NYC Polarizing Under de Blasio, Great Challenges Ahead
De Blasio’s characterization of New York City under his predecessor and billionaire businessman Michael Bloomberg’s tenure as a “Tale of Two Cities” won the progressive Democrat a landslide victory. The issue resonated, as did the candidate’s vision for a more equal city.
De Blasio trounced his Republican opponent Joe Lhota among people of color, winning 96 percent of the black vote, 87 percent of the Hispanic vote, and 70 percent of the Asian vote. Among whites, he won 54 percent to Lhota’s 43 percent, according to exit polls conducted by Edison Research of Somerville, N.J.
His policies, and the legislation passed by a supportive City Council thus far have proven that the mayor was good for his word. Calling his style the “community activist approach,” scores of policies have been enacted that benefit people living on low incomes.
Yet, when a black man was killed in the process of an arrest by a white police officer this summer, and communities of color alleged racism on the part of the police, the mayor—whose children are biracial—was forced to face the issue of race and how it fits into the unified city he envisions.
The centerpiece of his income inequality strategy was to give every four-year-old an opportunity to attend full time prekindergarten. The approach of offering more and better early childhood education is widely supported as a way to pave opportunities for children.
And he made that happen, winning 1.5 billion from the state to fund pre-K for five years. This was after his proposal to tax the richest New Yorkers was rejected by Gov. Andrew Cuomo.
Aside from staffing announcements, notable for their diversity, De Blasio’s first months in office were chock-full of pre-K announcements—from the funding to hiring and training teachers, to setting up the schools, processing applicants, and getting started in September.
In the meantime, the new mayor was busy making progress on his other key initiatives, such as a drastic reduction of the controversial police practice of stop, question, and frisk. He inherited from the previous City Council new laws that limit the practice, as well as increased police department oversight.
Then there was the “Vision Zero” plan to reduce pedestrian deaths to zero, municipal ID cards to protect illegal immigrants, and paid sick leave, which was among the first laws council passed. He also set out an ambitious plan to preserve affordable housing, settled contracts with a majority of the largest city unions, and passed a balanced budget.
Yet de Blasio’s popularity has decreased, particularly among white voters, according to polling conducted by Quinnipiac University. By March, his approval rating among black voters was down to 60 percent, while more white voters disapproved (45 percent) than approved (39 percent). By Dec. 18, de Blasio’s approval rating among black voters was back up to 70 percent, among white voters it continued to fall, to 34 percent. A majority (56 percent) of white voters disapproved of the mayor.
“It’s a tale of two cities under New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio. Black voters think the mayor is terrific. White voters don’t approve. And the racial gap gets wider every time we ask,” said Quinnipiac University Poll Assistant Director Maurice Carroll in November.
Today, de Blasio has a new threat to contend with. His alignment with people of color, who feel unfairly treated by the police, has the mayor walking a thin line with the New York City Police Department and its supporters, who feel he has been insensitive to their concerns.
He has been heavily criticized for saying on a national TV program that he told his son Dante to be careful around the police. “Look, if a police officer stops you, do everything he tells you to do. Don’t move suddenly. Don’t reach for your cellphone,” he said. “Because we knew, sadly, there’s a greater chance it might be misinterpreted if it was a young man of color.” The mayor’s comments have been interpreted by police supporters as an affront to the police.
Last year the NYPD dealt with over 80,000 incidents involving weapons, and officers made 25,568 weapons arrests, according to NYPD data. Police restraint, evidenced by the number of incidents where police fired weapons (40), and the number of people injured (17) or killed (8) by police firearms, has never been lower.
And while the NYPD celebrates its achievements, thousands of protesters have taken to the streets to protest what they say is excessive use of force and racist policing policies, such as broken windows policing, which theorizes that stopping low level offenses like vandalism can curb more serious crime.
How the mayor handles this issue in 2015 and beyond will likely define his legacy. Let’s take a closer look.
A Death Drives Reforms
Eric Garner’s death ignited tensions among New Yorkers who felt the NYPD was too aggressively policing the city’s streets, especially in minority communities.
Officer Daniel Pantaleo tried to arrest the heavy-set, over-300-pound Garner for selling loose cigarettes, an example of broken windows policing. After Garner brushed away Pantaleo’s attempts to handcuff him, Pantaleo wrapped his arm around Garner’s neck while other officers jumped in to bring him down to the ground.
The violent arrest was caught on video by a passerby, and the version of truth it produced went viral, capturing the public’s attention. Everyone in New York had an opinion about what happened, and thousands felt the police officers were wrong, and took to the streets to protest.
De Blasio took quick steps to mend relations with the communities involved, first with a roundtable at City Hall where clergy sat together with Police Commissioner William Bratton. By September, the administration had promised a retraining program for the entire police department to learn how to use force. The details of the highly touted 3-day training program have not been made public.
After a grand jury decided not to indict the officer who restrained Garner, in early December de Blasio announced that he would speed up a pilot program to outfit officers with body cameras. Policing reform became the administration’s new priority.
During his mayoral bid, de Blasio had campaigned on a commitment to end stop and frisk, promising to repair what he said were broken relations between police and minorities who feel they are routinely profiled under the NYPD program.
The mayor chose Bratton to head the department because of his proven record of success in New York and Los Angeles in building trust between the police and the community. But the administration wasn’t compelled to tackle issues of race and policing head on until Garner’s death crystallized those concerns for the public.
The non-indictment sparked outrage, and calls for justice continued for weeks, with people gathering nightly to shut down streets in protest. Critics of the police department were not convinced that the mayor’s reforms would do much to change what they believed was a culture of brutality and racism within the police force.
While the mayor repeatedly voiced support for the protesters’ right to express their views through peaceful means, the city’s police unions felt the mayor hadn’t done enough to defend the police. Union leaders’ public criticism of the mayor, coupled with stalled contract negotiations between the unions and the city, drew de Blasio and the police rank-and-file further apart.
The mayor’s challenge of bridging the gap between police and the public met a major setback when two police officers were shot and killed Dec. 20 by an emotionally disturbed man from out of town, in apparent retaliation for Garner’s death.
In August de Blasio faced another mandate to fix the criminal justice system.
After a two-and-a-half year investigation, the U.S. Department of Justice released a scathing report about abuses at the city’s main jail complex, Rikers Island. The report revealed pervasive staff violence against inmates and the punishment of adolescent inmates with solitary confinement.
Admitting that he didn’t know about the correction department’s problems when he first took office, the mayor quickly vowed to implement reforms. He named it his administration’s top priority, calling it a “moral obligation” to improve conditions at Rikers.
He tasked his newly appointed Department of Correction Commissioner Joseph Ponte with making the necessary changes. Ponte came with a résumé of jail reform successes as a former commissioner of the Maine corrections system.
As with Bratton, the mayor hoped Ponte’s reformer background would help him resolve problems within the department that critics wanted fixed.
Alas, Ponte’s replacement of senior staff, elimination of solitary confinement for 16- and 17 year-olds, and other reforms didn’t happen swiftly enough for the federal authorities.
Federal prosecutors recently joined a class-action lawsuit against the city for violating the constitutional rights of inmates, citing similar abuses as the federal report against adult inmates.
As the city negotiates with the plaintiffs, the mayor has moved forward with more criminal justice reforms: he announced a $130 million initiative to divert people with behavioral and mental health problems away from incarceration—so that they stay away from Rikers Island altogether.
The administration says the effort is also part of their goal of improving relationships between police and people in the community whom they interact with. That goal has proved far more elusive than de Blasio ever imagined.
Broad Relief for Illegal Immigrants
On the immigration front, the mayor has achieved several major victories. In July, the City Council passed legislation to create a municipal ID program catered for immigrants who have stayed in the country illegally.
The free ID card will allow roughly 600,000 immigrants to open a bank account and provide identification to police officers, among other benefits. People will be able to apply for the IDs in January 2015.
City Council also passed a bill in October that prohibits the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) authorities from arresting and detaining illegal immigrants without a federal judge’s warrant. Their office at the Rikers Island jail complex will be shutting down as well.
With the U.S. Congress stalling on passing a comprehensive reform bill, President Barack Obama announced his executive action in November to provide work permits and relief from deportation for up to five million eligible immigrants.
De Blasio responded to the president’s action by announcing a summit with 20 mayors in New York.
Mayors discussed strategies to enroll as many eligible immigrants as possible into the president’s relief programs. The mayors also promised to lobby in Washington together in January to press their respective Congress representatives to pass a larger immigration bill.
New Benefits for Workers
Mayor Bill de Blasio campaigned as a mayor for the people, and raising the living wage and passing paid sick leave have been successes of his progressive agenda.
A bill requiring businesses to grant paid sick leave was introduced three years ago and never passed under the former administration. The new council expanded and strengthened the bill to cover over a million workers, and passed it swiftly.
It was the first bill de Blasio signed. After it went into effect, he and other elected officials celebrated with a public awareness campaign, handing out literature on the subway platforms in yellow T-shirts.
Raising the minimum wage has also been a tool de Blasio has vocally supported as a measure to create equality. In late September, he signed an executive order to raising the living wage from $11.90 to $13.13 per hour.
All workers in most developments receiving city subsidies will have to adhere to the living wage. It affects 18,000 jobs by a city estimate, compared to 1,200 under the old law. It notably removed an exemption for the Hudson Yards development on Manhattan’s West Side, which will now have to create jobs with living wages.
De Blasio has said workforce development was not done right under his predecessor. The focus had been on quantity rather than quality, Small Business Services Commissioner Maria Torres-Springer said at a press conference announcing an overhaul of the workforce development program.
The mayor’s goal is to partner with companies in tech, health care, manufacturing, and construction so the training aligns with employers’ needs. The focus is on high-growth sectors.
“We are confronting inequality in every way we can, and the changes we are putting in place today will be a cornerstone of our broader efforts,” de Blasio said at the announcement.
Last fall, mayoral candidate Bill de Blasio released a comprehensive plan for eliminating street fatalities: Vision Zero. It takes after the Swedish initiative of the same name with the goal of reducing traffic fatalities to zero within a decade.
In February, the mayor released a 63-point plan to redesign streets, expand enforcement, and broadly educate all users of the streets. Fifteen street safety bills and resolutions were quickly passed by City Council.
And traffic fatalities have come down. There were 256 traffic fatalities in 2014 as of Dec. 23, compared to 286 traffic fatalities in 2013.
The Department of Transportation has over 40 street redesign projects in the works, plus other slow zone and bike route projects. The speed limit has been reduced to 25 mph from 30 mph, and the state has allowed the use of additional traffic cameras.
Public service announcements about street safety started playing in taxis early on. Posters, signs, and signals about slowing down went up a few months after. Police officers have been knocking on drivers’ windows, handing them brochures on safe driving.
Safe taxi drivers are being honored by the city, and reckless drivers are given more severe punishments from a change in the points system. The various agencies now cooperate to investigate crashes. But some legal changes to penalties have yet to come. A new law has made it so drivers can be charged with a misdemeanor if they hit someone with the right of way, but the NYPD is still working on a comprehensive way to implement the rule across the department.
A hallmark of de Blasio’s campaign to tackle the “tale of two cities” has been creating and preserving affordable housing. It is the bedrock of New York City, and what makes economically diverse neighborhoods possible, according to the mayor, and the city has an “affordability crisis.”
The majority of New Yorkers are rent burdened by federal definition, spending over 30 percent of their income on rent. And about a third of New Yorkers spend over half their income on rent.
Late spring, the mayor released a ten-year housing plan to create or preserve 200,000 units—even more than he had pushed for as public advocate.
The plan is far from concrete in detail. Every development is different, and will have to be approached on a case-by-case basis. The administration is capitalizing on the strength of the current real estate market, so the gist of the approach to creating affordable housing is to allow more density in exchange for more affordable units. For preservation, agencies have been working to streamline the mess of archaic procedures so more building owners can apply for more subsidies, more easily.
At a time when gentrification and displacement are such huge concerns, councillors have made it clear the the communities’ voices have to be heard, if the mayor wants to avoid the same criticisms they have made of his predecessor.
Advocates have praised the mayor’s dedication to using a community-based approach, and developers have been increasing the amount of affordable housing in their projects one by one.
Gone are the days of 80/20, where developments that set aside 20 percent of their units were given tax breaks or subsidies in exchange. The biggest change to the process is that affordable housing is now a requirement for any project that gets built because of a zoning change.
Astoria Cove, a waterfront development in Queens, was the first project to undergo the entire review process under the new administration. Various interest groups had latched on during negotiations, pushing for everything from union labor to zoning changes in Brooklyn.
Ultimately the project got a green light from City Hall with 27 percent of the residential floor area set aside for affordable units.
Broken Promises, a Share of Controversy
For the most part, Mayor Bill de Blasio has pushed forward a progressive agenda as promised. But at the year’s end, there are several substantial issues he left in the dust.
One of the first items de Blasio promised during his campaign was to ban horse carriages for the mistreatment of animals. This won him substantial campaign funding and support from animal activists.
Sixty-seven percent of New Yorkers oppose the ban, according to a December Quinnipiac University poll.
Jeanne Zaino, political science professor at Iona College, said “The horse carriage issue was an all-out political deal.”
“‘I will promise this and I will push for this, if you support me,'” she said.
De Blasio delayed carrying out his promise until Dec. 8. The bill was introduced with backing from City Council members who supported the mayor. The bill offers alternative jobs to the workers, such as as drivers of green taxis or old-fashioned electric carriages, and council members remain open to other suggestions.
However, the bill pitted him against labor unions trying to protect the 300 jobs at stake. It was a role reversal for a mayor who has gained ground through labor union support.
Another long-standing issue that dates back to his public advocate days before he was mayor is de Blasio’s continuous calls to keep money-losing Long Island College Hospital (LICH) open. He had written a letter urging the governor to action and had been arrested in 2013 at a State University of New York (SUNY) protest where he rallied to save LICH. “No hospital, no peace,” he once chanted.
“The loss of these vital healthcare facilities would jeopardize the health of tens of thousands,” he wrote to Gov. Andrew Cuomo.
Yet despite his efforts, in May, all Long Island College Hospital services except the emergency department closed down. De Blasio’s office released a statement at the end of September calling for SUNY to save LICH. The mayor’s office continued negotiations with SUNY behind closed doors, yet the end result is that the bulk of the former hospital will be turned into condos.
The administration also has not been successful with the Build it Back recovery program for victims of Superstorm Sandy—a program plagued with delays and false starts, causing many residents who had applied to become disillusioned after seeing no results. Although the mayor has gotten reimbursement checks moving again, and instituted some important reforms, critics say that he has not focused enough on the issue.
Work in Progress
Homelessness increased by 6 percent in New York City in 2014 compared to the year before, according to the 2014 Annual Homeless Assessment Report to Congress by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. New York City has the largest number of homeless people in the country, for a total of 67,810, according to a January count.
Under de Blasio, the budget to address homelessness is at an all time high, with $105 million added in 2014 to address rising costs, after a failed attempt to renegotiate with short term shelter landlords, according to a 2014 report by the New York City Independent Budget Office.
In 2014, the city opened 23 new homeless shelters, in every borough except Staten Island. De Blasio has also continued previous mayor Michael Bloomberg’s practice of sending the homeless to live with family outside of the state through one-way plane or bus tickets.
The mayor also drew New Yorkers’ ire when snow on the Upper East Side was left unplowed, even when Brooklyn streets were clear and schools were kept open. Critics quipped that the mayor who seeks to tackle inequality of all kinds didn’t take complaints from the affluent neighborhood seriously.
He also sparked public outrage when his habitual tardiness caused him to miss a moment of silence for plane crash victims memorial.
That’s also something he needs to work on in his second year, said Zaino.