With New York City's mayoral race entering its final stage, we are already seeing the political dialogue focusing on either symbolic or trivial issues. Lately, we've been hearing about the tale of two cities and the issue of what to do about stray cats on the subway tracks. As our mayors eventually come to learn, most of the work done by local government is not very controversial and most of the decisions require professional rather than political judgments. There are exceptions, of course, and those can often be the critical moments that help a mayor define priorities, articulate principles and convey leadership in this complex and diverse city. New York's mayors have often faced crises and with the media's help, have created vivid images of their response: John Lindsay walking with his sleeves rolled up through Harlem to help ease racial tensions; Ed Koch greeting commuters walking over the Brooklyn Bridge during a subway strike; and of course, Rudy Giuliani dodging falling debris by the World Trade Center site.
Mayors David Dinkins and Mike Bloomberg exercised leadership with less flamboyance, but each set a tone that communicated their approach to running America's largest local government. Popular mythology has long portrayed Dinkins as a weak, indecisive leader; but overall, he and his team continued and added new elements to the civic reconstruction project begun under Mayor Koch. Dinkins' Safe Streets Safe City Program added 10,000 cops to the NYPD and began the dramatic reduction in crime that has now continued through the last three mayors. I admit I am biased, because Professor Dinkins has been a friend and close colleague of mine at Columbia for nearly two decades, but I hope that his long overdue and recently published memoir will demonstrate that his legacy as mayor has been misrepresented. He and his team made mistakes during the Crown Heights riots, but he was mayor for four years, not four days -- and accomplished a great deal during those years.
I hope the impressive accomplishments of Mayor Bloomberg's three terms of office are not distorted during this campaign and in the coming years. Bloomberg, like all mayors, has had his ups and downs, but New York City in 2013 is a far better place than it was when he took office in 2002. In 2002, New Yorkers were still reeling from the horror of 9-11. That horrific day remains with us still, but New Yorkers are resilient and stubborn, and this city's survival is no longer in question. Today's New York is more like the city I grew up in during the 1950s and 60s than the disaster I moved back to in 1981. I credit Koch, Dinkins, Giuliani, and Bloomberg for leading that stunning turnaround.
As successful as New York may be, we have failures too. The persistence of poverty in this city continues to be a source of great shame. While its true that increased poverty is more an American story than a New York City story, we live here and we have a moral responsibility to help our neighbors. It is difficult to celebrate today's New York when so many are denied access to its bounty. Still, in the face of a national attack on the social safety net, New York's social service system endures. When the federal government ended housing programs for poor people, the Bloomberg administration developed policies to encourage private developers to build affordable housing. While other cities might demolish public housing projects, New York continues to house 400,000 people in public housing. Even as the radical right in Congress tries to cut food stamps, New York's public and nonprofit sectors continue to provide food and shelter to those in need. In this city, we live too close to each other to avoid seeing poverty. We don't drive by homeless people in our SUV's, we walk with them, talk to them and cannot ignore their misery. It is frustrating and demoralizing to see the gap between rich and poor growing. Ironically, while New York City's poverty and unemployment rates are too high, the city continues to create a growing number of jobs.
Bill de Blasio is correct to call attention to the issue of poverty and the challenges faced by middle class families and poor people throughout the five boroughs. While New York's mayor can't do very much to affect national policy (ask Mayor Bloomberg about gun control), his voice can influence the national debate. Joe Lhota is wrong when he says that discussing poverty in vivid terms is divisive. Speaking the truth about poverty in the face of our city's great wealth acknowledges the reality of this issue, and is a necessary step in addressing it. Lhota's strongest case for office is not Giuliani-like fear tactics, but the depth of his decades of executive experience, and his reputation for blunt honesty, responsiveness and competence.
The idea that this mayoral election is some kind of trade-off between continuing the business-friendly policies of the past two decades or going back to the riots and near bankruptcy of the 1970s and 1980s is beyond absurd. First, it doesn't matter how business-friendly the atmosphere is in City Hall, most small business owners will tell you that this is a tough place to start and run a business. A city with eight million people has more rules and need for rules than a town of 500. New York is an expensive place to live, and a small tax increase on the wealthy will not scare anyone away. Anyone looking to live in a low-tax state moved away years ago. People keep coming here and opening businesses because the opportunities are so great. According to Sinatra and Jay Z, "if you can make it here, you can make it anywhere." That will not change, no matter who serves as mayor. Second, the idea that the old liberal coalition and the municipal unions will dominate City Hall and force the mayor to bankrupt the City is equally absurd. The fiscal controls and financial information in place today cannot be compared to the bad old days of the late 1960s and 1970s. If the city can't balance its budget, the state of New York will take over and do it for us. Remember, we've been there and done that.
The nature of the city's economy has also changed as has the nature of work itself. We have made the transition from a commercial and manufacturing hub to the nation's most prominent global post-industrial city. Finance, education, health care, consulting, the media (both new and old), tourism and other service businesses dominate. Unions are weaker, and most people know they will not spend their entire career with one employer. The 1970s are not coming back.
The policy differences between de Blasio and Lhota are not particularly profound. The differences lie in their communication skills, political skills, management skills and life experiences. Joe Lhota has a great deal of experience as a behind the scenes, low-key and effective public manager. Bill de Blasio has spent most of his career as a political operative and elected official. Bill de Blasio was once a "young socialist", and I assume we will soon be reading some background on Joe Lhota's youthful enthusiasms. Both Lhota and de Blasio are dedicated to public service, and both would be good mayors. Unfortunately for Mr. Lhota, his timing isn't great and he is unlikely to be elected mayor this year.
It is not simply his low and negative standing in the early polls. I think after 20 years of Rudy and Mike, the public is looking for a different type of mayor. Paradoxically, the city's revival gives the public the confidence that they can have a mayor who is not only competent, but also empathetic. Rudy was so nasty that Ed Koch once wrote a book entitled: Giuliani: Nasty Man. Despite his middle class rearing, Bloomberg's great wealth has made it difficult for working people to believe that he truly understands their day-to-day struggles. Neither has the image of being empathetic, warm and engaging.
Some would argue that a New York City mayor can't be tough, competent and nice, that the city's diverse and opposing interests requires a New York City edge of nastiness if it is to be held in check. Perhaps if he becomes mayor, de Blasio can find his inner nastiness. Maybe he can emulate Lhota and make a public show of his willingness to sacrifice kittens, in order to demonstrate that he's a hardheaded manager. I hope not. Excellent, decisive and tough management can be carried out with civility and empathy. Bill de Blasio is polling high because people are looking for a user-friendly mayor. If Lhota wants to get back in the race, he might want to look for some kittens to save.
Follow Steven Cohen on Twitter: www.twitter.com/StevenACohen