Democrat Bill de Blasio didn’t just beat his Republican rival Joe Lhota in Tuesday’s election for New York City mayor. According to the headline in the New York Post, he achieved “utter destruction.” De Blasio’s 49-point victory was a bigger margin than the city has seen in nearly 30 years. He is naturally taking his decisive win as evidence that New Yorkers want a radically new governing strategy. “Today, you spoke out loudly and clearly for a new direction,” he said last night. “The people of this city have chosen a progressive path, and tonight we set forth on it.” But de Blasio is wrong; the city is not yearning for progressive change. Rather, his mandate is merely to continue governing the city in pretty much the same way it’s been governed for the last two decades.
One has to stretch to find the evidence of massive voter dissatisfaction. Consider, first, turnout. Preliminary results show that about 1 million New Yorkers voted yesterday. That’s 13 percent lower than four years ago. Back then, remember, many voters disillusioned with the choices—Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg was running for a third term against the uninspiring Bill Thompson, Jr.—just stayed home. Turnout this year was as much as 30 percent below 12 years ago, when Bloomberg won his first victory. Voters supposedly so eager for change this year didn’t show that eagerness by voting. And a slim majority of the people who did vote—51 percent—told exit pollsters that they approve of Bloomberg, anyway. Though de Blasio’s victory margin was impressive, the scale of the win looks less stellar when put into recent historical context. As of early Wednesday, de Blasio had 752,605 votes—a hair shy of Bloomberg’s 753,089 votes in 2005.
De Blasio trounced Lhota, but not because voters are unhappy on a massive scale. As they have for 20 years, New Yorkers chose the candidate they felt most comfortable with from two imperfect choices. Ask yourself: what was Lhota’s vision for the city? His most prominent ad featured images from the Crown Heights riots from more than two decades ago. He seemed to believe that New Yorkers would vote for him out of fear. He didn’t bother trying to offer positive solutions for the range of issues people worry about today—from using technology to help the NYPD communicate better with the public to improving quality of life through better enforcement of noise and other nuisance codes.
The danger now is that de Blasio confuses the electorate’s desire to maintain the progress of the past 20 years with a hunger for wholesale change. In fact, de Blasio’s real job is to keep things the way they are. His first big challenge when he takes office seven weeks from now will be preparing a $74.6 billion city budget that already faces a nearly $2 billion deficit. It’s unlikely that Wall Street will save him; though de Blasio doesn’t seem to have noticed, revenues have been dropping in the past few months. The city can do nothing without a balanced budget, but to get there, de Blasio will have to make the city’s public-sector employees very unhappy. They’ve worked without contracts for years in hopes that a new mayor would give them a big pay hike, but such raises could nearly quadruple the deficit.
De Blasio’s other big task is to keep the city safe. Last year, New York saw 417 murders, a record low. That number likely will fall below 400 this year. Keeping crime at bay is a question of competence, not ideology. De Blasio has every incentive to preserve the gains of the last few decades. He well knows that if a Democratic mayor cuts crime, New York will never elect another Republican. In his acceptance speech, he told the crowd that “public safety is a prerequisite for the thriving neighborhoods that create opportunity in this city.” De Blasio’s challenge is to keep crime down while placating the activists who voted for him based on his pledge to hamstring the NYPD’s ability to stop, question, and frisk suspicious characters. Bloomberg never much cared what the critics said as long as the body count went down. De Blasio will have to learn to do the same or watch crime rise.
Likewise, de Blasio’s success on a host of other issues will depend on his willingness to stand up to the city’s numerous special interests. On transportation, for example, Bloomberg reduced traffic deaths by 30 percent, largely because he ignored the vocal minority who howled about his improvements to New York’s streets. When asked at a debate, though, what he thought about the Times Square pedestrian plazas, de Blasio said that “the jury is still out.” That’s not true. Data make clear that the verdict is in, from workers’ and residents’ embrace of the plazas to crash reductions and traffic flow. Will de Blasio be as willing as Bloomberg was to ignore, say, a property owner who doesn’t want a bike dock or bike lane in front of his house or store? A mayor who can’t stand some heckling about how he’s turned Times Square into someone’s lawn surely won’t be able to take on the teachers’ union.
New Yorkers will tolerate de Blasio’s progressive experiments only if he proves himself competent on the basics. After all, he will hardly be the city’s first progressive mayor. Just in the past 12 years, New Yorkers have lived through Bloomberg’s first-term tax hikes (and another tax hike, in the sales-tax rate, four years ago), his doubling of the education budget, his construction or maintenance of 150,000 new subsidized-housing units, and his various efforts to keep New Yorkers from smoking cigarettes, ingesting trans fats, and drinking too much soda. To be sure, de Blasio’s plan to raise the income tax temporarily to pay for higher education spending is a terrible idea. It’s the same bad policy, though—higher taxes and higher spending—that Bloomberg enacted during his own first term. Only the rhetoric is different.
New York is not getting a newly progressive mayor—it’s getting a new progressive mayor. The only question is whether de Blasio can get the snow plowed, make shooters too scared to carry their illegal guns around with them, and keep municipal bondholders complacent. If he can’t, New Yorkers will soon stop pretending to care so much about “tale of two cities” inequality.