Progressive Champion Bill de Blasio Models Populist Change

Richard Eskow

In the summer of 2013 Bill de Blasio was a long-shot contender in the New York mayor’s race. Less than two months before the crucial Democratic primary, de Blasio was in fourth place. To make the odds even worse, the city’s power brokers were lined up behind another candidate.

But de Blasio had something his opponents didn’t have: a strong populist message, backed by an aggressive agenda that included universal pre-kindergarten education, affordable housing, an end to the “stop and frisk” harassment of minorities, and an increase in the minimum wage.

For demonstrating how to campaign based on a progressive populist message and how to turn that message into sound public policy once in office, Bill de Blasio is a recipient of the Progressive Champion award by the Campaign for America’s Future. He will receive it October 14 during the Celebrating America’s Future 2014 Awards Gala at Washington D.C.’s Arena Stage.

Accomplishment Amid Challenges

De Blasio’s campaign told a tale of two cities, one wealthy and the other struggling, and it resonated with voters. The city he described was the one most New Yorkers know – where rents are skyrocketing, wages are stagnating, and it’s hard work just to survive. In a fight for equality between the few and the many, de Blasio told voters that he stood with the many.

They responded enthusiastically. By the end of the summer we saw headlines like this one: “De Blasio Rockets Toward NYC Mayoral Nomination.” And in November the headline read, “Bill de Blasio wins New York City mayoral race in a landslide.”

Then the hard work of governing began. New York City faces extraordinary challenges. It’s also the home of Wall Street, the epicenter of the global elite, the locus of enormous economic and political power – and a source of bounty for a number of New York politicians in both parties. Some of those politicians, most notably New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo, almost immediately began placing obstacles in de Blasio’s path.

Despite the obstacles, Bill de Blasio has already amassed a striking list of accomplishments. More than 50,000 children have already enrolled in his universal preschool program. A new law extended paid sick leave to half a million additional New Yorkers (by requiring all businesses with five or more employees to offer it.) His 2015 budget allocates $41 billion over the next 10 years to create 200,000 affordable-housing units, an initiative that he plausibly claims will create 194,000 construction jobs and permanent employment for 7,000 people.

De Blasio has also committed to an 80 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, starting with a “green buildings” initiative, a pledge that drew worldwide attention. Two years from now, according to his plan, 24 New York City schools will receive solar power.

The New York City police force is ending its “stop and frisk” practices and closing down its draconian intelligence efforts against Islamic houses of worship and community centers.

Progressive Pressure

To be sure, things haven’t always gone smoothly. Community activists are pressing the mayor over the pace of change in police practices. And many progressives were understandably disappointed with de Blasio’s endorsement of conservative Democrat Kathy Hochul, Gov. Cuomo’s choice, over progressive Tim Wu in the race for lieutenant governor.

And yet, pressure from the Working Families Party and others who share de Blasio’s values has led the governor to stop blocking some of de Blasio’s progressive initiatives. Cuomo is now committed to a more progressive agenda and a more Democratic, more liberal state senate. He has also indicated he will support allowing cities to establish their own, higher minimum wages, a move that would benefit many urban residents of the state. As the New York Times editorial board notes, “Mr. Cuomo now casts himself as a stouter-than-ever defender of labor and working people.”

The Cuomo/de Blasio relationship, and the role of independent progressives like Zephyr Teachout and the Working Families Party, illustrate an important principle: Candidates like Bill de Blasio are most likely to succeed when they’re accompanied by a strong and independent progressive movement, one that is capable of exerting outside pressure on politicians like Andrew Cuomo. Each has an important role to play.

Not Waiting For Washington

In his most recent initiative, de Blasio issued an executive order that will extend the city’s living wage law to many more New Yorkers. It will also increasing its hourly rate from $11.90 to $13.13, a rate that is expected to reach $15 by 2019.

Moves like these have made de Blasio a leader and a role model for city officials across the country. As the National Employment Law Project noted in a press release:

“From Seattle to San Francisco, Los Angeles to Chicago, mayors aren’t waiting for Washington to raise wages. Like Mayor de Blasio, they are pushing for higher wages on the city level, and seeking significant increases that will have a substantive effect on workers’ lives.”

That is a highly encouraging development. As Harold Meyerson and other observers have noted, America’s cities are well-positioned to act as engines for progressive change. De Blasio’s New York is playing a critical role in this process of urban transformation.

Bill de Blasio ran for mayor as a populist, and he has governed as one. He’s already achieved impressive things – and he’s only one-fifth of the way through his first term. His populist-themed campaign offered important lessons for candidates and elected officials everywhere. And his mayoralty is becoming a model for the nation’s cities to follow.

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