Bill de Blasio, Democratic nominee for Mayor of New York City
This week, Michael Powell wrote for the New York times that a potential Mayor Bill de Blasio might not be such a departure from Mayor Mike Bloomberg, because Bloomberg has been a far more progressive mayor than city Democrats are giving him credit for.
That's true. But there's another reason he might not be such a departure from the center-left Bloomberg model: De Blasio is not as left-wing as either his supporters or his opponents tend to think.
When people talk about de Blasio as a new standard bearer for the progressive left, they focus on a few things: His rhetoric about New York being "a tale of two cities"; the horror that he seems to inspire in certain parts of the city's business establishment; his call for a tax increase on city residents making over $500,000; and his strong opposition to the NYPD's heavy use of "stop & frisk."
All except the last of these are bad benchmarks.
Rhetoric is just rhetoric. And de Blasio's tax proposal is both small and unlikely to become law. He would raise income taxes by 0.55 percentage points on high earners, generating enough revenue to increase the city's budget by $530 million a year, out of a total of $70 billion. The state legislature will likely shoot down the proposal anyway.
De Blasio's tax plan is far more important as a talking point, and a demonstration that he stands for the people against the powerful, than it is as fiscal policy.
If we want to figure out how left-wing a mayor de Blasio would be, we should focus on the four really important policy issues that the mayor actually has lots of control over: Housing and real estate development, education, policing, and employee compensation. The picture on these is a mixed bag.
Housing and real estate development:
De Blasio has been rhetorically critical of high-end development in New York City. In an interview with The Real Deal, a real estate publication, he remarked that " Towering, glitzy buildings marketed to the global elite is not the type of development New Yorkers are looking for."
He has called for the city to stop making unneeded tax giveaways to developers for luxury developments, and has said he would require the construction of more affordable housing, with a goal of adding or preserving 220,000 affordable units in the city.
This doesn't make de Blasio a left-winger.
People often think of affordable housing as an issue that pits developers against the left: Will we let them build luxury condos or will we make them build for the middle class? But de Blasio's approach to affordable housing looks designed to create a win-win: more density, more development, more affordable housing as part of that development, more developer profits, and more real estate taxes collected by the city.
In that Real Deal interview, de Blasio twice said the city should increase as-of-right development (that is, upzone) in exchange for added affordable housing. That is, in exchange for building the affordable units he wants, he will let developers build more overall.
He also supports several market-based approaches to increasing the supply of housing, such as greater use of transferrable development rights (letting landowners sell one parcel's development rights to be used elsewhere) and legalizing accessory units (letting you rent out your basement). He also wants to raise the taxes on vacant land, in order to encourage landowners to build already.
On the other hand, he says he wants the city to be allowed to impose its own rent control laws. Fortunately, Albany won't allow that.
Even though de Blasio is often painted as an opponent of the city's overclass, he's done quite well raising money from the real estate industry. As Derek Kravitz wrote for The New Yorker last week, he was a frequent booster of development during his time on the city council. He gave a speech in July where he focused on the need to maximize development in the city in order to create jobs. “We can’t afford a process rife with delays, subject to knee-jerk NIMBY ism and tangled in bureaucracy,” he said.
So de Blasio looks set to be a pro-development mayor like Bloomberg. In fact, he may well be better for development than Bloomberg in two ways.
One, by tying his upzoning proposals to the issue of affordable housing, he may more easily overcome the opposition of neighbors who don't want tall buildings and construction noise. Two, if he's able to get developers to do what he wants by offering them greater density, he may not be as inclined as Bloomberg to offer sweetheart tax and subsidy deals.
On housing and real estate issues: Not left wing.
De Blasio wants the aforementioned income tax increase to pay for an expansion of the city's pre-Kindergarten program and after-school programs for middle school students. He wants to de-empahsize testing and change the way the city admits students to magnet schools. He thinks the Bloomberg Administration has been too quick to close troubled schools. And he wants charter schools to start paying rent when they use public school buildings.
All those positions put him to the left of Bloomberg (and the rest of the city's pro-reform establishment) on education issues. But they didn't put him far enough to the left to get the endorsement of the United Federation of Teachers in the primary: They backed former Comptroller Bill Thompson.
On education: Pretty left wing.
The biggest policing issue in the campaign has been stop-and-frisk. De Blasio has called for a reduction in its use, a ban on racial profiling in policing, an independent inspector general to oversee the NYPD (recently approved by the City Council over Bloomberg's veto), and a new police commissioner to replace Ray Kelly.
This is a major distinction from Bloomberg and from the Republican nominee to replace him, former Deputy Mayor Joe Lhota: they both think the NYPD is doing basically the right thing with its aggressive stop and frisk practices.
De Blasio wants the NYPD to de-emphasize marijuana enforcement. On that issue, Lhota is to his left: He's for marijuana legalization. (Sadly, the city can't legalize marijuana on its own; that would require state legislative action.)
De Blasio also stresses the need for alternatives to incarceration and initiatives to help offenders reintegrate into society when they get out of prison. This is more a continuation of the Bloomberg approach than a departure. One of Bloomberg's proudest accomplishments is that he has reduced the city's jail population by half. And the area's top proponents of prisoner re-entry programs are centrists: Newark Mayor Cory Booker (D) and New Jersey Governor Chris Christie (R).
On crime: To the left on one important issue (stop-and-frisk) but otherwise in step with the establishment.
About 50% of New York City's municipal budget is spent on employee wages and benefits. The better a mayor controls these costs, the more money he will have for anything else he wants to do.
Mayor Bloomberg gave out fairly generous wage increases during his first two terms as mayor but has refused to sign any union contracts with raises in his third term due to the fiscal stress created by the recession. As a result, most of the city's employee unions have been out of contract for four years.
They're holding out, hoping the next mayor will give them a retroactive pay increase, but it's not clear where the money for that would come from. The city's reserve funds are depleted. Partly that's because pension and health benefit costs have continued to rise sharply even while wages have been flat.
My hunch is that de Blasio would be too inclined to make giveaways to the city's unions. But it's really just a hunch. Like most of his Democratic opponents in the primary, he's been studiously vague about employee compensation issues, including retroactive raises and whether city workers should start paying part of their health insurance premiums. He says (probably correctly) that it's unwise to negotiate in public.
It's also worth noting that de Blasio did not get many public employee union endorsements in the primary. Comptroller John Liu got District Council 37, the city's largest public workers' union; Thompson got the teachers and most of the public safety unions. So, the groups most interested in finding a mayor who would give away the farm to public workers didn't think de Blasio was their best bet.
On employee compensation: maybe left-wing. We'll have to wait to find out.
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