New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio: A Powerful Populist Voice

Robert Borosage

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio speaks at the Celebrating America’s Future 2014 Gala Awards ceremony October 14 at Arena Stage in Washington.

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio is a powerful, new populist voice in American politics. Last year, he swept to a stunning upset victory in New York’s mayoral race, issuing a populist indictment of the “tale of two cities,” one rich and one impoverished, and laying out a bold agenda for reform.

Since taking office, de Blasio has faced many of the obstacles faced by mayors everywhere – a city famed for its fractious politics, a state legislature and governor (Democrat Andrew Cuomo) eager to clip his wings, powerful interests organizing to take him on, exemplified by the big money backing charter school mogul Eva Moskovitz, who blistered de Blasio with a $5 million ad campaign for having the temerity to suggest that the charters ought to pay rent for space in city schools.

Yet, de Blasio once more confounded cynics. He found a way to fulfill his pledge to provide free full-day pre-kindergarten for New York’s children, and today 50,000-plus children attend pre-k, surely the most important single education reform that can transform their possibilities and the lives of their parents. Over one million more New Yorkers enjoy guaranteed paid sick leave. He’s extended living wages to thousands by executive order. He’s building a program that will provide affordable housing to a half-million people over the next decade. He’s curbed New York’s racially charged stop-and-frisk policies.

This week, the Campaign for America’s Future (where I am co-director) celebrated his leadership by giving him their Progressive Champion Award. His brief acceptance speech that night was a clarion call for a bold populist politics, one that would challenge the limits of “conventional wisdom,” lay out a bold vision and agenda, and challenge people to help build a movement that could take power. (It’s worth watching the full presentation here)

De Blasio argues that there is a new populism that is “alive and well if we are only bold enough to tap into it,” not just in New York but also across the country. “Something is happening out there.” And for those who say populists can’t win, or populists can’t govern, de Blasio says, “I can tell you where to tell them to go…..Tell them to go to New York City” and see it for themselves.

Like anyone in office, de Blasio will suffer setbacks. He’ll be forced to cut deals, to make compromises, to accept less than what he would like. But his campaign has given him a mandate and a movement that has already won bold reforms. This is a big man with a big heart in the big city. He is a progressive champion worthy of Teddy Roosevelt’s tribute to the man in the arena:

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

Get updates in your inbox

Comments