New York, New York – from Bloomberg to de Blasio, it’s a tale of two cities
Opinion: Bloomberg has left the city cleaner, safer and healthier, but far from equal
Bill Clinton introduces newly elected mayor Bill de Blasio and his wife, Chirlane McCray, at City Hall in New York on New Year’s Day. Photograph: Reuters
All politics is local. But the local can be decidedly national, even international. Boris Johnson’s London mayoralty acquired national significance because it offers a credible platform for Johnson’s supposed ambitions to succeed David Cameron as Tory leader and ultimately as British prime minister.
The surprise election of a little- known neighbourhood official and grassroots community campaigner to take over from billionaire Michael Bloomberg is being seen by many as the harbinger of the revival of the Democratic Party’s left as an electable force and a taste of where the ideological battleground of the next presidential election will be fought.
To emphasise its significance, Bill Clinton, with an eye on his wife’s presidential ambitions, agreed to administer de Blasio’s oath of office on Wednesday. And the latter used the occasion to strongly reiterate his commitment to his main election theme – attacking social inequality – a recent central preoccupation of Democratic politics up and down the country that is likely to dominate coming elections.
New York, de Blasio had reiterated at every campaign event, had become a tale of two cities, a Bloomberg version of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis where half the population lives in or near poverty while the super- rich have never had it better.
It’s not all empty rhetoric. De Blasio, unlike any directly elected mayor we are likely to see in Dublin, has real powers to shape a city with 300,000 municipal employees and a budget of $70 billion (€51 billion) a year, larger than all but a handful of states. Education, healthcare, public transport, infrastructure, police and emergency services, and planning are all part of his remit, albeit constrained by the reality that income tax rates are set at state capital level in Albany, a legislature that may not share his reforming zeal.
Hard act to follow
Bloomberg is a hard act to follow, not least because of what one commentator called his “Medici-like”ability to lubricate his way by spending, according to a New York Times calculation, some $650 million of his own money on projects as diverse as staff lunches, civic dinners, new tropical fish aquariums for city hall, charities, arts, civic, health and cultural groups, and political donations .
The three-term Bloomberg – he took a $1 salary – inherited a city in crisis; today it is again thriving, a place where people want to live. A record 54 million tourists crowded its streets last year. The crime rate is down, the transportation system is more efficient, the environment is cleaner. He leaves a $2.4 billion budget surplus, a pot that will make easier de Blasio’s first challenge, to respond to municipal pay claims totalling $7 billion after a five-year pay freeze.
Bloomberg created a healthier city, where smokers are now taboo in many public and private spaces, where calorie counts are publicised and where trans fats are banned. He opened 800 acres of outdoor space, created new parks, expanded bike lanes to cover more than 600 miles and added a fleet of Citi bikes for tourists and commuters.
De Blasio is starting fast. He is already making plans to pass an expanded sick-leave Bill in New York and require higher wages for employees on city projects – the cause of raising the minimum wage is animating cities all over the country.
And in a bid to defuse racial tension, he has moved to block city lawyers from appealing a court ban on Bloomberg’s controversial police stop-and-frisk policies.
But it is in education where he is likely to have most dramatic impact on the lives of working families. He has promised to reverse the Bloomberg obsession with school testing, and a central policy plank, one that has caught the public imagination, is to give every four-year-old a place in preschool, a project to be funded by a half per cent levy on incomes over $500,000.
Though parents in affluent New York neighbourhoods pay out up to $40,000 a year for private preschool, 41 per cent of the city’s three- and four- year-olds are not enrolled in any early childhood education at all.
At national level de Blasio’s election is seen as much more than a flash in the pan. It is an expression of a revitalised radicalism among young people despairing of the Democratic Party’s flirtation in recent years with Wall Street.
They, with de Blasio and the likes of Massachusetts senator Elizabeth Warren, are reshaping the nature of the economic debate in the country and party. And they are finding at community and municipal level a new way of doing politics. The Tea Party has found its counterweight on the left.