Progressives look to NYC

The new mayor must tackle inequity without hurting business

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NEW YORK -- The standard line on New York City’s Mayor-elect Bill de Blasio, who takes office next Wednesday, is that he’s the antithesis of outgoing Mayor Michael Bloomberg. That’s not quite true, and New York’s voters probably hope it isn’t. In electing Mr. de Blasio, they were looking for a course correction from the Bloomberg years, not a repudiation.

Change they’ll certainly get. Mr. Bloomberg is a billionaire who lives in Manhattan’s upscale precincts. Mr. de Blasio is a progressive populist who hails from middle-class Brooklyn. He campaigned on his “tale of two cities” divided between the very rich and everyone else.

Mr. Bloomberg is all business and can legitimately brag about his economic development successes over the last 12 years. Mr. de Blasio is a community activist who is proud to be leading a new wave in American politics. “There’s a progressive movement in this country that’s having a real effect,” he says, adding that “the inequalities we’re facing are becoming just fundamentally unacceptable.” Mr. de Blasio is right about that.

And these guys don’t seem to like each other much. They gave dueling speeches last week that could be the prelude to a coming blame game over the city’s fiscal challenges.

Mr. Bloomberg warned that a “labor-electoral complex” could devastate the city’s finances. Since Mr. de Blasio is pro-labor, it wouldn’t be unreasonable for him to think he was Mr. Bloomberg’s target. For his part, Mr. de Blasio noted that Mr. Bloomberg has left him with an unprecedented number of open union contracts, a heavy burden for a new administration.

Both speeches underscore the unpleasant reality confronting Mr. de Blasio: It’s not easy building a progressive record when money is tight — which is precisely why Mr. de Blasio is unlikely to turn his back on the entirety of Mr. Bloomberg’s legacy.

To achieve his goals, Mr. de Blasio will need the evidence-based approach and crisp management style that Mr. Bloomberg championed. Mr, Bloomberg told The New Yorker’s Ken Auletta that he wanted to be known for having set “a tone that the city can be well run and can invest in the future.” That’s not a bad description of what Mr. de Blasio needs to do.

A New York Times/​Siena College poll earlier this month pointed to the problem with Mr. Bloomberg that led New Yorkers to embrace Mr. de Blasio. It found that 56 percent said Mr. Bloomberg favored the rich. Only 24 percent said he treated all groups equally, and just 10 percent said he favored the middle class. They expect Mr. de Blasio to be different: 41 percent said he would treat all groups equally; 21 percent said he’d favor the middle class; 22 percent said he’d favor the poor.

Nonetheless, Mr. Bloomberg’s approval rating stood at 53 percent, remarkably high for a long-serving mayor. While New Yorkers are happy to have Mr. de Blasio in charge — 73 percent said they were optimistic about his term — he has persuaded only a bare majority that he will manage the city effectively.

So far, Mr. de Blasio has blended his populism with pragmatism. He has promised to end stop-and-frisk policing policies, which have angered African-Americans. But as his police commissioner, Mr. de Blasio chose William Bratton, who helped engineer the dramatic and durable drop in New York’s crime rate when he held the same job under former Mayor Rudy Giuliani.

As his first deputy mayor, Mr. de Blasio chose Anthony Shorris, a veteran of city government who served in the administrations of both Mr. Bloomberg and the late Ed Koch. Mr. Shorris, said the New York Daily News, “has something the mayor-elect does not — experience overseeing large, complex organizations.” And Mr. de Blasio chose another longtime government hand, Dean Fuleihan, as his budget director.

Progressives in local government face a difficult path in the best of times. They must always be trying to foster private-sector job creation — meaning they must always worry about how employers will react to their policies. As former New York Gov. Mario Cuomo colorfully observed during his unsuccessful 1977 campaign for the job Mr. de Blasio just won: “You must be good to business, even if you hate rich people, even if you don’t like pinkie rings, even if you can’t stand Scarsdale and Rolls-Royces.”

But the larger point is that the most heralded progressive politicians have been those who married their quest for social justice with reform-minded efficiency. It would be good for the country if the leader of the town that includes Wall Street became a powerful national voice against inequality. The paradox is that a touch of Bloombergism could make Mr. de Blasio a more effective populist mayor.

E.J. Dionne Jr. is a syndicated columnist for The Washington Post (ejdionne@washpost.com).

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