THE BLOG

I Love Bloomberg, and I Love de Blasio

01/06/2014 07:08 pm ET | Updated Mar 08, 2014
  • Blake Fleetwood Former reporter for the New York Times and Daily News; taught Political Science at NYU

2014-01-06-BloombergDeBlasio.jpgOur new mayor --- the anti-Bloomberg --- is barely sworn in, and already the long knives are out for him. The New York Post headline last Thursday said it all:

"D TRAIN ARRIVES ... and smashes into Bloomberg."

But make no mistake about it. Michael Bloomberg was a great, great mayor, perhaps the best New York Mayor ever. A product of his times and what the city needed at the time. He calmed the city and made it work. Bloomberg --- and Giuliani --- dramatically reduced crime from 2,245 murders per year in 1991 to 333 in 2013 and steered New York through the traumas of 9/11, the Great Recession and even Superstorm Sandy.

Bloomberg helped bring the city's financial community back to life. He created jobs with innovative real estate zoning and started programs to make the streets livable --- with bicycle lanes and plazas --- which are being studied and implemented by other cities around the country.

Bloomberg was not without mistakes and flaws, but he had big, visionary ideas. His campaign against smoking has been taken up by hundreds of cities and towns around the country and has already saved tens of thousands of lives. His hatred of handguns and his national campaign struck fear in the hearts of the National Rifle Association.

Bloomberg was one of a kind.

His $27 billion made him incorruptible and allowed him to do what he thought was right. Most importantly, he was free from money-grubbing hustlers who force local politicians to cobble together promises and payoff to interests groups with their hands out.

In an op-ed piece in the Wall Street Journal last Saturday, Peggy Noonan jumped on de Blasio for being "The Divider." She castigated de Blasio for expanding on the very "Tale of Two Cities" platform that won the support of a vast majority of New Yorkers:

"What was absent ... in de Blasio's remarks was a kind of civic courtesy, or grace. The kind that seeks to unite and build from shared strength, the kind that doesn't demonize. Instead, from our new mayor, we got the snotty sound of us versus them, or zero-sum politics."

But, de Blasio is taking leadership of the city in a different time --- with different urgent needs.

We cannot yet compare Bloomberg and de Blasio. But if de Blasio runs the city with the same brilliant skill that he ran his campaign --- he came from the bottom of a Democratic pack to a stunning victory in the primaries and general election --- he will be a formidable mayor.

How did he win? He won with political theater and a clear message that powerfully moved voters. He lived in Brooklyn in a biracial marriage with a teenage son who sported a massive 1960s-style Afro. He talked about the "Tale of Two Cities," about the inequality, about the millions left behind by the American dream.

And after Occupy Wall Street and the unfair distribution of riches was made an unavoidable issue following the Great Recession, de Blasio's storyline worked with a wide breadth of voters. De Blasio did better among voters making between $100,000 and $200,000 than he did among poor voters. Many Bloomberg supporters voted for de Blasio.

Without Bloomberg's $27-billion kitty, de Blasio will define himself with political theater. Shoveling the snow in front of his house is political capital that is hard to buy. Showing us his real "Modern Family" --- a black wife, two mixed-race teenagers --- makes us trust him, believing that he will take care of us just as he has taken care of them. It is all money in the bank for a mayor.

De Blasio said we cannot let New York become just "a playground for the rich."

De Blasio will have his hands full with what Bloomberg called "the labor-electoral complex" that could cripple city finances. He is facing a massive deficit, which will be exacerbated by funding raises for municipal workers. One hundred fifty-two union contracts are up for renegotiation. The unions put off negotiations with Bloomberg because they figured to get more from de Blasio, but they may have miscalculated. With his liberal creds not in question, de Blasio may be able to make the kind of deals that Bloomberg couldn't.

The new mayor will also have to address some long-term landmines: unfunded pensions and health-care liabilities and the desperate need to get more efficiency from the Board of Education, while cutting back on charter schools.

Playground for the Rich

Two of my well-off friends were praising Noonan's WSJ piece the other night at a dinner party on Central Park West. Strangely enough, they were not really concerned about de Blasio's extra taxes --- about $973 per year. They were more than willing to cough them up. And, in fact, they both supported funding full-day pre-Kindergarten and after-school programs. They just didn't like the tone.

We need to have a different tone or nothing will happen. This is precisely the point. The problem is that inequality is destroying our country and our city. And most voters know it. According to a 2012 Gallup poll, 62 percent of Americans think that upper-income people pay too little in taxes. According to the Census Bureau, New York City and New York State have the greatest income inequality in the country.

We have a permanent underclass with nowhere to go, and that is rapidly encroaching on the lower rungs of the middle class. During the Giuliani-Bloomberg years, this problem got worse and worse. Bloomberg certainly saved some lives with his anti-smoking campaigns and his anti-obesity efforts, progressive policies that affect mostly the poor, but mostly, the larger problems were ignored.

When old-time political bosses were picking candidates, the central question they thought the voters would ask was "Is he one of us?" How does he look? Will he fight for us? How will he take the pressure? Can he be stumped? Will he make a gaffe?

It is both complicated and simple --- it doesn't matter if the mayor is personally wealthy or poor (remember the popular John Lindsay) and... sometimes based on the trivial. Is he too elitist? Does she really care about us? Will he take care of us?

Voters believe they can tell this by how candidates look and act under pressure. It all counts.

Voters know they will be lied to by politicians.

De Blasio is not going to fix the problem of inequality all by himself. Voters know that, but he can, and already has, brought his story line --- a powerful voice against inequality --- to national attention.

De Blasio's election is not a repudiation of Bloomberg. It is a needed shift in tone. If de Blasio wants a progressive tenure, he cannot chase away the rich people, who lay the golden eggs for the rest of us.

With rich and poor working together, New York City will hopefully became a hothouse of realistic progressive policies, along the lines of FDR's New Deal in 1932, that then can be copied by local governments around the nation.