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Challenge facing De Blasio after New York returns to Democrats

Listening to the people? Bill de Blasio. William Alatriste

On Tuesday, Bill de Blasio, a Democrat, won New York’s mayoral election by a margin of about 46 percent, defeating Republican Joseph Lhota. His resounding victory apparently gave him a mandate for a policy agenda well to the left of his predecessor, Michael Bloomberg – but how different a direction will he actually take?

De Blasio’s most obvious difference from Bloomberg is on his approach to inequality. Bloomberg, who was ranked by Forbes as the world’s 13th richest man with a fortune estimated at $31 billion, had been increasingly characterised as out of touch with ordinary New Yorkers; de Blasio, by contrast, picked up many of the themes invoked by Occupy Wall Street when it coined the slogan “we are the 99 percent”.

Throughout his campaign, he stressed that New York’s apparent prosperity disguised a city of two tiers: one highly affluent, represented by Bloomberg (the 1%), and the other poor and struggling. De Blasio contended that his predecessor ignored the poor and the middle class, focused excessively on Manhattan (the city’s richest borough) and promoted programmes that primarily benefited the upper stratum.

Exploiting the income gap

Indeed, this mayoral election has drawn unprecedented attention to inequality and to the decline of the city’s middle class. Considerable evidence substantiates de Blasio’s rhetoric: census analysis shows that median household income in the city dropped from US$48,632 (£30,300) in 2007 to $45,806 in inflation adjusted (2007) dollars, and New York has the widest income gap of any large American city.

Renter households, who comprise almost 70% of residents, have suffered from inflationary pressures on the residential real estate market while their incomes stagnated. Nearly 30% of renter households are paying half or more of their income in rent, an increase of nearly 5 points since 2007; an additional 23% percent pay more than a third, an increase of two points over the same six years.

Trickle-down legacy: outgoing mayor Michael Bloomberg. Ryan Rayburn / World Bank

Even as these problems were widely debated during the campaign, Bloomberg did little to shake off his plutocratic image. In a much-quoted New York Magazine interview, he asserted that: “If we can find a bunch of billionaires around the world to move here, that would be a godsend, because that’s where the revenue comes to take care of everybody else.” By contrast, de Blasio instead kept his focus on the city’s increasing inequality, arguing that wealth would not simply trickle down from the fortunes of billionaires. As he sees it, the city badly needs strong programs for affordable housing and for universal pre-school – as well as increased taxation on incomes above half a million dollars a year.

Economy trumps law and order

De Blasio also drew a sharp contrast with the Bloomberg era on the issue of police tactics. While Bloomberg and his predecessor Rudolph Giuliani attracted some support with their tough-on-crime approach – which did apparently succeed in dramatically improving public safety – de Blasio attacked the police for their indiscriminate use of “stop and frisk.” This tactic involves police detaining anyone they deemed suspicious and conducting a warrantless search. This resulted in young men of colour being regularly stopped while going about their daily routines. “Stop and frisk” provoked enormous resentment in low-income communities and has become the subject of protracted legal wrangling.

Yet while Lhota tried to make de Blasio’s opposition to stop and frisk a central campaign issue, arguing that a de Blasio win would take New York back to the bad old days of high homicide rates and street muggings, this message failed to hit home. New Yorkers were by now sufficiently sanguine about crime to name the economy as their primary concern in exit polls.

Bloomberg, who spent freely from his private fortune on his election campaigns, was re-elected twice, remaining in office for 12 years – but not without controversy. He was much criticised for seeking a third term by overriding a referendum that had established a two-term limit for mayors. He won re-election in 2009 arguing that the city needed his financial and management expertise to overcome the effects of the global financial crisis, but the bad feeling around his re-election never fully dissipated. It ultimately carried over to the Democratic primary election, where de Blasio defeated establishment candidate Christine Quinn.

A pro-development mayor

Yet despite his former obscurity and surprising win in the primary, de Blasio does not entirely represent a break with the city’s past. One way in which his mayoralty is unlikely to differ strongly from his predecessor’s is in support for real estate development. Business Insider, on the day after the election, reassured its readers that “Mayor-elect Bill de Blasio will be New York’s most pro-development mayor in decades,” noting that “he’s maintained good links with (and raised a lot of money from) the real estate industry.”

He also received financial support from the taxi industry and from a group that wants to substitute electric vehicles for the horse-drawn carriages in Central Park. Either in return for these favours or because he agreed with their positions, he has opposed allowing competitors to yellow cabs in the outer boroughs and indicated that he would eliminate the carriages in the park, despite the job losses this would entail. On the other hand, he comes out strongly against gentrification, calling for a zoning requirement that all new residential projects include affordable housing.

Defeated: Republican candidate Joseph Lhota, who lost by 49%. MTAPhotos

Where de Blasio does sharply differ from both Bloomberg and the vanquished Lhota is in his lack of managerial experience, which his opponents invoked as a serious weakness. His previous positions (city councilman and public advocate) commanded miniscule staffs and budgets; now, he will be heading a work force of almost 300,000 and overseeing a budget of $70 billion.

Still, of New York’s previous mayors nearly all except Bloomberg came into office without having had major managerial responsibilities. Most had held legislative office; Abe Beame had served as city comptroller, while Giuliani had been a federal prosecutor. That de Blasio ran a nearly flawless campaign, catapulting him from being a virtually unknown underdog to the overwhelming favorite (not to mention his successful management of Hillary Clinton’s 2006 US Senate campaign) augurs very well for his administration.

But however big de Blasio’s plans for the city, his substantial win by no means guarantees future progressive victories. One of the oddities of New York’s mayoral races is their seeming inconsistency. In 1985 Edward Koch, also a Democrat, won by 68 points; yet, after the much narrower win by Democrat David Dinkins four years later, the law-and-order Republican Giuliani carried the city in 1993, followed by Bloomberg in 2001. For all that his wide margin of victory may look like a healthy progressive mandate, New York has sharply changed direction before – and it surely will again.

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