Bill de Blasio: an honest assessment. He wasn’t as bad a mayor as you think
Bill de Blasio was a better mayor than many believe, but a weaker leader than New Yorkers expect.
When he ran for mayor in 2013, de Blasio made three big, tangible promises: universal pre-K; an end to stop-and-frisk as we knew it; and 200,000 units of affordable housing created or preserved. He delivered on all three, and then some. Few politicians can make such a claim.
Yet despite his successes on those and other important issues, de Blasio left many unconvinced he commanded the municipal government effectively. New Yorkers expect the mayor to project a sense of mastery over events, to make us believe he sees and hears us all, and is directing the municipal workforce — 325,000 strong — with us in mind. In this essential part of the job, de Blasio was strangely weak.
He often woke up late and had his security detail drive him to a mid-morning workout at a gym 11 miles from Gracie Mansion before arriving at City Hall. His casual approach to taking care of business did not prevent him from micromanaging his commissioners and deputies, causing some high-profile departures. Too often, he could be found pursuing his political and philosophical goals far from home.
A corruption scandal jailed a prominent de Blasio fundraiser and wounded the mayor’s moral authority. An investigation of the mayor himself ended without charges, but the perception that he was a self-absorbed, ethically compromised leader lingered. Just recently, letters de Blasio kept secret for years, released only in response to a lawsuit, revealed the city ethics board had scolded him harshly more than once for soliciting funds in violation of the City Charter.
But New Yorkers will forgive a mayor much who accomplishes important things.
In de Blasio’s first year in office, the city began offering free education to 4-year-olds. By 2015, some 68,000 toddlers were benefiting from a program likely to have life-long benefits. Policy wonks claim the return on money spent on early childhood learning can total as much as seven times the amount invested.
The plan has since been extended to 3-year-olds. In addition to improving the lives of the youngsters, it frees up parents to work, go to school, or do other things. Could it be that New York City, known the world over as a tough place to live, is on its way to becoming the most family-friendly big city in America?
De Blasio’s pre-K/3-K program alone ensures a legacy worthy of a great city’s mayor.
On education matters more generally, the city saw improvement in important indicators like graduation rates. But the system remains in crisis. The results of the National Assessment of Educational Progress exams reveal only a quarter to a third of students achieve proficiency in English and math, not a report card to be proud of.
The number of African-American and Latino students who pass the entrance exam for New York’s eight remarkably successful specialized high schools remains scandalously small. The glaring weakness of the segregated elementary and middle schools that create such an outcome offends, and at the 11th hour, de Blasio canceled the Board of Education’s gifted-and-talented programs to the dismay of many parents. His successor has vowed to keep them.
On public safety, de Blasio had some real successes.
Stop-and-frisk rules were violated with impunity during the Bloomberg years. The tactic is constitutionally sanctioned when an officer can articulate reasonable suspicion someone is contemplating a crime. It does not allow a police force to confront anyone they like without cause, which is what the NYPD did in high-crime districts for many years.
The unjust impact landed overwhelmingly on young men of color, who were stopped for walking while Black, as critics put it. De Blasio ended the practice, the number of stops that had plummeted after lawsuits were filed during Bloomberg’s third term fell even further, and to the surprise of many, the downward arc in major crime continued for six more years.
Mayors get the credit when crime falls on their watch, and de Blasio can take a bow for ending an unfair policy that tore the city’s social fabric. Moreover, as crime fell, so did the number of New Yorkers in prison. Yet, the jailhouses on Rikers Island, in distress when de Blasio was elected, became increasingly barbaric. The mayor and everyone in our great city should be ashamed. And it took de Blasio’s police department five years to fire the cop who killed Eric Garner.
De Blasio has attributed the crime reduction during his first years in office to community policing and related policies his administration implemented. Not so fast. Crime in the city declined fairly steadily for 28 years beginning with David Dinkins’ final years, all through the Giuliani and Bloomberg years, and for six years of de Blasio’s rule. He caught the wave and surfed it capably. He did not invent it.
And, of course, mayors get the blame when crime surges, as it has in New York City since COVID hit. De Blasio’s response to the unprecedented pandemic that killed 35,000 city residents while he governed is a mixed bag. He got some things right, like when he called for a shutdown that Gov. Cuomo delayed. Yet his start-and-stop decisions about opening schools and inadequate preparation for remote learning in the fall of 2020, and semi-public battles with his own health experts, diminished confidence. He contributed to the confusion caused by the inability of multiple layers of government to cooperate in the face of dire risk.
De Blasio’s aggressive approach to mandating vaccines and masks indoors is smart policy, even if unpopular with some. In a different era, in 1947 New York City faced a smallpox outbreak. The city health commissioner told Mayor William O’Dwyer to vaccinate the entire population. Three weeks later, more than 6 million New Yorkers had gotten their jabs. If only.
The COVID crime spike is national, but the impact is felt locally. And let’s not exaggerate. Murders and shootings have regressed roughly to where they were toward the beginning of de Blasio’s term or the middle of Mike Bloomberg’s third term, not anywhere close to the bad old days.
Still, the NYPD has struggled to respond to the changed environment. And clumsy tactics when Black Lives Matter protesters took to the streets in the wake of George Floyd’s murder in Minneapolis reminded New Yorkers how fraught relations remain between people of color and our police. Too harsh with activists, not tough enough with looters and violent anarchists, the NYPD’s flawed response to those protests, and de Blasio’s lame defense of it, are among the reasons confidence in the department has sagged on his watch.
On the eve of his 2017 reelection, de Blasio announced his administration was ahead on its plan to preserve or build 200,000 affordable housing units. He upped the target to 300,000 by 2026. Despite COVID-related delays, the most ambitious affordable housing plan in New York City history is pretty much on track.
Critics charge the program does not make enough apartments accessible to the poorest New Yorkers, even though it is skewed far more heavily than Bloomberg’s was towards households making just 30% to 50% of the Area Median Income (roughly $31,000 to $51,000). Moreover, the units were built overwhelmingly in poor communities of color, increasing density in areas that often have the fewest resources while intensifying racial segregation.
Meanwhile, the New York City Housing Authority, in financial and physical crisis when de Blasio became mayor, deteriorated so badly the city was forced to accept a federal monitor’s oversight. And homelessness, another crisis de Blasio inherited, has worsened significantly.
So de Blasio’s legacy as a housing mayor is mixed. Hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers will live in affordable homes because of his programs; hundreds of thousands who live in NYCHA housing and in homeless shelters continue to suffer.
Ensuring fiscal solvency is one of a mayor’s most essential tasks. De Blasio breezed through it. The national and local economies were consistently strong and city revenues high until COVID. Then federal programs bailed the city out. Some politicians are lucky.
Despite flush years, de Blasio leaves his successor a budget gap. Every mayor in memory did the same — except Michael Bloomberg, who left de Blasio a small surplus. If city government is to operate with fiscal discipline, Eric Adams will have to re-establish it.
De Blasio made another bold promise when he first ran for mayor, perhaps the one that defines him most. He pledged to reverse the socially damaging level of income inequality that plagues New York City.
Many of de Blasio’s policies were adopted with disparity of wealth in mind. He gave generous raises to the municipal workforce that anchors New York’s middle class. He was a champion of the drive to boost the minimum wage to $15. Those policies, coupled with the strong local economy, improved the lot of the bottom half of New Yorkers by a little bit. In a political posture of dubious benefit, de Blasio snubbed New York’s business class, a stand at odds with a mayor’s obligation to represent all of the city. And after Amazon withdrew its commitment to open a headquarters in Long Island City, de Blasio became a critic, even though he had worked hard to lure the company to New York. Some credit him with fighting the good fight, but income inequality in Manhattan remains among the worst in the United States, among the worst in the world.
A June 2021 NY1/Ipsos poll found just 37% of New Yorkers approved of how de Blasio did his job. His standing with New Yorkers varied by race. Blacks gave him high marks, Latinos fair ones. Among whites and Asians, he rated poorly. The tale of two cities he vowed to change persists.
Ultimately, the mayor of New York is the human place where our city’s impossible diversity comes together in a single person. Reconciling the competing dreams of nearly 9 million New Yorkers is no easy task. Bill de Blasio accomplished it imperfectly, but better than most. Despite his current unpopularity, history will remember him as a flawed but successful mayor.
Op-ed originally posted on NY Daily News website: https://www.nydailynews.com/opinion/ny-oped-blasio-assessment-20211219-m5mils7aojduho4ltnfbedbps4-story.html