Progressive Progress in New York City? One Expert Gives His Grade

Bill de Blasio swept into City Hall in January with 73 percent of the vote and an unapologetic progressive agenda. His first seven months in office have been very busy and, needlessly to say, highly publicized, especially in tabloid papers like the New York Post that like to use liberals for target practice. Working with a progressive City Council, de Blasio extended sick leave for workers in the city and settled union contracts for teachers and more than a dozen other unions—contracts that were left unresolved for five years under de Blasio’s predecessor, billionaire Michael Bloomberg. These agreements earned praise from many liberal observers, and some anxiety from the fiscally conservative. De Blasio also got into a bruising battle over charter schools, where his colleague—or, some say, frenemy—in Albany, Governor Andrew Cuomo, gave the new mayor a lesson on who holds most of the power cards in New York state. However, de Blasio then orchestrated the Working Families Party’s endorsement of Cuomo's reelection for governor in exchange for some concessions that might make it a little bit easier for de Blasio to get what he needs from Albany. To find out what this all means, AlterNet sat down with Jarrett Murphy, editor of City Limits, the feisty online magazine that pays close attention to almost every move in City Hall and on the NYC political scene.  

AlterNet: What grade would you give de Blasio at this point in his mayoralty? How well is he doing?

Jarrett Murphy: I’m a tough grader. I teach, and my students dislike the curve. But I’d give him a B+. I think getting universal pre-K done was big; I think expanding sick leave was big; I think Vision Zero is a really good, smart, no-nonsense way to focus public safety now that we’re not talking exclusively about reducing crime. Moving to settle the lawsuits around stop-and-frisk and around the racial discrimination issues with hiring in the fire department was huge. 

He’s accomplished quite a bit. Some of it was low-hanging fruit. A lot of it was done with the cooperation of a city council that is headed by a strong ally that he helped to install. And so much of what he’s done is so embodied in the progressive wish list that the fact that it has come and gone almost makes you not appreciate it over time.

AN: What do you think about the economic fears raised by the city finally settling its contracts with the labor unions? People were predicting that the deficit was going to ruin New York somewhere down the line.

JM: The numbers were within reason. He did what every mayor does, used some gimmickry to make it work. They spread the retro payments out; some will come after his current term ends, like in fiscal ’19 or fiscal ’20. There are some people who are upset about that, but basically everyone expected the sky to fall and it hasn’t. These bills were coming due. Mike Bloomberg had deferred payment on them and the idea that we were going to escape without having to pay a big check was kind of fantasy.

AN: What about his position on the charter school fight and how he handled Eva Moskowitz and the other pro-charter operatives?

JM: That was obviously the low point of the first six months. He tried to make his decision on the charter co-location denials look like it was just a procedural judgment. To his credit, I think, he tried to remove the politics from it, not realizing that you couldn’t remove the politics from it. No one is going to pay attention to the fact that you approved the majority of Eva Moskowitz’s applications and denied a select few. His opponents were waiting. They knew he was going to come after charter schools and they were ready. The fact that he came after them with a fairly light jab instead of a haymaker didn’t make any difference. They had their hand on the button; it didn’t matter whether he threw a rock or threw a missile.

And he lost badly. The charters ended up getting a better position in the budget than they’d had beforehand—basically a right to public space and a right to appeal when the space they’re offered isn’t to their liking.

AN: Is that where you think his grade falls from an A to a B+?

JM: What happened was not entirely his fault; I think he made a practical decision. Once the first couple blows hit he did a good job of fighting back, at least in the line of scrimmage. On that appearance on the MSNBC show he got buffeted and stayed pretty strong. He can hold his own in a room, but his timing was bad. It came during the whole push for universal pre-K and it undermined this whole sense of momentum that was behind his agenda.

His record with packaging and handling the press has not been strong, even though he’s a skilled politician. I just think there is no preparation for the fact that you go from being the public advocate, where you’re scrounging for press, to placing fourth or fifth early in the mayor’s race and dying for any headline, to suddenly pulling ahead and becoming the mayor, and whether you want it or not the media are there every day and they’re smart and they’re aggressive. We saw this with the backlash about him going to the AIPAC meeting without having it on his schedule, even with his vacation in Italy. His administration has also been slow at addressing some freedom of information inquiries in the first few months.

Nevertheless, overall you have to give him a lot of credit; he accomplished so much in the first 100 days despite the chaos and has done even more since.

AN: What about his decision to name Bill Bratton as police commissioner? Good choice? Bad choice? Too early to tell?

JM: I think it was a good choice. He knew that the thing that people were going to come after him for was being soft on crime. He knew that what’s happening now was going to happen which is that crime is going to go up and down, and he needed the most credible possible voice on public safety that he could have. I think in Bratton he found someone who, partially through his animosity toward [former commissioner Ray] Kelly, had positioned himself as a reformer. His record in Los Angeles may not speak to that, but he at least came in with the packaging that he could undo some of Kelly’s policies. They have dialed back Operation Impact and stop-and-frisk is even further down than it was last year when it had already fallen significantly.

AN: What about arrests for some of the broken glass kinds of crimes like toll-hopping, performing on the subways or pot arrests? All of those seem to be way up.

JM: The mayor imported someone who wasn’t going to depart super radically from a lot of Kelly’s ideas.

AN: Which were originally his, right? Under Rudy Giuliani?

JM: Right. I think you’re going to get some of that frustration, but I think on balance Bratton was a good choice…I was talking to someone in the business community and asking him, given de Blasio’s campaign rhetoric, if he thought he was ever going to get cooperation from the new administration. And he said business people honestly don’t care that much about the social policy stuff. They work it into their bottom line. What they care about is if the city is reasonably well run and if they are going to be able to walk down the street at night and not get knifed. So he brought in Anthony Shoriss as deputy mayor who, again, is a very establishment voice—not a lefty or progressive icon by any stretch of the imagination but someone who is a seasoned manager. And Bratton, who has great credentials, runs the public safety side. So that’s how he established his credibility.

AN: What about Bloomberg’s shadow? Is he still playing much of a role?

I think that there haven’t been too many comparisons yet because it’s still so early and Bloomberg himself is focusing on his national Mayors Against Illegal Guns effort. What will be interesting will be when the philanthropic foundations figure out what they’re going to do, since that became a big part of social policy innovation under Bloomberg. Not relying on city-funded initiatives but ones funded by the Robin Hood and Rockefeller foundations and now by Bloomberg. So where will that money go? Will it go to bolster de Blasio initiatives like universal pre-K? Will it go toward maintaining a social policy in exile for Bloomberg? 

AN: What about transportation, bikes, public spaces? De Blasio was kind of irksome about the construction of new bike lanes early on and fuzzy on it during the campaign. What has he done since?

JM: I think some of the negative reaction to bike lanes, which was fairly widespread and in many cases totally irrational, was the idea that these elitists were coming in and making it so that you couldn’t park or deliver goods to your small business. I mean, the city isn’t going to stop building bike lanes. I don’t know how aggressive de Blasio is going to be around it, but we'll have to wait and see.

AN: Do you think de Blasio has managed to divert some attention away from Manhattan toward the other boroughs? A lot of Bloomberg’s policies, particularly those about constructing new public spaces and bike lanes, were perceived as being Manhattan-centric, even if that wasn't quite accurate. 

JM: I think so. Just this week he made a big announcement about downtown Brooklyn, and his housing policy was announced in Brooklyn. He saluted the idea of having the Democratic National Convention center be held in Brooklyn. I think there has definitely been a shifting of the center of gravity across the river. But of course the thing is there have always been three other boroughs too, and whether they are going to feel any discernable difference is a major question.

East New York is going to be a big test for their administration, because it is this huge neighborhood with tremendous potential and tremendous poverty. It’s an area that they said they might try to remake in order to have the affordable housing plan site a lot of units there. The focus on Brooklyn now has largely been on the same part of Brooklyn that frankly had a lot of focus under Bloomberg—not necessarily from the mayor but certainly from the development community. Maybe they’re doubling down on what they see as positive change. That can make sense but there’s a whole lot of Brooklyn out there.

What happens with East New York and whether they’re ready to get it right there—to create transit-oriented development that is sustainable, that makes sense in terms of its waterfront location, that doesn’t price people out, that deals with an increase in population density—that’s going to be a big test. So it’s not so much focusing on aspects of each outer borough, whether it is Long Island City in Queens or around Yankees stadium in the Bronx, but about the deeper, far-out places.

I believe that the history of New York City in the next 20 years is going to be written in places like East New York. To some degree, the Williamsburg chapter is over. That happened and that neighborhood is the way it is now. Places like Bushwick and Crown Heights, it’s happening there. East New York now is this kind of land that’s been untouched by those forces. I live off Webster Avenue in the Bronx and there’s been a huge amount of rezoning there and a lot of high-rises are going up. That neighborhood will look very different by the time my kids are in high school. 

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