The Equity Factor

Bill de Blasio Is Running On Change, But Can New Yorkers Believe In It?

Bill de Blasio has struck a nerve with New Yorkers. His campaign against inequality could win him the job, but does he have the chops to get it done?

Bill de Blasio with his wife Chirlane McCray in 2011. Credit: Bill de Blasio

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The New York City mayoral primary is one week from today. Tonight, the Democratic candidates will spar in one final debate. And Bill de Blasio, the city’s public advocate, has surged to a lead in the polls on a promise to curb inequality.

But the question remains: Is de Blasio the expert progressive strategist his campaign is selling? Or is he, to borrow words from his 18-year-old daughter, “another boring white guy” selling voters on idealistic promises he won’t be able to keep?

If you look at his years as a city councilmember, it’s hard to tell. De Blasio was a supporter of the Atlantic Yards project and remarks he made at a hearing in 2006 could have been taken from a Bloomberg administration press release. “I support the project because I believe that we’re at a crisis in New York City when it comes to affordable housing,” he said at the time. “And I think we’re in a crisis when it comes to economic development and providing real jobs for the community.” Whereas Tish James, who is running for public advocate, the position de Blasio vacated to run for mayor, was one of the project’s most vocal critics. “Broken promises litter the Atlantic Yards project,” she said in 2011.

Dana Rubinstein has an excellent, must-read piece at Capital New York about de Blasio’s development approach that touches on his Bloombergian tendencies. “De Blasio’s record as a councilman demonstrated a willingness to work with developers to spur economic development and tackle the city’s affordable housing crisis, using an approach to land use that at times bore a strong resemblance to Bloomberg’s own,” Rubinstein wrote.

Which means that like his predecessor, de Blasio would only go so far with his progressive agenda. Bloomberg’s 10-year affordable housing plan was a good start — 165,00 units, some preserved and some new — but it’s certainly not enough. There are critical differences between the two men, like de Blasio’s support for mandatory inclusionary zoning, which is important and should lead to more economically diverse neighborhoods, at least in theory.

De Blasio, who worked for New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo when the latter ran the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, pushed for more affordable housing units through an inclusionary requirement when Fourth Avenue was rezoned in Brooklyn, but eventually buckled when the planning department stood its ground. He “voted for the rezoning anyway, citing the fact that it would, at least, help control the demand for market rate housing in the neighborhood,” Rubinstein wrote.

Matt Yglesias wrote last month that de Blasio won’t fix New York’s raging economic divides because it’s an issue that only national policies can tackle. “Raising unrealistic expectations that city government can tackle fundamental questions of social justice is at best a recipe for disappointment,” Yglesias wrote. He’s mostly right — liberal New Yorkers are setting themselves up for disappointment if they think de Blasio will be able to turn the clock back on decades of decisions about development, social services and rent regulation when takes over City Hall — but the mayor can can create policies and programs that at least attempt to solve problems.

Which is why de Blasio’s Tale Of Two Cities platform persists. It’s a believable platform that’s as genial as Obama’s 2008 campaign. New York hasn’t had a Democratic mayor in 20 years. That’s a long time for a liberal stronghold, which might be why recent polls have shifted toward de Blasio. He’s positioned himself against the Bloomberg years and Christine Quinn, whom many feel, despite her Democratic bonafides, would just be an extension of Bloomberg’s policies.

All the horse-race political journalism has lauded de Blasio for a well-run campaign. He wants stop-and-frisk reform. Say what you want about exploitation, but he put his mixed-race son front and center on the trail. And yesterday at the West Indies parade along Eastern Parkway in Crown Heights, he had the biggest crew of supporters — both in his float and along the route, at least where I was standing. He has everyone’s attention when it matters most.

Some of de Blasio’s supporters have expressed concern about the depth of his commitment to the Tale Of Two Cities approach. It’s great on paper, but how does this equitable concept play out in 21st-century New York? Is it even politically feasible?

“I think he has a big-picture equitable development vision,” Brad Lander, a longtime affordable housing advocate who succeeded de Blasio as councilmember, told me. “He’s very skilled at coalition-building and policy. He’s smart and he has the patience for actually understanding all the policy details. That combination is a big part of why I’m optimistic that he has the necessary tools to make the vision of a more just and equitable city real.”

Lander filled De Blasio’s shoes on the city council and has a sterling track record of helping New York’s poor, so his endorsement carries a lot of weight in housing advocate circles. But you have to wonder: If politics forces de Blasio into the same rough spot in which he found himself during the Fourth Avenue rezoning, will he be able to wrest free and get done the things New Yorkers expect him to do? Is he more nimble now than he was in Park Slope?

The Equity Factor is made possible with the support of the Surdna Foundation.

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Bill Bradley is a writer and reporter living in Brooklyn. His work has appeared in Deadspin, GQ, and Vanity Fair, among others.

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Tags: new york cityreal estateincome inequalityequity factormichael bloombergminimum wagebill de blasio2013 mayoral racesatlantic yards

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