Just six months in, New York’s progressive mayor Bill de Blasio has already exceeded expectations. The new mayor, and first Democratic mayor in two decades was sworn in on January 1, 2014, promising that New York City would no longer be a “two city” model with rampant income inequality and skyrocketing rent. Mayor de Blasio promised a new day and a clean break from the cozy with Wall Street Bloomberg era, and so far, he’s delivered on that central promise.
I sat down with Mayor de Blasio (along with Salon’s Joan Walsh and The Nation’s Katrina vanden Heuvel), to discuss his universal pre-K program, plans for build affordable housing units, and the status of reforms to the unconstitutional stop and frisk policy that unfairly targets youth of color.
Is Mayor de Blasio’s administration the answer to many of the issues facing Black New Yorkers for a generation? Can success with universal pre-K, stop and frisk, and affordable housing in New York City – all things Black New Yorkers desperately need – be a model for other cities around the country?
The first big challenge was pushing through his promise of universal pre-K which would surely face partisan opposition. Mayor de Blasio was criticized by many as unrealistic for insisting his universal pre-kindergarten plan would come to fruition but a year after he campaigned on the program, it got done. New York City children now begun receiving letters detailing their acceptance to pre-K programs. Last week, Mayor de Blasio kicked off his universal pre-K “Day of Action” rally inside Tweed Courthouse, hoping to raise awareness about the program in all five boroughs.
“[It’s amazing. It’s joyous,” Mayor de Blasio told EBONY, “I have been through that experience, first of all; that is, the moment as a parent when you receive the letters [informing you that your child has been accepted to a pre-K program]. I had that experience with Chiara and Dante and have gotten that very same letter, and it was an amazing moment. You’re right that we had that moment in mind when we proposed and executed this plan, knowing what it means for a child’s life, for a family’s life.”
It’s one of the de Blasio family’s strengths that they are not a member of the 1%, like the former mayor, and that life experience allows them to more intimately connect policy with the daily lives. Black New Yorkers are battling gentrification, skyrocketing rent, and unconstitutional stop and frisk policies, and the mayor’s multi-racial family is able to understand that on an intimate level.
The three-term Bloomberg era may have been good for Wall Street and Bloomberg himself, but income inequality went in the wrong direction during his tenure. Currently, 1 in 5 New Yorkers lives below the poverty line. Mayor de Blasio says that universal pre-K is the first step in a multi-prong approach to tackling income inequality because the key component to any plan is improving education for New York City’s children so that they can be better prepared for elementary school and beyond. Universal pre-K, paid sick leave, and raising the minimum wage are three policy ideas that Mayor de Blasio is pushing hard.
Mayor de Blasio told EBONY, “Pre-K is to provide that educational foundation for the child. Extend the school day, and deepen learning and spark the connection to education. And paid sick leave is to help people get well and not lose income. But all of it also is part of creating an actual livable society where everyone—and this is in many cases, particularly true for women and particularly true for women single heads-of-household—gets the kind of support they need to be able to succeed, and that the notion of family in whatever form it takes is supported truly and not just with rhetoric. So, to be inspired to do something to the scale we have done, you have to be able to visualize what it means to people. And when we put forward now, over a year and a half ago, as a notion, there was a very substantial internal debate, like, “How much do we want to cross the Rubicon here?””
Regarding an urban agenda, that can be used as a template for other cities, Mayor de Blasio says that New York can set the tone and be an example for how to do it the right way and make the daily lives of your constituents just a little bit easier. And even as partisans on the national level hunker down in their positions, maintaining congressional gridlock, on the local level income inequality is no longer partisan.
“I went to DC in December. The president called together all the newly elected mayors. I was expecting a lot of ideological range. There were mainly Democrats, a few Republicans, all different parts of the country, all different kinds of cities. I was just sort of expecting, you know, very different messages in the room, and we all respect each other and we all, you know, generically think its great to be a mayor. And instead it was like this inequality seminar, like around the whole room that’s what everyone wanted to talk about, and they said it in different ways. Some talked about poverty, some talked about pre-K and early childhood education. Some talked about economic growth and development but from an inequality perspective—that too many people were being left out, and there was this amazing resonance, and it really struck me, having done this work a long time, I kind of was like jolted to hear such resonance. […]The more local you are, the more intensely you get it. And so, mayors know we simply have to attend to it. It’s simply mission-critical.”
One of the biggest struggles for New Yorkers of color is the cost of housing. For the first time ever, the de Blasio administration worked with the. This spring, Mayor de Blasio his $41 billion dollar, affordable housing plan, which would build and preserve 200,000 units of affordable housing over the course of the next decade. The de Blasio administration will also increase the rent protections that are in place for low income people, while requiring developers to include below-market apartments in newly zoned areas. Mayor de Blasio sees the foundation for upward mobility as living wages, affordable housing and paid leave that allows families to take care of each other when needs arise.
“Let me start, and tell me if I’m on the right track in terms of what you’re trying to get at. So sort of the economic justice platform or the fight against income inequality—I think it begins with the raising of benefits and wages in every way we can, so that is the paid sick leave legislation. […] Why shouldn’t local officials use their power to influence and even some of their tools to foster union organizing, which just protects the citizenry and the taxpayer in the end? Because if people have stable family incomes and benefits they will not require the need for public help, so it’s morally right, it’s practically right. So, there’s that whole swath, and then there is sort of macroeconomic development with a purpose. So we obviously have a whole series of things we want to do in terms of macroeconomic development: expanding the tech sector and all sorts of things, but we’re trying to do it in a way that gets more New Yorkers hired, more people that have not had as much economic opportunity hired. And we’re trying to make economic growth come with good strings attached, and then, and a lot of smart use of the public toolbox.”
“Then, there’s affordable housing, because it’s the number-one expense—housing—in this city, everywhere. If you can lower that, that’s another way of addressing income inequality, and if you lower it for ultimately half a million people, which is what the plan would reach in ten years. And then there’s the long-term work, which is the pre-K and after-school. If you educate people more effectively early, kids early, it obviously empowers them economically for the future. It obviously reduces a lot of the negative outcomes and the costly outcomes. But I think what we’re learning is that you have to do all of the above and ferociously if you actually want to turn this,” says Mayor de Blasio.
As a major campaign issue, reforms to stop and frisk were at the top of the agenda and some skeptics cringed at the selection of Bill Bratton to head the NYPD. So far though, reforms and a change in tone appears to be attempting to break through the hostile narrative that creates mistrust between the police and the community. It’s still early, but Mayor de Blasio is pleased with how Commissioner Bratton’s leadership is creating a new direction for how the police interact with communities of color. “On the overall policing front, this, you know, we always do, from my point of view, the right way to think is, where do we want to be at the end of this journey? By definition, what product, what metrics, what outcomes? I could not be more pleased with what [Commissioner] Bratton has done in terms of such a tense first set of steps to repair the relationship between police and community. And he and I were talking this morning and we both noted that we do not have community leaders—who we both talk to all the time—we don’t have them saying that there is a current tension around stop-and-frisk at the neighborhood level. It’s always something we have to keep working on. It’s endless work of reform, but today in New York City, juxtaposing a year ago in New York City, there’s a strong assumption that, not only are the numbers of bad stops clearly reduced, but the tonality, the respect levels, the cooperation level, that’s a whole different thing, that’s kind of record time in my view, and he gets a lot of credit for them. [Commissioner Bratton] came back and looked at a program that he thought was not only unfair but ineffective, and he believed, like everything he’s always believed, that the better way to fight crime, to fight terror, is with community and with that deep connection,” says the mayor.
He continues: “Even though we’re experiencing some challenges that we have to address aggressively—and we will—certain places in the city are having some real challenges in crime, and particularly in certain housing developments, the bigger picture is that this big series of reforms was implemented very fast and has helped policing, because the relationship with the community is repairing rapidly. […] I was in East New York (Brooklyn) this morning for the wake of this poor young man’s murder, and talked to some of the community leaders, and one of them said to me, in the handling of this tragedy and everything after, he said, it was a very nice way of saying, he said that, what it says on the side of the squad car—courtesy, professionalism, respect—we experienced that in these last days, which we had not in the past. Police were all over trying to help the community through the crisis, so that really is the gateway to a safer city. We’re very convinced of that. We’re convinced this is going to really be foundational.”
Black New Yorkers and longtime skeptics of the transformational change that Mayor de Blasio sees in this moment will likely watch closely as the ambitious mayor bucks historic norms and attempts for the first time in a generation to address the growing gulf between the rich and poor that so plagues the Big Apple. What his true legacy will be remains to be seen, but the possibilities are rich with the potential to improve the lives of people across the country.