Bill de Blasio: The Progressive Movement Is Alive and Well in NYC

In October 2014, Nation columnist Eric Alterman sat down with New York Mayor Bill de Blasio in his City Hall office. Open and affable, de Blasio spent the hourlong interview reflecting on his whirlwind first year as mayor, his earliest political influences, the meaning of the word “progressive,” and why he sees no contradiction between movement politics and holding elected office. The interview, which has been edited and condensed for publication, was conducted as part of a study supported by the Center for American Progress, where Alterman is also a senior fellow.  The study wlil be published as a forthcoming Nation eBook, Inequality and One City: Bill de Blasio and the New York Experiment, Year One, to be published in February.


Eric Alterman: Have you ever given any thought to why you are so focused on the issue of economic inequality? Obviously, it’s an enormous problem, but few, if any, politicians have made it as central a focus as you have.

Bill de Blasio: Like most things, I think it’s profoundly personal. My parents had me late—they were both 44—and they were quintessential children of the Depression, so that was part of the endless dialogue loop at family meals. And I think that notion of the people you’re closest to having experienced intense economic disruption left a lifelong imprint. There’s one piece, to begin.

I’ve come up in public schools throughout my life, and I think just the connection to every kind of person—including people who were grappling with poverty—gave me another perspective. A bit of it is academic: doing urban studies at New York University, doing Latin American studies at Columbia for my master’s that implicitly got into issues of disenfranchisement and poverty. Some of it is the work I did in Central America—being there, but also dealing with a lot of folks in the liberation-theology movement. It was a lot of different pieces. And then it kind of goes into overdrive through the Dinkins years, dealing with communities all over the city. So much of our foundation came from communities that were struggling.

Alterman: What was your exact job under Dinkins?

de Blasio: For most of the time, I was special assistant to Bill Lynch, who was the deputy mayor. So I just got incessant exposure to community leaders and activists. And then everything I’ve learned through twenty-three years with Chirlane [his wife]—everything she’s seen in her own life and what she’s experienced in her broader community. So I think it’s sort of one piece built upon the other. Even the eight years on the City Council—when you serve a distinct community or set of neighborhoods, a lot of that time is hearing people talk about their lives. Even pre–economic crisis, it was quite clear to me it was happening across a range of demographics different than might have been assumed. I had a huge Orthodox Jewish community; a lot of the folks within that community were really struggling economically, and that was a part of my constituency. I had a lot of folks who came to me, because you turn to your council member if you have some insurmountable personal financial problem or you can’t pay your mortgage. So all this was like a constant soundtrack. And then I was also the chairman of the General Welfare Committee, which was the social-services committee. So I had endless meetings with advocates and community leaders about the challenges they faced.

Alterman: So you would say it’s more experiential than wonkish?

de Blasio: Absolutely. I mean, some of it comes from study, both in terms of my brief academic life and as an adult—

Alterman: For the parts that were wonkish, what thinkers or sources would you say you relied on?

de Blasio: The Nation was one for quite a while—literally. That was a big influence, particularly early on. It’s not like I have a group of theorists I turn to regularly. I think I took an interest, and so when anything went by, I paid attention. But I really think it’s experiential; I really think it comes from personal stories, starting with my own life and then going out farther and farther into communities.

And, look, there’s a certain empathy that you should have in this work. I get very, very affected by the personal stories. I feel a bit like an oral historian: I’ve been out there just listening to thousands and thousands of people, and it really gives you a sum total. So, for example, the effects of the economic crisis—I had a real strong early imprint on how bad that was, and it was huge. I mean, I value public-opinion polling, I value focus groups—I don’t mean to sound hokey here. But I think it is amazing how much some of the trends that we later saw—for example, on the campaign last year—were evident through a lot of anecdotal information, just from human interaction. So I really lean on that.

Alterman: You often talk about yourself as part of a progressive movement. But a lot of people would say there is the potential for conflict between being a movement leader and being the mayor of New York City. So I’m wondering what you think is the role of the movement, and what is its role in your mayoralty?

de Blasio: So let me start by framing it—why do I say movement? My earliest political experiences were clearly in movements: the disarmament movement, the Central America movement, a lot of different things. That is the template that makes sense to me personally, and I think elected office is supposed to be an offshoot of that ideal. So, for me, it doesn’t really matter whether you’re a council member or you’re mayor. There’s a consistency to how you make change—in my view, progressive change—and how you connect it to the grassroots.

So I have never felt a contradiction. I have never felt there’s anything inconsistent about thinking in movement terms and having an executive office. I think there are elements of the executive office that demand a different skill or different priorities or create a much more nuanced reality than if you’re just in the movement and you’re just speaking to one issue, for example. But I don’t think there’s a fundamental contradiction. In fact, I would argue that, when done right, elective office—particularly executive elective office—allows movement ideas to really flower, to really take shape. And that’s exciting to me.

I certainly know my share of progressives who think the only way to push the spectrum is from the outside, or that the only way to make change is to organize it from the grassroots. I think it is a true statement that the most persistent and profound social change begins at the grassroots—there’s no question in my mind about that. But I don’t think government, elective office, is like a no-fly zone. I’ve always felt it’s a necessary part of making change, and the fact that we, as progressives, have not had as much experience in recent decades doesn’t negate the concept.

Look at history: La Guardia, whose desk is right there inspiring me every day, is one of the great examples locally. There’s a rich history—from the Progressive Era, 100 years ago, to the present—of progressive governors, progressive mayors, progressive legislators. So I’ve always felt that was normal and necessary.

Alterman: And you see evidence of a vibrant progressive movement in the city today?

de Blasio: I think there is a clear movement in this city today fighting inequality. Fast-food workers are one of the most obvious manifestations. The efforts of the more progressive unions to organize new sectors, the fight for paid sick leave—this is all pieces of a movement. Do they all meet in the same room? Not necessarily. Is there one coordinating council? No. But is there a coherence when you see a lot of progressive labor [unions] and a lot of advocates, nonprofits and media organizations fighting for bringing up wages and benefits? Absolutely.

I think it’s been incredibly effective. I think our job was to give a lot more shape in government to what that movement could achieve. But I’m quite convinced that a lot of people laid the foundation over the last decade so that this could happen now. So that has every element, to me, of what a classic and effective movement is. I think there was clearly a movement around policing issues—and, again, a very effective one, particularly around stop-and-frisk: very broad, lots of focal points of leadership, some better known than others, but it was quite a broad and deep movement. Lots of community leaders, clergy, elected officials, organizations—and it worked. It redefined the debate and forced action.

So when I look around, the efforts in this city to defend the interests of immigrants, including undocumented immigrants, clearly inform our efforts on municipal ID, on coming up with a new set of standards on the federal detainers [requests issued by federal authorities to local law enforcement to turn over immigrants arrested on criminal charges]. So I think the movement is alive and well in New York City.

And this is part of why I think the elective piece of the equation should never be underestimated: because we’re at a point now where economic populism is going to loom very large for years to come. We have an opportunity to elect more people who comfortably align with progressive movements. And I think that sort of one-two punch is really important.

Alterman: So the de Blasio mayoralty is an investment in the future of the progressive movement?

de Blasio: Absolutely. But, to be fair, I see it as two things: I see it as that, and as an investment in a generation of folks who will be in government. I’m very proud of this year, and certainly the team that made it possible, because we said—I’ve been very open about it—we said, with great, humble deference to the New Deal, that we were going to try and do something here and now and local that remembered the core principles of the New Deal: the speed, the experimentation, the boldness. And between pre-K and after-school [programs] and the affordable-housing plan and the municipal ID and paid sick leave, I think we are living out that vision.

But the people who are part of it are going to be both types. They’re going to be people who are part of government work and will continue, hopefully, in more and more senior roles, to develop these kinds of ideas and approaches. But there’s also a lot of people—we brought in a lot of people who had never been in government before, who might never stay in government, but who are hopefully going to be more effective for their communities and help to build movements outside. So I think we actually have an obligation to do both.

Alterman: Taking off on that point, I have actually one concern—call it a nitpick, if you like—but I wish you would say “liberal” more often. I mean, I understand why you say “progressive,” but we need to rejuvenate the word “liberal.”

de Blasio: Well, I believe you think you understand why I say the word “progressive,” and you’re probably right to some extent. But I also want to say that the word “progressive”—I do see a difference in meaning. The word “progressive” has its sanctity intact because it refers to the original Progressive movement, which was extraordinary. I had a long debate with the famed historian Dante de Blasio [the mayor’s son, a high-school senior] about this the other day. We had a big debate about where is the first truly consistent expression of progressive politics in American history. I argued the Progressive movement and the Progressive Party were the first true, consistent expression, and then he starts bringing out [the Granger] movement and the Whiskey Rebellion and all sort of other things.

Alterman: The Whiskey Rebellion? That’s really reaching—

de Blasio: He is reaching, but what I said—and this is very pertinent to the point—I said, “I think there are moments—the abolitionist movement, you could say all sorts of things—but if you’re talking a true holistic progressive movement, I believe the Progressive movement, the Progressive Party.” I think it was astoundingly audacious when compared to everything that came before, and it changed us permanently, because the Roosevelts come out of that. I want to credit the New Deal deeply, and you could credit Frances Perkins and Al Smith before it. But if you really want to go to the foundation, it’s the Progressive movement.

So I think the phrase has meaning that it never lost. Second, the word “liberal,” besides what Fox News and everyone did to it, there’s what a lot of liberals did to it. You know, the “limousine liberal”—and the classic liberal US senator of the 1970s was asleep at the switch and gave us Reaganism. We talk about this a lot in my family.

Alterman: Listen, I could mess up the word “progressive” pretty easily for you, too.

de Blasio: You probably could.

Alterman: But I wanted to pick up what you said about the spirit of the New Deal. Wouldn’t it be great to use the Center for an Urban Future’s report that says we need an additional $50 billion in infrastructure investment—

de Blasio: It was only $47—

Alterman: $47.3—very good. No one’s talking about that kind of money on the table, but that would be a big project that would capture the spirit of the New Deal and do all kinds of great things to address inequality.

de Blasio: I think the Center for an Urban Future did a great service by laying out that number. And I haven’t independently verified it, but let’s just take it as a legitimate analysis and a good starting point. The one piece of the equation with affordable housing—our plan, which involves a huge amount of government investment that leverages a lot of private investment, ends up being $41 billion over ten years. That’s just affordable housing. We’re not even talking about market housing; we’re not talking about other infrastructure. And I think, if you go down the list of the other investments we’re making—education, etc.—on the capital side, you’re going to see a lot of very big numbers. What we don’t have, unlike the New Deal, is the power of the national government.

There’s this big debate: What can a city do on inequality? Some of the [newspaper] editorial boards really, really had trouble grasping this concept of whether a city can have a profound role. And I said, “Look, I’m not mistaking what a city government can do for what a national government can do. And when I say the ‘New Deal model,’ it’s not that I think we can do all the things that Roosevelt would have done. I’m saying, if the federal government isn’t on the playing field, then what can a local government do?” And it’s so abundantly clear: if you’re like New York City, with the kind of resources we have, you can do an affordable-housing program that, when you combine its leveraged impact, is $41 billion. And we will keep doing those big, bold things.

Mayors all over the country, mayors all over the world—everyone’s taking matters into their own hands. Mayor [Anne] Hidalgo in Paris and [Ed] Murray in Seattle and so many other people, they take stock of what they’ve got and are throwing it into action, out of both righteousness and frustration, because there isn’t that federal component. But what it means is that it’s really starting to add up to something.

So what I would argue to you is, if done right, it should be every tool we have: regulatory power; things like paid sick leave or a living wage; fighting for the legal changes that allow us to raise the minimum wage, as we’re going to do in Albany next year; capital spending; the ability to use our zoning power to require private investment in affordable housing. All of these pieces add up to a very substantial impact. And what’s been the problem? Certainly, in New York City, there was not a willingness in the previous twenty years to think of government that way—expansively, energetically—and also to put tighter rules on the private sector.

The debates over minimum wage are very instructive in how underdeveloped those discussions were, even as recently as a decade ago. I give the Working Families Party here a lot of credit for having forced through the first serious minimum-wage impact in New York State in a long time in the middle of the last decade. It was a massive controversy. Now, you could say, “Well, the difference is the economic crisis of ‘07–‘08,” and yes, that’s true on the one hand. But I think there’s a broader consciousness change that’s happening now because so many people are dealing with the decline of their spending power and the rise of the cost of living. And it’s created an energy on the ground. People are demanding these changes.

I think there are limitations, by definition—because, again, we’re not the federal government. But I want to answer the question by saying we are only just beginning to find out how much impact we can make through City Hall on New York City. I really want to emphasize: we’re far from done.

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