Cities sometimes make swerves. That’s what New York did in November when it elected a left-wing Democrat, Bill de Blasio, as mayor. The city was saying, “Enough with the past, let’s try something new.” There’s no doubt they will get it.
Mayors Rudy Giuliani (1994-2001) and Mike Bloomberg (2002-13) led a renaissance of the city, which had half-killed itself in the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s with bankruptcy, labor unrest and high crime rates. The city was thought to be unworkable, finished. For Mayor Giuliani the job was to stabilize, get the criminals off the street, let people feel safe again. Once that was done New York’s natural hunger and high spirits would reassert themselves, businesses would thrive and hire. He left behind a safer, more prosperous city. And there was the parting gift of his last days as mayor, during 9/11 and its aftermath, when—love him or hate him—he showed what a leader looked like.
Mike Bloomberg, sworn in weeks later, had to lead the city as it righted itself, got over the trauma and refound its confidence. His job was to shake off the ashes and dust, expand and diversify the economy, help create jobs, lower crime rates even further, move forward. He succeeded. The other night at his last dinner as mayor, one of his daughters’ eyes filled with tears as she thanked him, in a toast, for leaving behind a city that her son could be proud of, love, and live in forever.
These imperfect men with their imperfect administrations and their big mistakes—they made a masterpiece. In the past 20 years, other American cities were going down—Detroit most famously—while New York not only became again what it was, the greatest city on the face of the Earth, but it looked like it, and felt like it.
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Why did New York swerve from that path instead of continuing on it? A lot of reasons. You have to have some years on you to remember New York when it didn’t work—to even know that it’s not magically ordained that it will. You have to be older than 30 or so to remember when it wasn’t safe.
In 1991, there were 2,245 murders in New York. In 2013, there were 333. If you’re a 20-year-old voter, or a 40-year-old voter who came to the city from elsewhere, you don’t remember 1991, and how it felt. You don’t remember garbage strikes and grime. Your vision of the city is as it was in the Giuliani-Bloomberg era, a city ever rising.
And New York is a Democratic town. Sooner or later it was going to swerve. Though the largely untold story is that voter turnout in November was historically low. Only about a million of 4.3 million registered voters showed up at the polls. Bill de Blasio won in landslide, but it was a landslide from a severely reduced pile of voters.
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No one knows exactly what’s coming, but Mr. de Blasio’s inaugural address on Wednesday was not promising. Whether you are a conservative or a liberal, you can choose, as a leader, to be a uniter or a divider. Mr. de Blasio seems very much the latter. He is on the side of the poor and the marginalized, which is good, but he took every opportunity to jab at those who are not poor and don’t live on the margins. “Big dreams are not a luxury of the privileged few,” he said. Whoever said they were? He is a political descendant of those “who took on the elite.” New York “is not the exclusive domain of the One Percent.” Who said it was? His campaign promises—more spending, higher taxes—are not, he said, just “rhetoric.” There was a repeated refrain: “We won’t wait. We’ll do it now.”
This mayor will “reform” the stop-and-frisk policy of the New York Police Department. Exactly how, he didn’t say. But stop, question and frisk has been part of the kind of policing that helped New York reduce crime.
“We will ask the very wealthy to pay a little more in taxes so that we can offer full-day, universal pre-K and after-school programs for every middle school student.” The wealthy should not complain. “Those earning between $500,000 and one million dollars a year, for instance, would see their taxes increase by an average of $973 a year. That’s less than three bucks a day—about the cost of a small soy latte at your local Starbucks.”
Ah, those latte-swilling debutantes and malefactors of great wealth.
There was no mention of the most famous impediment to educational improvement and reform: the teachers unions.
Mr. de Blasio acknowledges that his “progressive vision” is not supported by everyone. “Some on the far right continue to preach the virtue of trickle-down economics. They believe that the way to move forward is to give more to the most fortunate, and that somehow the benefits will work their way down to everyone else. They sell their approach as the path of ‘rugged individualism.’ ” But don’t worry, he doesn’t want to “punish success,” he wants to “create more success stories.”
It isn’t hard to unpack this. Those who oppose Mr. de Blasio are greedy and uncaring. They don’t offer a point of view, they “preach,” and what they preach is that the poor should be satisfied with the crumbs that fall from the tables of the rich. They “sell” this argument—my goodness, they’re trying to make money even while discussing politics—but the flawed product they peddle is “rugged individualism,” a phrase that hasn’t been used in this city in a century. But even rugged individualists, he quotes former New York Mayor Fiorello La Guardia as saying, can’t survive in the midst of “collective starvation.” And you thought Mike Bloomberg left New York in pretty good shape.
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An inaugural address is a big thing. It declares an agenda but also sets a tone. An attitude. The tone Mr. de Blasio set was that of a divider.
A uniter’s approach would have been one that was both more morally generous and more honest. It wouldn’t set one group against the other, it would have asserted that all New Yorkers are in this together. Something along this approach: “To those who earn half a million dollars or more a year, we know and understand that your weekly paycheck is already subject to federal, state and city taxes. Which means we know you already contribute a great deal, and not only through taxes. So many of our citizens are deeply civic-minded. They give their time and effort to helping their local churches and synagogues; to building civic organizations; to raising funds for the poor and the hungry; to volunteering for literacy programs; and donating their wealth to keep the arts and the museums going. In our town, much has always been asked of those to whom much has been given—and they have come through. They have helped build a ladder. And now we are going to make that ladder sturdier, stronger, higher and wider so more of our young can use it.”
What was absent in Mr. 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 vs. them, of zero-sum politics.
It was not a promising beginning. Or rather what it promises is unfortunate. I already miss Mike.