11/11/2013 10:16 am ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

The Legacy of New York's Mayors and the Promise of Bill de Blasio

With very few exceptions, New York City has always managed to elect excellent mayors, and with Bill de Blasio's election, New Yorkers have again elected a bright and talented chief executive. I admit I am a little biased since he is a graduate of Columbia's School of International and Public Affairs, where I've taught management for the past three decades. New Yorkers voted for empathy, communication skills and brainpower and they assume that their new mayor will figure out how to run the place. The job of New York City mayor has been called the second toughest job in America. This place is complicated, contentious and never quiet.

New York City is the largest local government in the United States, and local governments deliver essential services all day, every day of the year. Closing the federal government for 16 days is idiotic and destructive, but closing New York City's government for 16 days would be an unimaginable catastrophe. There would be no firefighting, police protection, emergency services, garbage pick-up, water or sewage maintenance and 1.1 million school kids would be wandering in what was left of the city's streets.

There is no way to really prepare for the job of running New York. It's learning by doing, on the job training and a constant search for competent help and sound advice. When Mike Bloomberg became mayor he found a determined but damaged city, less than 100 days from the profound horror of the destruction of the World Trade Center. He had no experience in elected office, but over time he learned the craft of political leadership. Mayor-elect de Blasio lacks the management experience that Bloomberg had, but has a wealth of experience in politics from Park Slope to Capital Hill. Over time he will learn how to be an effective public manager.

The New York that Bill de Blasio will lead is a stronger, better-managed city than it has been in generations. Yes, the middle and working class are struggling to raise families in the wake of rising costs, rising waters and rising inequality. But New York is a safer, cleaner and more livable place than it has been since the 1950s and early '60s. It is also a more tolerant, international and vibrant place than it has ever been. Racism, sexism and homophobia remain, but they are clearly on the run and less socially acceptable than they have ever been.

With the exception of the 1970s, when I was away at school and worked for the federal government, I've lived in New York City all my life. When I returned to live here in 1981 I was shocked at the condition of the place. New York was beaten and battered. Although we didn't know it at the time, the city's comeback had already begun. It started under Mayor Ed Koch and Governor Hugh Carey and it continued with very few setbacks through the Dinkins, Giuliani and Bloomberg years. The subways and parks were rebuilt. Sewage treatment plants and water supply infrastructure were built. We slowly started to rebuild the public school system. We began to focus on the city's sustainability. New York's community came together: its government, businesses, universities, unions, hospitals, cultural institutions, nonprofit organizations, community-based organizations and people learned how to live together in what David Dinkins vividly termed a "gorgeous mosaic."

The Lhota campaign's pathetic claim that a Mayor de Blasio would bring us back to the days of the city's demise gained no traction because it made no sense. New York City has its share of problems, but those problems do not look like the ones we faced in the 1970s. They are the problems of maintaining public safety in an age when technology (not stop-and-frisk) can easily strip us of privacy and personal liberty. Technology will soon make stop-and-frisk redundant. You can be frisked and hacked and not even know its happened. The technology and threat of terror and mass destruction continues to advance, and sacrificing personal liberty has been one of the costs of increased safety. That challenge will only become more difficult during the next decade.

New York City faces the problems of great global wealth forcing working families out of the city into declining suburbs. Without a workable, affordable housing policy, we may someday be nostalgic for a tale of two cities as every neighborhood becomes gentrified. In the 1970s landlords abandoned and burned down unprofitable real estate. In today's New York, all land is valuable and public and subsidized housing will increasingly be required to maintain the city's economic diversity.

Climate change, and the need to invest in a stronger and more resilient built environment, will cause new problems in the 21st century. Michael Bloomberg's lasting legacy will be the leadership he provided to begin making New York a more sustainable city. Bloomberg recognized that the city's economic development required clean air, unpolluted water, attractive parks, efficient and comfortable transportation, and a reduced carbon footprint. After Hurricane Sandy, he realized that our coastal city needed to protect itself from the impact of a planet already warmed by greenhouse gases.

The foundation of New York City's greatness has always been its creative and opportunistic response to a changing world. Mayor LaGuardia came to office during the Great Depression and found a willing partner in FDR and together they built parks, highways, schools, housing and even an airport. The commercial New York of the early and mid-twentieth century has been replaced by the post-industrial global city of today. Bloomberg partnered with business to build that brain-based city economy. Like Mayor Bloomberg, Mayor de Blasio will get no help from a dysfunctional federal government, and will need to find other, creative ways to use the city's own resources to reduce poverty, reduce homelessness, improve our schools, maintain public safety and continue building the thriving, sustainable city of the 21st century.

New York City faces great challenges: a growing structural deficit, aging infrastructure, a mass transit system too dependent on the farebox, underperforming schools, and of course, growing financial pressure on average New Yorkers. But New York has a wealth of resources to address those challenges. New York's people and its communities are the heart of the solution. Forty percent of the people who live in New York were born in other countries. This is now a majority-minority city. This diversity is an incredible asset in the global economy. We have over a million students in higher (post high school) education. In a brain-based economy we have one of the most highly educated populations in the world. And we have the spirit, the heart, the hustle and the energy of the city that never sleeps.

I believe that Bill de Blasio's landslide victory came in large measure from his ability to convey to most New Yorkers that he was one of them. Not a technocrat, not a professor, not a Wall Street Guy, not a serial tweeter, but a dad, a husband, and a family guy getting his teenager off to school. His ability to empathize and connect with people seemed to grow along with his poll numbers. He also tapped into the fear of many in the middle class that they were being shoved out of the city. Those excluded in the tale of two cities includes both the working poor and the middle class.

As mayor, with responsibility for the safety and wellbeing of eight million plus people, de Blasio will have a hard time keeping up a regular guy lifestyle. As a local leader, he will find it difficult to combat the forces of extreme economic inequality that have national, and even global, origins.

But a New York City mayor who is paying attention to the needs of poor and middle class communities is far from helpless. The city's wealth and economic dynamism can be creatively tapped to provide help for the economically vulnerable. If an increase in income tax is rejected by the state legislature, land use rules and targeted local tax breaks can be used instead. Just as the city could provide land to build a high-tech university on Roosevelt Island, city land can be given to developers willing to build housing for average New Yorkers.

New York has come back from the Great Depression, near bankruptcy, terrorist attacks and a superstorm. Our capacity to take a punch should never be underestimated. Nor should our ability to pick mayors appropriate for the challenges we face.