After 20 years of rule by Republicans, and three terms with a businessman mayor who referred to billionaires like himself as a “godsend,” New Yorkers this Tuesday elected Bill de Blasio, a self described “unapologetic progressive” who ran on a simple message of confronting inequality.
“For all those who had their doubts about the ability of such a campaign to win a broad swath of support, just look at the numbers,” City Council member Brad Lander, a de Blasio ally, told Commonomics shortly before the election.
De Blasio, the city’s public advocate, defeated Joseph Lhota, a former chairman of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, by a landslide: 73 to 24 percent. At his victory party (held, fittingly, at a Brooklyn Armory-turned-YMCA rather than a swanky Manhattan hotel), the 6’5″ Democrat stood on the stage with his multiracial family and a bevy of campaign volunteers and took aim squarely at what he’d repeatedly called “a Tale of Two New York Cities.”
“The people of New York have chosen a progressive path,” he said. “We will bring an end to inequality in this city.”
New Yorkers know what de Blasio’s talking about. Under Mayor Michael Bloomberg, the Big Apple has become a safer and more economically vibrant place, for some. New York now boasts a larger share of the world’s super-rich than any city on the planet. With help from City Hall, developers have built 40,000 new buildings and brought an affluent buzz to yet more neighborhoods, but 400,000 affordable housing units have been lost; homelessness has never been worse, and some of the city’s poorest are still in temporary housing a year after Hurricane Sandy.
Mayor Bloomberg banned trans-fats and workplace smoking, brought in bike lanes, and did his best to limit the sale of sugary drinks. Life expectancy is up and infant mortality down, but one in six residents is unemployed or underemployed, and a decline in crime has been accompanied by race-based police tactics that have bitterly divided the boroughs.
De Blasio’s campaign ran on two pledges: to tax those earning more than $500,000 in order to fund universal pre-kindergarten for the city’s children, and to rein in police stop-and-frisk tactics that have disproportionately targeted young black and Latino men.
His platform also included a good dose of “commonomics.” As public advocate, de Blasio supported the drive for paid sick days and a living wage in New York City. On the campaign trail, he pledged to do more to raise incomes and improve housing access for the working poor. He also talked about eliminating tax breaks for large corporations (notably including big developers) and instead creating a “Unified Development Budget” to “spread subsidies throughout the city.” He promised to establish “economic development hubs,” not just in the fashionable design and high-tech sectors, but in every sector of the economy, and to establish a new revolving loan fund that would free up credit for small and neighborhood businesses—”to fulfill the role abandoned by most banks.”
Still, it’s one thing to campaign, quite another to govern. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo has made it clear that he won’t approve de Blasio’s tax on the super-rich. Furthermore, the mayor-elect disappointed some when he announced on November 6 that one of the co-chairs of his transition team would be Carl Weisbrod, a well-connected real estate developer who ran the 42nd Street Development Corporation, which was responsible for what critics call the “Disney-fication” of the theater district. Weisbrod was also the president of Trinity Church’s real estate company, the same company that called the cops on Occupy.
“Mayor-elect @deBlasioNYC names Carl Weisbrod, real estate/planning bigwig, as co-chair of his transition team,” Left Business Observer publisher Doug Henwood wrote on Twitter after the announcement. “Status quo can smile.”
“The left-wing mouse that roared”
In “commonomics” terms, the most significant aspect of de Blasio’s win may be the route he took to power. Taking office with him this January will be a public advocate who generally shares his views and a dozen new progressive city council members—all beneficiaries of a long-term strategy by local advocates of economic justice to reduce local legislators’ dependence on establishment-party patronage and big corporate donors.
One way they’ve done that is by building an innovative labor and community coalition, the Working Families Party, which de Blasio helped to found in 1998. Taking advantage of New York’s relatively open election laws, which permit independent parties to run their own candidates and cross-endorse others who share their views, WFP is now being called “the left-wing mouse that roared.”
Brad Lander says that neither de Blasio nor himself would be in office without the WFP and New York’s public campaign financing laws. “I wouldn’t have been interested in running if there had been no space for the kind of inside-outside partnerships I’m interested in. And even if I had been interested, I wouldn’t have known how.” Incoming public advocate Letitia James was the first candidate to win election to the City Council running solely on the Working Family platform.
Election laws differ in every state, but after Tuesday, economic-justice-minded city legislators in other states are giving New York a close look.
“Particularly at this moment of very profound gridlock at the federal level, people see a lot of possibility at the municipal and state level,” says Andrew Friedman, one of the coordinators of Local Progress, a national network of progressive state and municipal legislators that de Blasio addressed in Washington, D.C., last month. Just a few weeks later, labor and community groups there announced a new “Working Families Party D.C.”
Building on the success of initiatives like the Progressive States Network (for state legislators) and challenged by the impact of the corporate-backed American Legislative Exchange Council, Friedman says that Local Progress is an attempt to build mutual support and relationships among those trying to advance a more inclusive, shared-prosperity approach to local and municipal government.
Local Progress members haven’t arrived at any consensus on the “commonomics” questions of procurement practices, worker ownership, localism, and sustainable economic development, Friedman says, but “there’s wind in our sails.”
Those who promise change, as de Blasio does, will certainly need support. “The role of money in politics can’t be overstated,” says Lander. “The unequal economy wants to reproduce itself.”
By and large, November 5 was a pretty good day for “commonomics” in New York City. For people who long to live in strong, life-sustaining economies, the question after the victory lap is, What happens next?