Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Bill de Blasio, first Democrat Mayor of NYC in Almost Two Decades

So Bill de Blasio is Mayor of New York, the first Democrat to hold that office in two decades. His populist message - the gist of which is that New York City can flourish without leaving so many behind, and which conservative are of course interpreting as socialist – gave him overwhelming support. He got 73% of the vote; the most since Ed Koch, who later described himself as a “liberal with sanity”, won by 68 points in 1985.

When de Blasio entered the race for Mayor in January 2013 nobody thought he could win. Early polls showed him in fourth or fifth place. That he won with a landslide shows how frustrated so many New Yorkers were with the old order and hungry for a new one.

De Blasio was born to a father of German heritage and a mother whose parents immigrated to the US from Benevento, Italy. When he was 7 his father, who had fought many wars, left home for the first time and de Blasio was 8 when his parents divorced. He was raised by the Italian side of his family. When he was 18 his father, who had lung cancer by then, committed suicide.  So de Blasio has known hardship from a young age.   

He studied at New York University and Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs.  In 1981 he got a Harry S. Truman Scholarship, a prestigious and very competitive federal scholarship given to U.S. college juniors for demonstrated leadership potential and a commitment to public service.  

After Columbia, de Blasio worked as a political organiser for the Quixote Center and was an ardent supporter of the Sandinistas in Nicaragua.  Later he worked for a non-profit organization that focused on health care in Central America, before he shifted to American city politics in 1989 when he volunteered as a co-ordinator for David Dunkin’s campaign for mayor. After that he worked as an aide in City Hall. Then for two years he was regional director for the Department of Housing and Urban Development. During his tenure he increased federal funding for senior citizens’ affordable housing. 

In 1994 De Blasio married African American activist and poet Chirlane McCray. They're still married and have two children, Chiara and Dante.

De Blasio worked for Hilary Clinton’s 2000 campaign and then ran for New York City’s 39th district. In 2001 he won with 32% of the vote. In his second term in 2003 he won with 72% and in his third term in 2005 he won with 83%.

On the City Council, de Blasio passed a law to stop landlords discriminating against tenants with federal housing subsidy vouchers. He helped pass a law to improve housing services for low income New Yorkers with HIV/AIDS and another law to protect transgender New Yorkers. He also passed a law to ensure that same sex couples in a legal partnership could have the same legal benefits as heterosexual couples in New York City. During his tenure, a law was passed that helped non-English speakers get free language assistance when accessing government programs. 

In January 2001 he was inaugurated as Public Advocate.  In that role he was very critical of Mayor Bloomberg’s education policies. He opposed proposals to eliminate free Metro cards for students, and $34 million budget cuts to child services. In 2010 he organized the NYC’s Worst Landlord Watchlist and in 2011 he organized parents and communities to protest against cuts that would cause 4,600 teachers to lose their jobs. Bloomberg agreed to find the money elsewhere in the budget.

In his campaign for Mayor de Blasio outlined a plan raise taxes on residents earning over $500,000 a year to pay for pre-kindergarten and after-school programs at middle schools. He also has vowed to invest $150 million every year into the City University of New York, to lower tuition fees and improve programs. 

He has also been very vocal in his belief that corporations shouldn’t be allowed to buy elections and he has used the office of Public Advocate to study how stop and frisk is being applied in New York. That study revealed alarming racial problems.  He has called for new NYPD leadership, an inspector general and a strong anti-racial profiling bill, as well as greater police accountability. He aims also to increase police resources, and to work hard towards mending broken relations between police and communities. 

De Blasio also supports common sense gun safety. It’s going to be an interesting few years in that great city. People who love to hate liberals have pronounced New York’s doom. They almost gleefully predict that the city will return to its days of out-of-control crime. But then they predicted that the US would become a Marxist state when Barack Obama was elected. And recent figures for the deficit show that it’s at 4.1% of GDP – the lowest since World War II, and less than half of what it was when Obama first took office.

I think that de Blasio and New York are going to do just fine. New York's success has been the result of twisted principles for too long. A society can keep going for a while on that but eventually it disintegrates. Then leaders with greater humanity have to step up. And in New York one just did.