal with us on those things, but if they don’t the money is just not there for them to get raises. And Bloomberg was correct, the budget was never balanced during these years. We were drawing down on an $8 billion surplus that Bloomberg had built up, up to 2008. By the time de Blasio took office that surplus was gone and the mayor went ahead and awarded these retroactive raises without having a way to pay for it. So, if he couldn’t pay for it, how did he pay for it? Well, he pushed the cost into the future. So, as late as 2021, the city is going to be paying the annual cost of raises that are for work that was done as early as 2008, 2009, which is not a very good situation. If you want to give raises, you should find a way to pay for them now, which de Blasio did not do. And it just points to the fact that this is an untenable fiscal situation. However, it is hard to get people interested in this because the economy is doing well. There is no fiscal crisis at the moment. There is no spending cuts at the moment. In fact, there’s spending increases. De Blasio has added 1,550 police officers, he has added teachers for pre-K, he is expanding pre-K to three-year-olds next year, as well as for four-year-olds, which he did during his first year. So, but we’ve never had a modern mayor who has gone through two terms without a serious fiscal crisis, and so no one wants that, of course, but if the mayor does win a second term, statistically and historically speaking, his time for a fiscal crisis will be coming.
Seth Barron: I mean, it is remarkable that Mayor de Blasio has really not had to do any budgeting in the sense of, you know, weighing, you know, various choices. He can just pay for anything he wants, because the city is flush. I mean, doesn’t that seem to be the case?
Nicole Gelinas: Right. And we see that with his annual budget negotiations with the city council. The council has to sign off on the annual budget, the same way, roughly, that Congress works. A little bit different, but the council has to okay these things and whenever there is a fiscal problem then there is a real debate over what should we cutback, what should we cutback instead of cutting back something that the council wants to save, but over the past four years we haven’t had that debate. It’s very superficial, where de Blasio may say I am going to cutback these daycare seats, but the council will add them back. There’s really no pushback and the council will say we want this, this, and this, and de Blasio will give it to them. You know, this year was the legal aid for illegal immigrants, or allegedly illegal immigrants at risk of deportation, and we’ve got construction of a new police station in Queens, purchase of new snow blowers to do the sidewalks more efficiently…
Seth Barron: Free suntan lotion.
Nicole Gelinas: Right. Free school lunch. And, you know, none of these things by themselves is going to break the bank, but it goes to exactly what you were saying, that there is room to add a little something for everybody, you know, whether you want more police in your neighborhood, you want better funding for schools. Every special interest group is made happy. You know, no one is suffering to make somebody else happy.
Brian Anderson: Seth, this question, first, to you: De Blasio is certainly a man of the Left, a progressive Democrat, perhaps even a Marxist, as he recently noted in New York Magazine, yet he’s not a fan of what is mostly a pretty liberal New York media. Though the mayor has reserved his harshest criticism for our friends at the New York Post, the criticism has extended across the press. Why do you think de Blasio has this kind of attitude toward the press? Why so much animosity?
Seth Barron: It’s a good question. I mean, what he and his office say are oh, well, there’s so many other ways to communicate with the public now, you know? Directly through social media, or townhalls. I don’t think he likes being questioned. And, you know, Mayor de Blasio, for all of his, you know, all the populist noise he makes, he is a very, you know, highhanded patrician sort of person, and his attitude is really very imperial. So, when he was, before Preet Bharara was fired and there were, you know, all these investigations into de Blasio’s electioneering and his campaign finance, you know, systems, you know, the press was asking him about it. And he was just resolute that he was not going to answer questions and he found it annoying. And what he said numerous times is that when he goes on the radio and takes questions, or if he holds a townhall and you know, there’s a preselected group of community activists there, they never ask him these sorts of questions. They ask him questions, you know, basically pothole-level questions. You know, what are you going to do about you know, getting more schools built, or, you know, why isn’t the trash being picked up at such and such a time? And you know, these are the sort of questions that mayors love to get because they have answers for them. You know, I’m not saying that people can’t ask really informed questions, but you know, it was really the media that was holding his feet to the fire on the campaign finance irregularities, so you know, I think that’s part of it.
Brian Anderson: He does seem a bit thin-skinned. Is that your perception as well, Nicole?
Nicole Gelinas: He is certainly thin-skinned, and he is even a little Trumpian. Different personalities, but in the sense that he didn’t use the newspapers to get elected. He didn’t get any major newspaper endorsement until the first primaries were over, and, even then, very, very reluctant endorsements from a couple of the papers. And he hasn’t – he has almost seemed immune to some of the frontpage exposes and scoops that would have really harmed mayors in past years. You know, it is hard to see a David Dinkins getting away with using two giant city cars almost every day to drive to an entirely different borough to the gym and then drive back at the same time that he is saying that he is worried about pollution and climate change. But this doesn’t – you know, the press complains about it, including me, and yet it’s not…
Brian Anderson: It doesn’t seem to…
Nicole Gelinas: …it doesn’t appear to be about to cost him reelection, although who knows? And he is also, he is Trumpian in that he gained office because people were tired of the same old politicians. That when he was running the first time, a lot of people thought Christine Quinn would win because she had all of the relevant experience. She had been the city council leader, she had a kind of Bloomberg-type plan for the city, you know, a technocratic, pragmatic leader. And a couple other candidates had the same, you know, Bill Thompson, a long history of experience in New York politics, and de Blasio didn’t have too many political accomplishments, but he just kind of loped along and beat all these other people pretty handily.
Seth Barron: At that time, however, he had won a city-wide race…
Nicole Gelinas: Yeah.
Seth Barron: …which no one else had. In fact, he had won two because he had a runoff for public advocate in 2009. And the thing with Bill de Blasio is he had a very powerful and strong ground political machine coming out of his time in the Working Families Party and this ground effort really helped him out. Now, you know, it occurred to me he got about 440,000 votes in the primary. I mean, if you basically take the entire UFT, all of the teachers union and their immediate families, and, you know, 1199 work – I mean he essentially, all he needs is the union vote.
Nicole Gelinas: Yeah, that’s true.
Seth Barron: And he has done, you know, yeoman’s labor on their behalf. I mean, as you point out, you know, for no reason giving the teachers 50,000 parking placards. You know, just constant giveaways, constant promises…
Nicole Gelinas: Right.
Seth Barron: What more could they want?
Nicole Gelinas: And the teachers parking placards, I’m glad you brought that up, this is also an example of intransparency, that he claims to be progressive and part of progressive government is supposed to be transparent, accountable government, but some people in the media foiled and they went through the process to request the documents behind why he gave out 50,000 free parking permits to the Department of Education workforce just ahead of the election this year. And city hall is delaying the release of these documents until after the election, and they have no real reason to do that. And the parking permits, again, this is poor management. It is giving away something that has real value and it is worth at least $1,000 a year to park in, even outside of Manhattan, and much more in Manhattan. If this is a benefit we want to give to the unions, it should be collectively bargained and returned for another giveback, but this was just a unilateral giveaway that won’t be taxed. You know, the union members won’t be taxed on the value of these parking placards and it contributes to traffic and it also contributes to corruption because you are supposed to use these to park only in a legal spot, but public workers, every single day, they are parked on the sidewalk, they are double-parked, they are using these not for work purposes, and there’s really no enforcement of that.
Brian Anderson: The mayor has presented himself as kind of America’s mayor, perhaps even a global mayor, with, I would say, at least some thought in his mind of running for president. How realistic a scenario is that, that we he will run? What would his chances be in the Democratic Party? Where would that leave the city?
Seth Barron: Well, yeah. Mayor de Blasio has definitely signaled that he is interested in upping his national profile. In fact, after his trip to Hamburg to go to the Hamburg Shows Attitude rally a few months ago, he was asked oh, if he plans in his second term to do much more of that, and he said no, no, no. I’m going to be focusing on U.S. cities. You know, not New York City, but raising, you know, going out to the heartland. He has made efforts at this in the past and was kind of stymied. It’s not clear that he is doing it, that he has a huge appeal outside of New York City. He has people above him who don’t like him, like Governor Cuomo. He annoyed Hillary Clinton when he withheld his endorsement from her. I am not sure de Blasio will have great success outside of New York City, but I think he is definitely interested in pursuing a presidential run.
Brian Anderson: A final question: De Blasio was a fierce critic of the police during his first run for office and his relationship with the NYPD, at least initially, was fraught. I think, with Bratton’s help, he got to a better place with the police. This year New York is thankfully on a track for fewer than 300 murders, which is a remarkable achievement, especially at a time when many other cities, including Chicago, are seeing scary increases in violent crime. It is certainly a very different world from New York’s darkest years of the, you know, from the 70s, really, to 1990, early 90s, when as many as 2,000 people a year were being murdered in the city. How has the NYPD been able to keep the city safe, especially while it has reduced the use of effective police tactics which were causing some fraught relationships with certain communities in the city, stop-and-frisk, which is down considerably. It was coming down under Ray Kelly, but Bratton reduced it dramatically, yet crime has stayed down.
Seth Barron: This is a mystery. You know, many people on the Right had assumed that if you were going to cut stop, question, and frisk, then street crime would go up. So far it hasn’t. There are questions about how reliable the stop, question, and frisk statistics are, but you know, it is undeniable. I mean, you could say that well, right now we are reaping the harvest of twenty years of aggressive…
Brian Anderson: Right.
Seth Barron: …you know, broken window-style policing and…
Brian Anderson: Well, then there is a distinction between broken windows, which the department continues to pursue, and the stop-and-frisk.
Seth Barron: Of course.
Brian Anderson: So, and perhaps it is also due to the sheer numbers of the NYPD, which Bratton used very effectively, flooding neighborhoods with extra police, you know, when there was a crime spike. Nicole, what is your perception of that?
Nicole Gelinas: I think, and I am happy to give de Blasio credit where it is due, he has appointed two competent, experienced police commissioners.
Brian Anderson: Right.
Nicole Gelinas: And where it is important right now, I think de Blasio is a good enough politician to realize he did not want to be the first democratic mayor in twenty years and have crime soar under his watch, that if that happened he would be gone quickly and the prospects for another democratic mayor in New York, or another self-styled progressive mayor would not be very good. And I think he has been aware of that from day one. He has given his two police commissioners, Bratton as well as Commissioner O’Neill, not completely free reign, but a lot of freedom to do what they think is best to keep crime down. And we see that at the J’ouvert Festival, the West Indian Day party on Labor Day weekend out in Crown Heights, where last year there may have been fewer stops and frisks, but they were very effective in that there was a shooting and the police caught the gunman very quickly through traditional bread and butter, stop, question, and frisk techniques…
Brian Anderson: Yeah.
Nicole Gelinas: …and stopping this person for suspicious behavior, searching him and finding the illegal weapon. And, unfortunately, not preventing that but likely preventing other shootings. And we saw that this year, too, where J’ouvert was effectively policed and we didn’t have a shooting right in the vicinity of the party and the parade. And I think that this is something where one should always be concerned that with stop, question, and frisk down so much, people will get used to carrying an illegal weapon again, they’ll think the chances of them being caught with that weapon has gone down, but yes. So far that has not happened and they are making more gun seizures a year than they were a few years ago, so whatever they are doing, they are doing it effectively. And if we can do this with fewer stops, stop, question, and frisks, which at the moment it seems we can, and that’s certainly a good thing for police relations with the community. I think the – and, you know, de Blasio, it is interesting because he actually sticks up for broken windows policing when the DA’s said they – two DA’s – said they weren’t going to prosecute as many subway turnstile jumpers, the mayor did say we can’t have people running into subway without paying. They are not doing it for economic reasons, these aren’t particularly poor people trying to get to work, a lot of them are entering the subway system illegally to commit other crimes and he seems aware of the facts here and, so far, willing to carry them through. It’s a big contrast to where he is on some other issues, including the long-term transit investment issue. I think another factor in keeping crime down, for now at least, without doing as many stop, question, and frisks, is better technology. If you look at subway policing, if someone mugs a person on the subway or commits another crime, they have got a picture of this alleged perpetrator up sometimes within a half-an-hour or so, a very clear picture if you know this person you immediately know who it is, and these pictures posted on Twitter, on Facebook, physical pictures posted around subways, that means that the police catch this alleged criminal very, very quickly. And we didn’t have anywhere near this level of ability to capture these images twenty, thirty, even ten years ago.
Brian Anderson: Don’t forget to check out Seth’s and Nicole’s work on the City Journal website, www.City-Journal.org. You can follow Seth Barron on Twitter, @NYCCouncilWatch, and Nicole Gelinas, @NicoleGelinas. 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 want to hear more, please leave ratings and reviews on iTunes. Thanks for listening and thanks Nicole, thanks Seth, for joining us.
Seth Barron: Thank you.
Nicole Gelinas: Thank you, Brian.
Brian Anderson: 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.