The Promise and Perils of Bill de Blasio If Elected Mayor of NYC: 9 Power Centers to Keep Your Eye On

If all goes as predicted today, November 5, Bill de Blasio will be the new mayor-elect of NYC, and by landslide proportions. De Blasio’s achievement is an extraordinary one, and comes as a shock to many of the big-time establishment players who have exercised almost blanket control over New York politics for decades.
De Blasio’s election raises high expectations among his voters eager for a change in tone and priorities in the Big Apple. The high hopes apply as well to millions of people across the country hungry for a sign that progressive populism is alive and has a future in the face of the nation’s extraordinary march toward massive inequality. The wealth and earnings gap is clearly evident in NYC, but also across the nation where the levels of homelessness, people in poverty, and those living paycheck to paycheck number well over 100 million, and people are hurting in ways that defy comprehension.

As the first progressive NYC mayor since David Dinkins (’90-’93) de Blasio follows a combined 20 years of the pugnacious Rudy Giuliani, and the wealthiest guy in New York, Michael Bloomberg. The tall, lanky, mild-mannered, sometimes even goofy de Blasio is a very different kind of leader for NYC, and one who has clearly been underestimated. He maneuvered himself brilliantly in a campaign that stayed on message about his "Tale of Two Cities," and stuck it to pretty much the gamut of political power in New York, from Bloomberg, to Governor Andrew Cuomo, and to the media—from the manipulative NY Times to the rancid NY Post.  

When you throw in Ray Kelly and the stop-and-frisk crowd, the school privatizers, the real estate industry, and even all the hungry unions that didn’t support de Blasio in the primary, you can see just how much of a victory he has won, and how potentially treacherous the path to success might be.

What will happen in a de Blasio administration that launches in January is already a topic of high hopes and immense speculation. To state the obvious, success won’t be easy, but if de Blasio is as smart and savvy as his allies suggest, he could keep fooling people all the way to a more humane and inclusive New York City, showing that there is more than one way for the Big Apple to thrive.

To be sure, de Blasio begins with enormous goodwill from the rank and file, millions who want him to succeed and be a part of the city where they no longer feel left out. Whether the myriad fans and supporters can stick for the long haul and not be quickly annoyed when de Blasio doesn’t do everything and be everything they want him to be, will be a first test of hanging onto his constituency. This is crucial because a popular mayor is a big weapon in fighting the entrenched power centers, especially when everyone was pretty much against him in the primary.

One political insider who didn’t wanted to be identified because he has to work with all of the political players said that many don’t realize just how good de Blasio is at politics, how knowledgeable he is about the agencies and the workings of city government.

"I don’t think success is going to be that hard. True, it is a challenge for a mayor to fundamentally grapple with inequality, but he can do much, like build affordable housing, set a new tone, say some bold things early and act on them in a first 100 days with a willing city council. "

On the other hand, because of de Blasio’s striking success with a fundamentally critical message aimed at the very wealthy and the incumbent establishment, it is likely that some or most of the existing power centers will aggressively defend their turf, protect their interests, and try hard  to ensure that a message of taxing the wealthy, reducing inequality, and taking away the free ride that private charter schools are getting, does not succeed.

That de Blasio has already sat down with the likes of media moguls Rupert Murdoch and Mort Zuckerman, bankers like Lloyd Blankfein, and many more movers and shakers, makes it likely that de Blasio knows he must represent everyone, and is in high listening mode. It seems already pretty clear to many in the establishment that de Blasio is not a wild-eyed radical, but rather a cautious, yet visionary pol, who believes in things and cares about people, but counts votes, and is likely to make sure he has built some consensus before moving forward.

Still, while lots will go right, a lot can go wrong, and many potential “frenemies” will be willing and able to pounce when the opportunities present themselves. Amidst the promise of de Blasio's vision is quite a list of potential perils Big Bill will have to navigate in order to succeed:

1. The Governor, Andrew Cuomo: The conventional wisdom is Andrew Cuomo (known as a consummate political infighter and deal-maker) and Bill de Blasio need each other. De Blasio worked for Cuomo at HUD in the Clinton administration. In terms of Cuomo’s presidential ambitions, should Hillary not run, a very good working relationship with the progressive darling mayor of New York would seem to be smart politics. When, and if, Cuomo runs for reelection he wants big numbers in New York City. Cuomo won’t want de Blasio to be the real progressive and have Cuomo seem the phony especially since presidential primaries are often won with progressive messages, and there is Elizabeth Warren sitting in the wings.  

On the other hand, the striking success of de Blasio’s populist message flies in the face of Cuomo’s political world view—he follows the Clinton-Obama arc of what used to be called triangulation—corporate friendly to raise the big bucks, low taxes to signal austerity, and occasional progressive flourishes to suggest he is really a liberal.

As my insider source pointed out, Cuomo can make de Blasio’s most visible goal—preschool for NYC’s children—happen without raising taxes. It’s a big item—$450 million—but the NY state budget is $125 billion, and tax receipts are up. Such a deal would be a big win for both. 

2. Mayor Michael  Bloomberg: Bloomberg heads to the sidelines as de Blasio actually moves into Gracie Mansion, shunned as inadequate by the $26 billion man. The election showed how far Bloomberg’s influence had plummeted. Still, the richest man in NYC, with a 12-year legacy to protect, has the capacity to do enormous good for and a lot of mischief to the new guy. Bloomberg will have a hard time accepting that his positive legacy will have more to do with bike lanes, open spaces, public health, and livability and not with stop and frisk, or even his heavy-duty push (in concert with Obama) for private charter schools. Bloomberg, who has a penchant for funding everything he comes in contact with, and who will sit at the head of one of the world’s largest foundations, can take the high road and make NYC an even better place, or engage in ongoing political pique. Which will it be, Mr. Mayor?

3. The Media: It is hard to remember when the city dailies—the NY TimesNY Post and Daily News—were so strongly on the same side of an issue and so wrong. Not just wrong but essentially ignored. And since the primary, the NY Post has succumbed to schoolyard childishness virtually every day, often with multiple articles finding every which reason to paint de Blasio as a raging radical, a hypocrite, and of questionable competence. They even deployed a regular cartoon of the new almost mayor-elect with the moniker “Che de Blasio.”

Funny thing though, is that the more the Post ranted and raved, the bigger de Blasio’s lead grew over Joe Lhota, who became pretty much the forgotten man, even before the election took place. For most of the last weeks of the campaign de Blasio has been an astounding 40 or more points ahead of Lhota, the Koch brothers' candidate, a well-funded, well-connected and even former Cuomo appointee as head of the Port Authority, who could get no traction. The Times, of course, went early for Christine Quinn, who was shellacked in the primary. Seems clear, the vaunted NY Times editorial clout is a ghost of what it was. Question for the Times: Will you do the mature thing and join in to help the new mayor do the right things? Or will you be a kneejerk thorn in his side?

4. Real Estate: De Blasio has some real estate cred. He has supported some unpopular development, particularly the Atlantic Yards, the huge controversial Brooklyn development that ushered in the Barclays Center, the superstar era of Jay Z., major concerts and the Brooklyn Nets. The developer was Bruce Ratner, who is super wealthy and powerful, but clearly on the liberal end of the big city developers (his brother is Michael Ratner the firebrand longtime head of the Center for Constitutional Rights, which fought stop-and-frisk for years).

Yet push will come to shove with the big real estate bucks when de Blasio has to deal with the Bloomberg philosophy of build as big and as fast as possible—all the more space for the super-rich from all over the world to come to town and throw down tens of millions of dollars for very high views. (The NY Times published what almost seemed like an Onion article about how all the super-rich just had to have an apartment up in the clouds or they wouldn’t be happy and satisfied, and it is up to the NY real estate industry to have a never-ending supply.)

Clearly de Blasio’s Tale of Two Cities theme would quickly come face to face with this Bloomberg worldview. The pressure on de Blasio is that the super-rich seem eager to spend chunks of their fortunes on real estate, which can mean more dough for the city. In fact these super-rich types often leave their investments uninhabited and pay no income or other taxes in New York, beyond real estate, making them perhaps a better target for de Blasio than the upper-middle-class types who earn around $500k and who pay a nice amount of taxes to the city already.

5. The Unions: A funny thing happened on the way to electing the most progressive candidate for mayor in 20 years. Most of the unions, in some serious tactical errors, supported the other candidates. De Blasio had some union support, and is particularly close with communication workers and their local leader Bob Master, and has long roots with the hospital workers: 1199. But many city employees have been stonewalled by Bloomberg in terms of raises, especially the teachers, who went for Bill Thompson. So while de Blasio will be sympathetic, he doesn’t owe much. That might be good, depending on what kinds of money he thinks he has to work with. But there also may be some cranky unions frustrated with their new hero.

6. Charter Schools: Mayor Bloomberg and many NYC corporate honchos are deeply invested in the private charters (and Rupert Murdoch and Joel Klein are lurking working to make dough on NY schools). The teachers' union obviously is fighting this battle. And while de Blasio is flexible overall on what might work best for kids (his kids go to public schools), he is unlikely to cave on the co-location of private schools rent-free in public school buildings, a policy which is essentially indefensible. However, charter schools and a portion of their constituency have already marched across the Brooklyn Bridge to City Hall, and de Blasio wasn’t even there. This is a struggle to keep your eyes on.

7. Stop and Frisk: This issue is officially a mess, with Judge Shira Scheindlin thrown off the case by the appellate court, and the legal principles tackled by the court still to be resolved. Still de Blasio should get a big win on the unpopular issue by dropping the Bloomberg appeal, hiring a new police chief, and modifying the policy. Everyone knows that some stopping and frisking is needed, but not the wholesale profiling of hundreds of thousands of young people. It’s not necessary, it’s counter-productive to educating and finding jobs for the city’s youth, and it is racist, no matter the squealing from the Bloomberg administration. De Blasio will want to keep crime trending downward—remember, he is smart. But the belligerence of the NY Post on this issue and what Ray Kelly does next could mean there is another potential ongoing irritation for de Blasio.

8. The City Council:De Blasio, before he was elected Public Advocate, was a member of the City Council, and he knows how the body works as well as anyone. But in this instance, with a batch of newcomers elected with the support of the Working Families Party, the council will likely be more progressive than its new mayor, as might the new Public Advocate, Tish James and the Manhattan Borough president Gale Brewer. The council will give de Blasio support to do much of what he wants, but they may also give him a chance to draw the line and be the leader of the whole city who can say no when necessary. Sometimes the council may not be too happy with their new mayor. Still, the council is filled with some very smart people with creative approaches to city issues. Together, the council and de Blasio could make quite a team.

9. The Presidential Campaign in 2016:If all goes as predicted in the 2016 presidential race—i.e. Hillary Clinton runs, and there is no serious opposition—then de Blasio, as her former campaign manager and patron (she sponsored a fundraising event for him) sits pretty. But if Hillary doesn't run, then 2016 becomes wide open, with the two most obvious candidates being Andrew Cuomo and Elizabeth Warren. Then Bill de Blasio will have the status, like Warren, of major symbol of national populist hope. Cuomo may be the centrist candidate, but he is the home state guy. That could be de Blasio's opportunity for independence, or else good for some long-term leverage with Cuomo. And should Cuomo leave Albany, de Blasio just might be the natural person to want to be governor. It's like a high-stakes chess game, where the thinking has to be several moves ahead to stay on top. 

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