Since Bill de Blasio swept into City Hall at the start of 2014, progressives in New York have been in an ebullient mood. The one-time student radical and community organizer ran on a program attacking economic inequality—a “tale of two cities,” he called it—and took power after twelve years of billionaire mayor Michael Bloomberg and eight years of law-and-order Republican Rudy Giuliani. Even before taking office, de Blasio helped the City Council Progressive Caucus elect one of its own, Melissa Mark-Viverito, a former union organizer, as its Speaker. With self-described progressives controlling the two most powerful branches of the city government, a sense of possibility opened up. Ideas and programs once restricted to speeches and wish lists have the opportunity to be realized.
Indeed, during his first year in office, de Blasio took steps that distinguished him from his immediate predecessor. After a bruising fight in Albany, he won state money for a massive expansion of pre-K education. The first bill he signed into law extended a very modest mandatory sick leave law (passed over Bloomberg’s veto) to cover an additional half a million workers. Rather than make any concessions, Bloomberg had allowed all 152 of the city’s union contracts to expire; de Blasio negotiated agreements that gave significant back pay to teachers and other municipal workers who had gone for years without receiving raises. His call for a rent freeze for nearly 1 million regulated apartments pushed the city’s Rent Guidelines Board to cap increases for one-year leases at 1 percent—the lowest hike in its forty-five year history. What’s more, the city will be issuing ID cards to undocumented immigrants, which include free membership to dozens of museums and cultural organizations. And when Eric Garner, an African American who was selling cigarettes on the street, died when a policeman put him in a chokehold, the mayor, after viewing a video of the incident said bluntly, “it looked like a chokehold to me.”
The change in the atmosphere in City Hall is especially welcome at a time when progressives are stymied in both New York state and across the nation. In Washington, Republicans block any liberal legislation. In Albany, progressive initiatives coming out of the Democratic-controlled Assembly have long been blocked in the Senate, controlled by Republicans with the support of a few rogue Democrats and Governor Andrew Cuomo, no friend of liberal reform.
De Blasio’s ascendency is part of a larger story of recent victories by left-leaning municipal candidates around the country. Some have echoed his rhetoric, like Lovely Warren, who was elected the first female mayor of Rochester, New York, in a campaign that criticized the emergence of “two Rochesters.” Supreme Court Justice Louis D. Brandeis famously argued that each state could serve as a “laboratory” to “try novel social and economic experiments.” Today, progressives are turning instead to the cities to develop new social policies, improve the lives of working people and immigrants, and build a movement from the bottom up.
Will it work? Any liberal or left advance stirs excitement, but municipal progressivism—in New York or elsewhere—can go only so far to improve the lives of ordinary Americans. As admirable as de Blasio’s early achievements have been, they have only begun to address the massive problems the majority of New Yorkers face: poverty, unemployment, low wages, exorbitant housing costs, educational failure, and the disproportionate harassment of young men of color. If New York is going to stop being a “tale of two cities,” it will require a massive and sustained effort. And de Blasio and his appointees face multiple obstacles—from the legal limits on municipal power to the treacheries of partisan politics and conflicts among progressives themselves.
For Gotham leftists, this is in some ways a familiar story. The city has a long history of progressive politics and reformist mayors, who fulfilled certain big promises but not nearly as many as they hoped. In 1886 Henry George, the candidate of a labor-backed third party, electrified the city’s working class with attacks on plutocracy and vows to rein in the police, clean up the filthy streets, and take over the street railroads and run them for free. In language that anticipated Occupy Wall Street, George pledged to adjust the tax structure to encourage new housing, so that it would no longer be the case that “Most of us—99 percent at least—must pay the other 1 percent . . . for the privilege of staying here and working here.”
Though the George campaign failed—he bested Theodore Roosevelt, running as a Republican, but lost to Democratic industrialist Abram Hewitt—many contemporaneous labor-backed reformers did win local office, as the “Great Upheaval” of labor militancy roiled political waters in cities large and small. But once in office, the new officials, after stopping the use of police to break strikes, often did little else. This was because they inherited municipal structures with little power and few resources and also operated in an intellectual milieu that associated liberty with freedom from government, rather than with positive state action. It would take an intellectual and political revolution, associated with Progressivism and the New Deal, for a new conception of urban politics and policy to take shape; nowhere was this more effectively achieved than in New York City under Fiorello La Guardia.
La Guardia was a life-long Republican, but one always allied with progressive forces in that party (like Robert La Follette) and outside it (like the Amalgamated Clothing Workers union). Running for mayor in 1933 as a “Fusion” candidate, he captured city hall when a split among Democrats allowed him to win with just 40 percent of the vote. Taking the helm of a city on the edge of bankruptcy, he raised taxes, fired municipal employees, and cut services.
But La Guardia soon benefited from an advantage none of his predecessors had enjoyed—a massive influx of money from the federal government, headed by Franklin D. Roosevelt. Closely allied with FDR in spite of their party affiliations, the irrepressible mayor drew on funds from New Deal agencies to literally remake his city. La Guardia completed the Triborough Bridge and the Eighth Avenue subway; built highways, tunnels, La Guardia Airport, public housing projects, and public schools across the city; repaved miles and miles of streets; rebuilt sewers; and renovated and expanded the city’s parks.
Not everything La Guardia did required federal money. He also encouraged private-sector unionization, moved the civil service away from patronage, fought crime and corruption, and promoted civil rights and public culture, including low-cost ballet, theater, and opera companies. But without federal largesse, La Guardia would never have been a big success and may not have twice won reelection in what remained an overwhelmingly Democratic city.
Two decades later, John V. Lindsay, another liberal Republican elected with only a plurality of the votes, similarly benefited from funds and political support from Washington, this time coming from Lyndon Johnson and his Great Society. Lindsay used federal money to improve social services and fund anti-poverty programs. Some of the spirit of the New Left, civil rights movement, and counterculture filtered into his administration, with gestures toward participatory democracy (like “neighborhood city halls” and decentralized control of schools), multiculturalism, and “fun city” celebrations. But a strong white backlash and a national recession stymied many of Lindsay’s innovations. He won re-election only because he benefited from yet another three-way race.
The next progressive mayor, David Dinkins, elected in 1989, fared much worse. A courtly liberal Democrat, Dinkins assembled a union-liberal-black-Latino coalition to become Gotham’s first African-American chief executive. But his time in office was more or less a disaster, as Reagan-era cutbacks in federal spending and a weak local economy (the city lost nearly 300,000 jobs during his first two years in office) forced austerity measures. Crime soared, racial tensions exploded, and big chunks of the government were poorly managed by Dinkins’s appointees, enabling Rudy Giuliani to defeat him four years later.
If Dinkins was in part responsible for his fate, his downfall also reflected how much external forces shape city life. Take the economy. Imagine that, instead of an official unemployment rate of 6.8 percent (as of September 2014), New York City had something close to full employment. The number of people living in poverty would plummet, wages would go up, elevated spending power would improve neighborhoods outside the glitzy zones of Manhattan and Brooklyn, resentment toward immigrants would diminish, children would be better cared for, health outcomes would improve, and spirits would rise. But the big mechanisms for creating and improving jobs are all in the hands of Washington: monetary policy, fiscal policy, trade policy, labor policy, and industrial policy. The mayor does have, however, a few tools for economic development, including tax breaks, zoning, infrastructure improvements, and pension fund investments.
De Blasio’s approach to economic development, after you clear away the rhetoric, is not too different from Bloomberg’s; so far he has supported the mainstream orthodoxy of high-density developments for white-collar and high-tech employers (though without corporate giveaways and with more stress on labor force development). Bloomberg was overly kind to his fellow financiers, but he also made substantial efforts to promote blue-collar as well as white-collar employment—his investment of $200 million in the Brooklyn Navy Yard industrial park doubled the number of jobs to 7,000—a policy de Blasio is continuing.
But the effects of such local job creation efforts are modest. It is a measure of the limits on city power that de Blasio made the centerpiece of his anti-inequality program creating more slots for pre-K education, a worthy endeavor but one which will do little to change the economic status of the poor, except to the extent that it serves as free day care and therefore allows more mothers to work.
Of course, there is a lot the city can do to improve the lives of working people, but nearly all of it is expensive: affordable housing (a de Blasio priority); smaller public school classes, and art, music, and gym programs; inexpensive, quality child care; more neighborhood recreation facilities, with staff to mentor youth; and better transportation, especially in the outer parts of the city. (As cities all over the world have thrown up subway systems seemingly overnight, New York has barely expanded its network since La Guardia’s era.)
New York is hardly a poor city, but the ability of the city government to raise revenue is severely limited. De Blasio initially proposed funding his pre-K education program through a tax on high incomes, but that required approval from the state legislature. Cuomo, trying to position himself as a pro-business tax cutter, outmaneuvered the newly elected mayor to make sure that did not happen. Instead, he provided funding from existing state revenue. Other favorite progressive tax ideas for the city such as a stock transfer tax, reinstituting the income tax on commuters, or a tax surcharge on high-priced pied-à-terre residences would also require state approval. Raising the minimum wage in the city, which de Blasio has strongly backed, likewise needs state blessing, which he has yet to win.
Sadly, progressives did a lot to create the political environment that now constricts their efforts. For decades, several major left-wing unions allied with state Republicans to win laws and programs that benefited their members. In the early 1960s, Local 1199, now part of the Service Employees International Union, courted Republican governor Nelson Rockefeller to win a collective bargaining law covering non-profit hospitals. In 1977, Victor Gotbaum, head of the largest municipal union, built ties to Republicans in the state senate to win passage of an agency shop law requiring public employees to pay a union fee even if they choose not to join a labor group. And from the 1990s on, 1199, with its huge membership and war chest, was a mainstay propping up Republican control of the Senate in return for a robust flow of state money into health care. Unions won institutional stability and gains for their members through these arrangements. Hospital workers went from being so poorly paid that many collected welfare, to having decent pay and first-rate benefits, while state involvement in bolstering public health has given New York one of the best Medicaid systems in the country. Still, the political price has been steep: state politicians who rarely support a broader progressive agenda have remained in power.
Last May, the tension within the progressive coalition between pragmatic deal-making and left-wing ideology reached a head at the state convention of the Working Families Party (WFP). Created largely by private-sector unions and community organizations, the WFP has done impressive work to promote progressive laws and candidates. But it has also given a boost to mainstream Democrats by protecting their left flank and canvassing for their campaigns, hoping to keep more conservative forces at bay while acting as a pressure group within the Democratic establishment. In 2010 the WFP backed Andrew Cuomo even though he attacked public sector unions and ran as a pro-business centrist. Once in office, he forced state workers to accept give-back contracts under the threat of mass layoffs and blocked progressive economic initiatives.
In 2014, many WFP activists vowed not to go down the same road again. But key unions affiliated with the party felt differently, not wanting to jeopardize their insider influence and private deals with the governor. When things got so tense that it looked as if the party might split apart, de Blasio stepped in to broker a deal that gave Cuomo the WFP endorsement in return for a few concessions—most notably an agreement to help Democrats gain control of the state senate. As it turned out, Cuomo made barely any effort and the Republicans gained senate seats, solidifying their control.
As mayor, de Blasio has been politically adept. He took a risk in backing a governor who had undermined his own programs—not just the tax increase but also his effort to rein in charter schools—in the hope of gaining a payback in the future. Though slow to staff his administration, de Blasio mostly appointed progressives with extensive administrative experience, often in the Bloomberg administration. They compose the left wing of the permanent government. By doing so, he stilled fears that he would be Dinkins redux, a decent progressive incapable of mastering the daunting challenges of running the largest city in the country. He also proved masterful in rapidly negotiating contracts with the major municipal unions. While de Blasio’s raises were meager and barely exceeded inflation, he pushed labor issues out of the limelight with contracts that looked good compared to Bloomberg’s mean-spirited refusal to give any raises at all.
But if de Blasio is to become more than a good, liberal steward and become another La Guardia or even a Lindsay, he will need to expand the base of support for social-democratic cities at a time when even many Democrats are busy chasing the suburban vote. Past experience shows how much a mayor can do with support from Washington and how little one can achieve without it.
So far de Blasio has not done much to mobilize popular progressive action. Instead, he has worked through traditional channels. At the state level, he backed Cuomo in his primary race against progressive newcomer Zephyr Teachout, who won a surprising 34 percent of the vote. At the national level, he has tried to work through the United State Conference of Mayors—a group set up during the New Deal—to lobby Washington on behalf of a progressive urban agenda. But it is hard to see how this strategy will bring the large-scale political changes that New York and the nation need to reverse the inequality de Blasio has so eloquently criticized.
The urban focus of the New Deal and Great Society were, in part, a response to radical, sometimes disruptive movements in the cities—among the unemployed, left-wing parties, unions, civil rights and tenant groups, and the movements of the New Left. With or without de Blasio, ordinary New Yorkers need to stir themselves once again.
There have already been some signs of that. The September 2014 climate change march in midtown Manhattan was notable not only for its huge size—more than 300,000 people took part—but for the active support it drew from the labor movement, which, in the past, often kept its distance from environmentalists. In addition, construction unions joined affordable housing advocates to pressure the mayor to meet or exceed the goals he has announced for building low-cost apartments. And after the death of Eric Garner, the United Federation of Teachers, a union with a long history of tense relations with the black community, joined in a protest march.
But big challenges remain. Tensions remain high among community, labor, and other activist groups, reflecting their disparate social bases. (One problem with the language of Occupy and de Blasio–style rhetoric is that it obfuscates the very real economic and social differences among the 99 percent.) Law enforcement unions and even some UFT members vehemently protested against the participation of the teachers’ union in the Garner protests. The rifts between community groups and unions in the Working Families Party remain to be resolved, as de Blasio keeps shifting back and forth between mainstream Democratic and left-populist positions. Still, if the community groups, political insurgents, and unions behind the recent wave of local progressive victories can join together to help create a national movement, it could be the beginning of a new day for Gotham and, perhaps, for America too.
Joshua B. Freeman teaches history at Queens College and is the author of American Empire: The Rise of a Global Power, the Democratic Revolution at Home, 1945-2000. Parts of this essay appeared in “Teachout’s Teach Out” (September 15, 2014) on the Murphy Institute Blog.