The Populist Mayor of New York City Takes the Stage

Robert Borosage

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio used his brief and compelling inaugural address to make clear one point:  his campaign pledge to “take dead aim at the Tale of Two Cities” wasn’t just rhetoric; it will drive his administration.

De Blasio’s inaugural revealed a savvy leader who knows political theater.  The first family arrived on a subway.  The Mayor had on an off-the-rack suit from Rothmans; the new first lady a beautiful coat that was a clear contrast to the designer clothes preferred by former Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s companion or Michelle Obama, for that matter. The crowd included both New York’s political gentry – former Mayors Bloomberg and Dinkins, Governor Cuomo, Bill and Hillary Clinton, city officials and lobbyists, as well as a raucous crowd from across the city drawn by lottery to attend.  The music featured songs by Daft Punk; a young poet evoked the “jazz beat” of the street, while etching the harsh inequalities of the city.

De Blasio acknowledged that the city’s “first responsibilities” are to keep “neighborhoods safe,..streets clean” and traffic moving.  But, he said, “we are called to put an end to the economic and social inequalities that threaten to unravel the city we love.”

He placed that mission in the progressive history of the city – from Al Smith campaigning against child labor to Franklin Roosevelt and Frances Perkins battling for the minimum wage to de Blasio’s hero, Fiorello La Guardia, who built a coalition powerful enough to take on Wall Street.

The Mayor set out clear – if difficult to achieve – first steps.  An extension of New York City’s paid family leave law.  Reform of the “broken stop and frisk policies.”  A requirement that luxury condo developers build low-cost housing.  Extension of community health centers to neighborhoods in need.  And the centerpiece:  a call on the wealthy to pay “a little more” in taxes – about the cost of a latte a day – to fund universal pre-school and after school programs. (That will require approval from the state legislature which won’t be easy).

The new Mayor was smart enough to wrap himself in the aura of the Clintons, asking Bill to swear him in, and proclaiming himself part of the “Clinton family.”  The former president is a master at stroking the egos, easing the insecurities and tapping the pockets of the city’s millionaires. He surely should be enlisted in gaining the barons’ support for de Blasio’s progressive taxation request.

Clinton used his remarks to embrace de Blasio, enveloping him into his favorite themes of “shared opportunity, shared prosperity and shared responsibility” but the contrast with the more conservative Clinton was stark.  Clinton and his New Democrats championed “equal opportunity, not equal outcomes,” intentionally excluding concern about inequality even as it soared to Gilded Age extremes.  And of course, Clinton embraced harsh sentencing and aggressive policing as part of showing that Democrats were tough on crime too.  De Blasio’s focus represents a clear return to the New Deal and populist tradition that Clinton scorned.

There was one notable omission from the de Blasio speech:  any mention of economic growth.  Clinton and the New Dems focused on economic growth to the exclusion of any concern with inequality.  The new populists should not make the reverse mistake of focusing on inequality to the exclusion of economic growth.  A full employment economy is the best way to reduce inequality, enabling workers to demand a better deal.  America does best when its economy is growing and the rules are fixed to ensure that the rewards are widely shared.  Now we are plagued by extreme inequality that hinders robust growth.  Admittedly mayors, even the Mayor of New York City, can’t do much about economic growth, but at shouldn’t preclude emphasizing its importance.

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