New York mayor’s hard turn from campaigning to governing

Bill de Blasio needled by actor Liam Neeson over the his plan to ban carriage horses

New York Mayor Bill de Blasio meets Cardinal Timothy Dolan at his residence in New York. Photograph: Fred R Conrad/The New York Times.

New York Mayor Bill de Blasio meets Cardinal Timothy Dolan at his residence in New York. Photograph: Fred R Conrad/The New York Times.

Tue, Mar 18, 2014, 14:22

New York mayor Bill de Blasio sailed into office on the winds of a well-run campaign. Then he kept on campaigning, pressing for one overriding goal: a vast expansion of full-day prekindergarten and after-school programmes, financed by an income tax on wealthier New Yorkers.

Though the tax has always had only a whisper of a prayer of coming true - it needed approval in the state legislature, and Governor Andrew Cuomo and Senate Republicans were dead set against it - de Blasio pushed on anyway, giving no indication of having a Plan B.

This seemingly quixotic quest has just entered a new phase in Albany, where a budget is due on April 1st. The Assembly, as many expected, last week embraced de Blasio’s pre-K tax, which would raise about $532 million (€381m) a year for five years. Then the Senate proposed giving Mt de Blasio even a little more than he was asking for - $540 million - although it rejected his tax as a way to pay for it.

These numbers aren’t real - in Albany nothing is, until the closed-door budget dealing is done - but they look pretty good for the mayor and put him in the odd position of winning while losing. Though his tax seems as doomed as ever, the biggest question now looming over his pre-K initiative is not whether it will happen, but how much money it will get.

Now, as Mr Cuomo said in a statement, “real discussions can begin.” The next two weeks are where Mr de Blasio can make the hard turn from campaigning to leadership. He has a formidable rival in Mr Cuomo, who has spent months disparaging the mayor’s pre-K tax while offering his own “blank check” to expand full-day pre-K statewide.

Mr Cuomo has cast himself as the greater protector of New York’s 4-year-olds, though the amount he proposed in his budget - $100 million for next year for all school districts - isn’t even enough to get New York City’s pre-K program off the ground.

Mr de Blasio seemed to be thrown off stride by that and other run-ins, as he and his policies came under ferocious attack from different directions. Eva Moskowitz, a charter-school operator who saw plans for three of her schools cancelled by the new mayor’s office, shamelessly dragged her students to Albany to a rally denouncing the mayor as an enemy of children. And who should show up but Cuomo, basking in the pedagogical glow.

Though the governor has been seen as outmanoeuvring the freshman mayor at every turn, Mr de Blasio still has a lot going for him. He has a broad swath of the city supporting his pre-K goals, plus Mr Cuomo’s blank check. To cash it, Mr de Blasio will have to show that the city is ready, with classrooms, teachers and curriculum in place, to justify the ambitious spending he’s seeking.

It’s early yet to pass judgment on Mr de Blasio’s job performance, not that this has stopped anybody. In the last few weeks, there were rolled eyes and furrowed brows as the mayor faced setbacks, some substantive, some symbolic, some just silly. He was needled by actor Liam Neeson over the his plan to ban carriage horses, and by Al Roker over an unpopular call against having a snow day. He embarrassed himself in a completely avoidable furor over illegal driving by his entourage.

Wednesday’s disastrous collapse of buildings in East Harlem was a sudden, sobering reminder of the scale and unpredictability of the mayor’s job. Managing this city, he is discovering, is more than just pre-K and a weird, nasty fight over charter schools. And still more lies ahead - treacherous labour negotiations, affordable housing construction, resurgent homelessness, lagging hurricane recovery, decrepit infrastructure.

A student driver with eyes fixed on the speedometer also has to remember the clutch, the yellow light, the double-parked car and that guy on the bike. Driving the city will eventually come more easily to this mayor, but for now, expect the forward motion to come with lurching and bumps.

New York Times

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