The leaders we need: How mayors (and presidents) steered NYC through previous crises

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Beame, Bloomberg and de Blasio: Different problems; different outcomes. (AP)

New York City is confronting calamities as intimidating as any in its history. With inspired leadership and a federal government commitment, the city can recover rapidly from its multi-layered crisis, and there is even a chance that the shock of the moment can push aside progress-killing inertia to make way for long-overdue changes. But without support from Washington and without a savvy local leader to channel it, New York’s prospects are grim.

At the moment, New Yorkers are suffering from a malevolent leader in the White House and a strangely vacuous one in City Hall. So the stakes in the 2020 presidential election and next year’s contest for mayor are exceptionally high.

The COVID-19 virus has already killed more than 23,000 city dwellers, and infected hundreds of thousands more. The economic consequences of the confinements designed to limit its spread have been disastrous. Unemployment surpassed 20% as of June, and many small businesses have shuttered. City government has been forced to fill a $9 billion shortfall with another $18 billion in gaps stretching as far into the future as 2024. Thousands of public service layoffs loom.

Add to those formidable challenges the conflict between the city’s police force and its people that erupted following George Floyd’s killing in Minneapolis, and today’s New York story reads like a modern-day version of an Old Testament tale.

Never before has the city faced so many catastrophes at once. Still, how the city managed its way out of past crises is instructive. Policy compatibility and personal chemistry between a president and a mayor are key, along with competence and credibility.

In the depths of the Great Depression, when unemployment in New York City reached epic levels, Fiorello LaGuardia forged an unusual partnership with President Franklin Roosevelt. Flush with federal funds, New York embarked on a campaign of infrastructure projects, relief and recovery programs and social welfare reforms that put the city back to work and protected people knocked flat by forces beyond their control.

LaGuardia, a Republican who ran for mayor with additional support from the American Labor Party, was a street-fighting politician who had traded blows with the corrupt denizens of Tammany Hall for years. His pro-labor bona fides stood him in good philosophical stead with Roosevelt, who like LaGuardia despised the Tammany bosses who dominated the president’s Democratic Party in New York. The Hudson Valley patrician in the White House, and the rumpled man of the people from East Harlem made common cause to outmaneuver local politicians while pursuing policies that lifted the city’s millions out of despair.

In the aftershock of 9/11, a frightened city still mourning its losses feared lower Manhattan might become the final corpse, burying the city’s economy along with it. President George W. Bush supported an $18 billion federal commitment to provide essential recovery resources. Mayor Bloomberg and his team seized the moment to convert the critical but long-stagnant business district into the vibrant mixed-use neighborhood downtown has become today, adding significantly to the local economy and the quality of life.

Bloomberg, a lifelong Democrat until he ran for mayor, had cast his lot with Bush’s Republican Party shortly before he launched his 2001 campaign. Perhaps more important, both had attended Harvard Business School and viewed efficiency in government as a fundamental virtue. Bush trusted Bloomberg to use federal money honestly and wisely.

In addition to advocating federal funds for the city, Bush trusted Bloomberg to host the 2004 Republican National Convention in New York. It suited the President, who wanted to present himself as an anti-terrorist hero just a few miles north of Ground Zero, and it suited Bloomberg, who was intent on showing that New York had recovered from the devastation of 9/11, and could organize and manage major events as successfully as ever.

Contrast the critical support secured during those crises to the time Mayor Abe Beame wrestled with perhaps the worst fiscal crisis in city history in 1975. “Drop Dead,” was how the Daily News summarized President Gerald Ford’s response. The impact on people’s lives that followed the federal brush-off was harsh.

Beame, a clubhouse Democrat who studied accounting at City College, was raised on the Lower East Side, largely by his immigrant father in a home infused with Jewish socialist traditions. He was so short, he sometimes had to stand on a phone book to see over a speaker’s podium. Ford, a husky, fair-haired, Midwestern fraternity brother who played football at the University of Michigan before studying law at Yale, had a long Washington career that landed him in the White House. He and the mayor had little in common.

Ford, eying the 1976 Republican nomination, sought to show conservatives he was a prudent steward of tax payer money who believed in small government, a cause promoted by his key challenger, Ronald Reagan. Before he was mayor, Beame had been city controller, a credential that suggested he was the one to balance New York’s tottering books. But since he had been complicit in years of dubious budget gimmicks, his credibility was damaged. And his goal, to preserve social welfare programs that made New York City the most liberal metropolis in America, was at odds with the president’s political imperatives. It ended badly for Beame and New York.

What lessons do those successes and failures teach us today?

Mayor de Blasio left New York City in search of national glory shortly after his 2017 re-election. He has since demonstrated a striking inability to project a sense of command over his own administration.

He has managed simultaneously to alienate Black Lives Matter protesters and his police department while a surge in shootings causes a rising sense of alarm throughout the five boroughs. He forced out his health commissioner in the midst of a pandemic, creating the impression he was playing politics with critical decisions, including the all-important one surrounding in-classroom learning for a million students, with consequent risks to teachers, administrators and parents. The lack of budget discipline he has practiced throughout his two terms suddenly matters in a way it has not to date, as the COVID-inflicted economy has caused city revenues to plummet.

Term limits ensure a vote for new leadership in 2021. There will be no shortage of candidates for the city’s greatest political prize in a year when the incumbent must exit.

Among Democrats, Controller Scott Stringer, Council Speaker Corey Johnson and Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams were the favorites before the bottom fell out of the economy, mammoth protests against police brutality filled the streets and the future of New York started hanging in the balance. With the stakes of the election raised dramatically higher the public may look for an untraditional candidate to be the city’s savior.

Loree Sutton, formerly de Blasio’s commissioner of veterans services, Dianne Morales, who headed a Bronx not-for-profit, and Maya Wiley, until recently an MSNBC personality and former counsel to the mayor, all have impressive backgrounds, and their candidacies carry the message that it is time for New York’s first woman mayor. Shaun Donovan, Bloomberg’s housing chief and Barack Obama’s housing secretary and budget director, brings management and policy expertise. Citi executive Ray McGuire is an accomplished financial executive and manager. Billionaire grocery executive John Catsimatidis is the only candidate thus far who wants the honor of heading up a Trump-stained Republican ticket.

This is the moment for one or more of them to impress us.

The question New Yorkers must ask themselves is what type of mayor do we need to lead us out of the mess we are in? That will depend in part on who the United States elects as president in November.

In its current predicament, New York needs huge amounts of federal money that it will not get as long as Donald Trump remains in the White House. The party he leads continues to profess a commitment to limited government and seeks to respond to the crushing impact of COVID-19 with a program more modest than circumstances demand. Moreover, Trump’s hostility towards the city where he was born, raised and made his name is apparent in his tax policies and his tweets, in federal infrastructure funds he has denied New York and in his attacks on its officials.

If Trump wins re-election, New Yorkers will need a stoic mayor prepared to lead the city through dire times by force of personality. Services will be cut, the quality of life will deteriorate, and a great city’s resilience will be tested.

If Joe Biden is elected, the situation promises to be vastly better, especially if Democrats win control of the Senate. Unlike Trump and the Republican Party, Biden believes government has a moral imperative to pursue policies to help people live productive lives. Political developments inside his party have pushed him towards its more liberal wing. He seems poised to respond to the COVID catastrophe with muscular use of federal power, and perhaps to seize the opportunity to address other issues liberals have championed, like climate change and income inequality.

The right mayor of New York has a chance to create a partnership with Biden like the one LaGuardia developed with FDR — a meeting of minds on politics and philosophy that makes bold local programs possible because of big commitments of federal money.

Gov. Cuomo has been the public face of New York while COVID-19 has ravaged the city and state. He, not de Blasio, is the obvious person to lead an effort to secure federal help if Biden is elected in 2020. But confidence in New York City’s mayor will still matter. Gov. Hugh Carey, a 14-year veteran of Congress who had served with Ford in the House of Representatives, negotiated side-by-side with Beame. It was not enough to compensate for the mayor’s credibility deficit.

Among the lessons New York learned in 1975 is that a city unable to manage itself has a tough time securing help from Washington. To benefit fully from a Biden White House, New York will need a mayor who can reconcile the city’s people and its police, project a clear vision of the city consistent with the next president’s plans for America, and who has the managerial skill to convince the president that money sent to New York will be put to good use.

A dozen years after Roosevelt entered the White House and LaGuardia won the keys to City Hall, New York City was stronger than it had ever been. A dozen years after Ford and Beame disappeared from public life, New York was still suffering painfully from its near bankruptcy. Who we elect, and how our local and national leaders work together, matters.

Originally posted as an op-ed on 8/29/20 with the New York Daily News.

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