Bill de Blasio and the Future of Progressive New York

On Tuesday New York City elected its first progressive mayor in a generation, and only its second in a very long time. Mayor-elect Bill de Blasio has deep roots in New York's progressive politics. De Blasio worked for New York's last progressive mayor, David Dinkins, something for which he was fruitlessly attacked by Joe Lhota, the Republican nominee. De Blasio also has strong ties to labor unions and progressive causes in New York and beyond.

Significantly, de Blasio's election was not the result of a long progressive crusade, but was due to a well-run campaign, a smart and disciplined candidate, the puzzling collapse of the front-runner's campaign, brilliant media work, and a few lucky breaks. This is not to belittle de Blasio's victory, as it remains true that in the face of long odds, de Blasio won the Democratic primary handily and trounced his Republican opponent in the general election.

Winning the general election by acclamation, as de Blasio essentially did, is nice, but it raises some problems. Expectations for de Blasio will be big, but varied. Some will want him to make radical changes, others will want him to continue many of Bloomberg's policies but without the governmental and rhetorical sharp edges. Still others will want him to move the city in a different election entirely.

Balancing these expectations while implementing his agenda is a difficult challenge, but it is also the crux of governance. In his first few months, perhaps even weeks in office, de Blasio will have to signal to more conservative New Yorkers that he is not the wide-eyed revolutionary that his detractors suggest he is. He has already begun to do this in the campaign. At the same time, de Blasio has to deliver some victories to his progressive base almost immediately. For example, changing the stop and frisk policy in his first weeks in office would send a strong message to progressive New Yorkers, while not dismantling some of Bloomberg's more successful policies will assuage the concerns of more conservative New Yorkers.

The most interesting opportunity facing de Blasio is that he can draw on the legacy of several of his predecessors, including Bloomberg, to create a new vision of progressive New York. Many of the things for which Bloomberg will be remembered are at heart progressive. Investing in infrastructure, crafting a vision for protecting the environment, even Bloomberg's more controversial public health measures targeting smoking and obesity, are, in many respects, progressive in nature. Building on these accomplishments is entirely compatible, perhaps even synergistic with de Blasio's goal of moving New York forward in a progressive way.

Crafting a 21st Century progressive vision for New York City will require de Blasio to draw on both the new and the old. Significant disparities of wealth, an issue de Blasio focused on a great deal during his campaign, have been a concern for decades, if not centuries in New York. Similarly, inadequate schools, homelessness and numerous other manifestations of inequality have long been front and center problems for New York. There are also a bevy of newer issues that confront New York and that de Blasio must address. Preparing the city for the not too distant effects of climate change, positioning the city as a financial center in an increasingly global world, finding ways to keep the city safe from terrorism while not undermining civil rights and creating an infrastructure that will draw entrepreneurs to New York are also challenges facing the next mayor. In all these areas, crafting a vision is, relatively speaking, the easy part. Making that vision a reality is the real challenge.

The last time New York was governed by a Democratic mayor, it was a very different place. When David Dinkins took office in 1990 maybe 1,000 New Yorkers had an email address, people who rode bikes were considered weird even by progressives, racial tension was at the center of city politics and climate change was known as global warming and was not an issue anybody but a few scientists and environmentalist discussed. Most significantly, the people in the city were very different, age replacement, immigration and other population movements have changed the city a great deal. Joe Lhota learned this the hard way as he and former mayor Rudy Giuliani sought to scare people by painting a fear mongering and inaccurate picture of Dinkins, a mayor who many New Yorkers don't remember at all.

De Blasio has often cited legendary New York City mayor Fiorello LaGuardia, a Republican, but a real progressive, as somebody who was a great mayor. It may seem ironic to some that the New York City's first Democratic mayor of the 21st Century is at heart a New Dealer, but if de Blasio can marry the social democratic vision of the New Deal with the sophistication, vision and competence required to govern a complex city like New York now, he will also take his place among New York City's great mayors.