This Tuesday is the Democratic primary for mayor in New York City. And the frontrunner to win the primary is Bill de Blasio, who has made an unapologetic appeal to voters that addressing inequality in the City will be his priority if mayor.
That arguably the most progressive major candidate is leading the race shouldn't be news in New York City, yet Republicans have held the mayorship for the last twenty years. And the Democrats who ran the city from the early '70s through David Dinkins in the early '90s were so beset by economic crises that their urban policy had little positive national impact. Where a Fiorello LaGuardia was a national political figure in the New Deal, no New York City mayor has had a major role in the national progressive imagination for nearly fifty years.
Bill de Blasio could change that, both because of his own politics and because of changes in New York City politics itself. On his own terms, de Blasio's highlighting of a "tale of two cities" in his campaign echoes the critique of economic inequality that Occupy Wall Street drove to national attention two years ago. His campaign has unapologetically demanded that those who have enjoyed economic success share some of it with those in need to fund universal preschool to help level the playing field for all children. He has linked slashing city tax giveaways for large corporations with putting $100 million extra per year into the City University of New York system and creating a loan pool for small businesses in neglected neighborhoods around the City.
De Blasio has also argued for raising the wages of New York workers through a higher city minimum wage, an expanded living wage for those performing public contracts, and an expansion of the City's paid sick days law to cover more workers. Addressing the affordability crisis for working families in the City, he has pledged to build or rehabilitate 200,000 affordable housing units, partly by creating a "mandatory inclusionary zoning" program where any new building projects would have to set aside a percentage of units for lower-income residents, de facto a tax on wealthy luxury units to address housing inequality.
And recognizing the racial dimension of inequality in New York, De Blasio was the only one of the top four candidates in the race to support a City Council law banning racial profiling in the City's notorious "stop and frisk" program. He has also been a sharp critic of Mayor Bloomberg's drive to hand public schools over to private charter companies, demanding more limits on school closings and making private charter schools pay rent for use of public buildings.
Beyond the substance of his own policies, De Blasio would become mayor in tandem with a City Council likely to be moving in a more progressive direction. Vetoes by Mayor Bloomberg as well as the blocking of votes on a lot of progressive legislation by City Council Chair Christine Quinn, mayor Bloomberg's legislative ally for years, has largely limited the impact of that body. But Quinn's departure and the rise of new progressive elected members, including a growing Progressive Caucus on the Council, means that the fight that made New York City the largest jurisdiction in the country with a paid sick days law is likely only a prelude to the City government becoming once again a leader in moving progressive policy in the nation.
This is also a critical moment when cities are regaining an importance in political and economic life that had been ceded to suburban exurbs over much of the last half century. Both people and new startup firms have increasingly migrated back to large cities. It has been a continual embarrassment to conservative economic ideology that leftwing San Francisco, with a citywide healthcare mandate preceding Obamacare and the highest minimum wage in the nation, has still been the crucible of disproportionate economic and technology innovation in the nation. A New York City that continues its own technology boom, while better distributing its economic benefits to all its residents, would help drive home the point that urban progressivism cannot only support economic innovation but is ultimately a prerequisite for it in harnessing our nation's diversity and supporting the public infrastructure needed for growth.
New York City is burdened with multiple limits on its power to implement policy, from federal and state laws (and conservative courts) that have struck down a number of city innovations such as an enacted ban on City money going to banks engaged in predatory lending and a requirement that landlords receiving city economic development money pay a living wage to building workers. So any new mayor will have to challenge both Albany and D.C. to expand the reach of its urban progressive policy. De Blasio has pledged to make expanded home rule for New York City a priority, but even within those constraints, there are still large areas of city power, from land use to its budget, where a shift in priorities will have a significant impact.
For good or for bad, New York City historically has had a disproportionate hold on the American imagination. Unfortunately, its main contribution to that imagination for decades has been first the City's austerity economics directly assaulting the poor in the 1970s that in many ways foreshadowed the rise of Reaganomics on the national stage and, in recent years, the slightly more benign mere neglect of the problem of economic inequality under Mayor Bloomberg.
A victory for de Blasio this fall would reflect that City voters are reasserting a desire for New York to return to its historic role as an engine of progressive innovation in confronting rising economic inequality. This would send a message with not only local impact but national implications for the debate on inequality in our nation, with a new prominent spokesman on the national stage challenging the austerity economics too dominant in the media and in the halls of Congress.
Nathan Newman worked as a consultant for the Bill de Blasio campaign, but has no current affiliation with the campaign.